Field of Science

How religion makes people vote right-wing

Apparently there's some sort of election going on over in the US, so here's a topical question: why is it that religion encourages the poor to vote for right-wing parties? By 'right wing' here I mean 'fiscally conservative' - the sorts of parties that are against government social welfare programmes. Now, there are all sorts of arguments for and against wealth redistribution, which I'm not going to get into. But the fact remains - and it's one that's relevant to understanding the US elections - that the poor are more likely to vote for fiscal conservatives (and so against their direct economic interests) if they are also religious.

It's not a small issue, either. In the wealthy democracies, religiosity and church attendance is a better predictor of voting choice than is either income or social class. In fact, whereas income is an important decider for the non-religious, religious people tend to vote the same way whatever their income, according to an analysis published earlier this year:
Whether we use pooled data from the Eurobarometer (various years) since 1970 or a larger sample of wealthy countries from the 1990s covered by the World Values Survey, we find that the effect of income on vote choice is barely discernable among those who attend church every week, whereas it is quite large among those who never go to church. Moreover, the impressive relationship between church attendance and voting against the parties of the left is driven disproportionately by the poor. (de la O & Rodden, 2008)
So here's a quick run-down of the reasons that have been put forward for why the religious are more likely to vote for fiscal conservatives.

Issue bundling

The typical answer is issue bundling. This is the idea that right wing parties are both religiously and fiscally conservative, and that the religious poor prioritise religious beliefs over their financial interests. This effect is particularly strong in so-called 'majoritarian' democracies, like the USA and Britain, where the structure of the voting system tends to lead to a very small number of political parties. In countries with proportional representation, like most of mainland Europe, there are more parties in parliament to choose from. So voters are more likely to find one that matches their particular collection of beliefs (both economic and social).

de la O and Rodden found exactly that happening in their analysis of voting behaviour:
In the United States, the Republicans adopt positions to the right of the Democrats on both issue dimensions, and voters with morally liberal but economically conservative preferences (or vice versa) are forced to choose which preference dimension is more important to them. But faced with the menu of choices available in the Netherlands, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, for example, voters need not choose one preference dimension on which to base their vote. Our data analysis reveals that liberal parties sometimes offer a choice for morally moderate but economically conservative voters, and Christian democratic parties appeal to voters with right-leaning preferences on moral issues but relatively centrist preferences on economic issues. (de la O & Rodden, 2008)
They also found that the poor are more likely to have conservative moral views. So part of the reason that the poor vote right wing is that their conservative morality drives them to do it. This is why adding Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket was a way to increase the party's attractiveness to the poor.

But this begs another question: why, if the electoral system forces issue bundling, do conservative moral values and conservative fiscal values get bundled together? It's clear that religion tends to promote conservative morals, but does it also have the effect of encouraging fiscal conservatism?

Belief in a just world

Did the people at the top of the income heap get there by hard work and talent, or is there a hefty dose of luck involved - being in the right place at the right time and having the right parents, for example? Obviously there is quite a range of views on this topic, but what's clear is that those who believe in a 'just world' - that you get what you deserve - are also opposed to government welfare.

Some religions encourage the belief that god will reward hard work and effort - the 'Protestant Work Ethic' is a classic example. Roland Bénabou has looked into this, and put it like this:
... a belief that there is a hereafter in which rewards and punishments will be determined according to effort and industriousness (or lack thereof) during one’s lifetime. The alternative view is that there is most likely no afterlife, or that if there is one, its rewards are determined according to criteria unrelated to industriousness, or even antithetical to material success: vows of poverty and asceticism, good deeds towards others, scrupulous observance of rituals, contemplation, the “extinction of desires”, etc.
Bénabou created an agent-based model of the social causes of a belief in a just world, and why it varies from one society to another. Using this model, they show that religious beliefs can swing attitudes towards a society that favours low government redistribution.
Therefore, under appropriate conditions, we can again expect two equilibria:
  1. A high-religiosity / “Protestant work ethic” equilibrium, accompanied by high effort and low redistribution.
  2. An equilibrium characterized by a greater predominance of agnosticism, or of religions that do not stress industriousness and worldly achievements, accompanied by the reverse pattern of labor supply and redistributive policy.
Religion privatises social welfare

One of the notable things about religious charitable giving is that a large chunk of it goes directly to co-religionists (so-called 'within-group' giving). This differs according to religion - so 90% of the money that Mormons give to charity goes to other Mormons, and 80% of evangelical Christian charity goes to other evangelical Christians (Chen & Lind). At the other end of the scale are Catholics, at 50%, and Jews, at 40%.

Now here's the interesting thing. The negative relationship between religiosity and support for welfare state is strongest for those religions that have high 'within-group' giving. In other words, financial support from co-religionists reduces the need to governmental social programmes.

Chen & Lind also show that this effect is actually reversed for members of a state church - they tend to be in favour of state welfare:
The relationship between fiscal and social attitudes is reversed for members of the state church: religious intensity predicts welfare support when government spending can assist members of state churches.
God: your invisible friend

As well as the real-world social support, religion can help you through the bad time psychologically. There's evidence to support this too. Andrew Clark (at the Paris School of Economics) has shown that both Catholics and Protestants suffer less psychological harm from being unemployed. Perhaps this is because they have faith that their god will provide. If you have a magical friend in the sky who will make everything all right, then you why would you want the government to take care of you?

A. L. De La O, J. A. Rodden (2008). Does Religion Distract the Poor?: Income and Issue Voting Around the World Comparative Political Studies, 41 (4-5), 437-476 DOI: 10.1177/0010414007313114

Roland Benabou. "Belief in a Just World and Redistributive Politics" Quarterly Journal of Economics, 121.2 (2006): 699-746.

Daniel Chen, Jo Lind. Religion, Welfare Politics, and Church-State Separation. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol 42, No. 1, 2007

Andrew Clark. Deliver us from Evil: Religion as Insurance. Working paper. 2005


  1. Interesting, thanks.

    I have only two issues: (1) 'fiscal conservatism' need to imply opposition to state welfare (it's possible, in other words, to have a balanced budget that is redistributive) and (2) you missed an opportunity to discuss the Republicans' "Southern strategy".

    Oh, and note the "buy" typo (it should be "by").

  2. I think you need to be a bit more specific when you talk about religion. Since you are talking about america I'm assuming you mean christianity, but there are plenty of religions whereby their believers are morelikely to want the things you have mentioned.

  3. "magical friend in the sky who will make everything alight"

    Should be "all right." NOTE: Not that verbal abomination "alright." And no smart remarks about my Amurriken punctuation. =^..^=

    Fascinating article - reminds me of the Political Compass model. Religion (I'm the daughter of a progressive "Social Gospel" American Baptist minister/community organizer) makes me vote left-wing. On the Political Compass, I'm extremely liberal (~7 out of 10) on both moral and economic scales.

    I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear people say Barack Obama is a "liberal." That's how badly umpteen years of wingnut rule have skewed things. Actually, he's just about smack in the middle. That's not necessarily a bad thing. A few years in the Solid Center will allow us to catch our breath and get our bearings again. Then we can start to fix everything the wingnuts broke.

  4. Thanks all, typos fixed :)

    Michael, point taken. I used the term for consistency with 'moral conservatism'.

    Anonymous, that's true. But religion in general does act as a kind of psychological safety net. The studies I looked at were mostly multinational - although they still have a christian bias because most data is from Europe or North/South America.

  5. In the US, "religion" means "your church". Having moved around it a bit, I think that most ever-in-motion Americans grab on to churches, in the sense of communities, as places with belonging, that draw them out of their isolated suburban castles. But then there's another isolation, outsiders vs insiders which plays against any "community-wide" action.

  6. Can you provide links to the Chen and Lind study you quote about "in-group" giving?

  7. Scott, link added in the ref list above, and also here.

  8. I think that it is most likely that there is simply a common psychology that underpins both a tendency to be right wing and a tendency to believe in supernatural powers. Most fundamentally, those on the right tend to be Authoritarian in outlook. This underpins their right-wing belief system. (Hierarchism, hostility to 'out-groups' and so forth.) It also underpins their belief in 'God' as 'he' represents the ultimate authority figure, demands that certain rules be followed, is not adverse to vengeance and so forth. The church itself also provides a dominant 'in-group' that provides a much needed sense of security and belonging.


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