Book chapter

Political Participation and Religion: An Overview (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

Shaped by Marxist understandings of religion as a source of comfort, but not action, numerous scholars have explored whether various aspects of religion can be linked to participatory acts, either in politics or in civic life more generally. Decades of social scientific research on the subject offer no simple lessons regarding the relationship between religion and participation. Some elements or aspects of religion have been demonstrated to drive down levels of civic and political engagement. Although the whole picture is much more complicated, it is accurate to say that private devotionalism and other facets of religious belief that emphasize individual spirituality and a relationship with the divine over taking steps to improve conditions on Earth are going to promote detachment from the civic realm. By contrast, collective aspects of religious belief and practice often track with greater levels of political participation. These collective elements include the creation of religiously based social networks, as well as opportunities to practice civic skills and receive entreaties to political action. At a different level of analysis, government action on such moral issues as abortion and same-sex marriage has served as a spur to the political involvement of religious interests, whereas government regulation of religion has been shown to deter participation in the civic arena by religious organizations and groups. Taken together, the literature on religion and participation suggests that religion can serve as both a spur to civic and political engagement and as a suppressant, depending both on an individual's approach to his or her faith and on the institutional dynamics that impinge on the political involvement of religious interests in the public square more generally.