How and why are political beliefs and religious beliefs linked together at the individual level and even within families and across generations? Most scholarship treats political and religious belief systems as independent concepts and devotes little attention to the possibility that they may have common origins. Yet existing research demonstrates that political and religious socialization occurs in families, that political and religious traits are partially heritable, and that political attitudes associated with religion are more consistently transmitted from parent to child than are other attitudes. Why do these patterns in the available evidence exist?

To answer its overarching question by proposing and testing a new theoretical model that suggests that political and religious beliefs are grounded in a common psychological construct reflecting dispositions towards social order. The researcher aims to identify and measure these dispositions, assess their influence over political and religious beliefs, and assess whether this influence is innate, a product of socialization, or a combination of both.

The research design used differs from existing analyses of the origins and transmission of religious and political attitudes in a number of ways. For example, almost all existing political socialization studies focus on parents and children, whereas this project brings the analysis back to a third generation and surveys grandparents, parents, and children. Individuals do not enter marriage or parenthood with blank slates; they also have experienced the transmission of certain belief sets and innate dispositions. Understanding whether parents are serving as "value relays" between generations may shed light on socialization processes as well as provide evidence for heritability effects.

This project makes several broader contributions. Public opinion polls have shown in the US and in many democracies that people from different religious traditions tend to vote differently. What is unknown is how and why religious and political belief systems overlap within individuals and are inter-generationally transmitted. In addressing these unknowns, this project has the potential to shed light on the origins of political attitudes and the stability of beliefs across generations.

Project Report

Funding of this project has resulted in: One of the few three-generation datasets that contains religious, political and moral intuition measures; At least two conference proceedings – including special panels specifically focused on moral intuitions and politics; And the potential of several publications in social science journals. The intellectual merits of this dissertation include: (1) establishing that some political and religious beliefs share the same underlying psychological construct and a genetic path; (2) extending empirical testing of socialization theories from two to three generations; (3) combining behavior genetics and socialization studies to better understand sources of these belief sets; and (4) developing better measures of religiosity to determine the best predictors of political measures. This research was purposefully integrative and inter-disciplinary, and its success may encourage others to seek out theories, methods and technologies from other disciplines to help answer other important questions. Analysis of the data gathered in this project demonstrates that some aspects of political, religious and moral intuition belief sets are transmitted within families. Ultimately, the results provide more evidence that individuals have predispositions toward social order, which underlie both religious and political beliefs and are dependent or "activated" by one’s environment. Certain individuals may have a psychological propensity to approach life based on an organized set of beliefs, and whether this manifests in a religion, political party or something else depends upon where they were born, how they were raised and what they encounter as adults. Some individuals will become political, some religious, some both and some neither. Understanding the nature of this overlap helps us uncover what drives individual political attitudes, how this contributes to the formation and shifts in public opinion and ultimately whether instantiated political-religious predispositions, much like personality, may drive political disagreement and conflict. The broader impact of this dissertation will provide a more comprehensive explanation of the intersection of religion and politics and what this means for understanding human behavior. Religion’s influence on political attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. and in much of the world is well known. What is unknown is how and why these belief systems overlap within individuals and are inter-generationally transmitted. In addressing these unknowns, this project has the potential to provide insight into the origins of political ideology, the stability of beliefs across generations, and the relative intractability of many controversial issues. Establishing a set of bedrock principles that may manifest themselves in different ways politically and religiously could lead to better communication across generations, within communities and throughout the political sphere. It may be possible for those who disagree religiously to speak to one another in political terms, and vice versa, leading to more productive political discussions, policy debates and possibly political compromises. In addition, there has been a long-standing tension between religion and the academy, and uncovering a common psychological basis for organizing society may help the dialogue between scholars and people of faith.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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