Lack of trust in institutions can be more important than religion when it comes to imparting poor political knowledge to American voters.
Many commentators are concerned about the apparent lack of political knowledge and civic awareness among American voters. Ben Gaskins examines some of the drivers of civic consciousness, including the influence of religious identity, beliefs and institutions. He writes that political knowledge is not just about disclosing facts, but also about people’s willingness to trust their sources. Highly religious Americans, he finds, are generally no less politically conscious than non-religious ones, but they are more likely to reject certain types of facts from secular sources because they distrust the mainstream media.
- On June 15, 2021, the LSE Religion and Global Society (RGS) together with the US Center and Department of International Relations hosted a public LSE lecture on religious freedom under the government of Biden. In conjunction with this event, RGS and the US Centre’s USAPP blog launched a joint series on Religion in American Society, in which experts examine the relationship of different faith groups to American society. Read other posts in this series.
One of the most common complaints in American politics is that despite the overall rise in education, the general public has an embarrassing lack of civic awareness and political knowledge. In fact, a recent poll shows that only a third of adults in the US know how long the term of office of Congress is, and just over half could name all three branches of government (although that’s positive it’s double that four years ago, with the most recent fear-inducing events leading to heightened awareness of national politics). This general political ignorance provides fodder for comedians, experts and scholars – for whom political knowledge is commonly viewed as the “currency of citizenship”. An uninformed electorate has a harder time translating their preferences into accurate voting decisions and is different from what they would like if only they were better informed. In addition, the level of political knowledge reinforces various social divides, including education, race, gender, class, and religion.
On the right, political ignorance is often used to justify restrictions on the right to vote, ignore majority preferences, and oppose facilitating political participation, especially for groups that have traditionally had a lower level of political knowledge, as in national ones Surveys are asked: namely the young, minority and socio-economically disadvantaged people. On the other hand, the left deplores anti-intellectualism and conspiracy of the right to undermine democracy, often deliberately blaming conservative religious figures and institutions for this. Focusing on this latter criticism, what does the evidence say? Are religious Americans less familiar with politics? And if so, how does that affect American politics?
We don’t know what a citizen lets know about politics
As I explain in my research from 2019, the scientific findings on the influence of religion on political knowledge are quite mixed. Although there is an overall negative relationship between religious affiliation and level of education, this relationship does not hold true among Christians. In terms of general political awareness, there are many differences between certain religious traditions and political knowledge, although again it is not obvious that religiosity either increases or decreases overall knowledge.
One reason for the mixed results is that scholars disagree on what makes a citizen knowledgeable, and many types of political knowledge questions may draw on this concept. So-called “general” facts relate to the players and the rules of the game. For example, who is the State Secretary? How many votes does it take to break a Senate filibuster? Compare this with policy-specific facts that have to do with government measures and their consequences. This dichotomy is made even more complicated by the temporal element. Some facts (such as how many branches of government are there?) Can be learned as a child, while others require careful monitoring of what is going on. Not everyone pays attention to the monthly job report, but a thorough understanding of political realities like the unemployment rate will help citizens hold leaders accountable for their actions and the results they have achieved.
If political ignorance is so damaging to American democracy, the most commonly phrased solution revolves around civic education to ensure that children are properly educated about their government, history, and politics. Hence the ongoing battles over what “properly educated” actually means, especially since it is about race and racism. While early education is undoubtedly important, a bigger problem arises in how political facts are learned outside of the classroom. If accurate information on surveillance issues requires media attention, then those who distrust the media are less likely to learn about these issues, regardless of how educated or knowledgeable they are in general. You may love or hate Nancy Pelosi and still remember that she is the Speaker of the House, but willingness to trust the news affects whether she supports or rejects Medicare for All, for example. Political knowledge is not just about being exposed to facts and learning, it also depends on a willingness to trust the sources of those facts and the media that convey that information.
Religion and political trust
One of the most important things to understand about political knowledge is that facts themselves are very controversial and political. Facts that run counter to one’s own dispositions are harder to learn and remember than facts that fit well into one’s worldview. Whether inflation rates, employment figures, COVID-19 cases or other political issues – partisans want to strengthen their political identity and attitudes. In our increasingly polarized world (not only in terms of politics, but also in our culture and attitudes towards people on the “other side”), partisans experience these realities in strikingly different ways.
Religion also plays an important role in the political learning process. Not only is American Christianity increasingly entwined with republican partisanship, but religion itself provides tools to resist information from secular sources of information. Evangelical Christians are taught to resist “worldly” influences and use trustworthy, godly resources. In my work from 2019 I find that religion has an independent negative influence on the trust of the media and thus on the knowledge about surveillance policy issues. Contrary to what some leftists might think, I don’t find that religious Americans are overall less politically conscious than secular citizens who control other factors. However, on questions that require media attention and learning, highly religious Americans are less likely to answer correctly, in large part due to high levels of suspicion and disdain for the mainstream media. To answer the question of whether religion influences political knowledge, the answer depends on what kind of knowledge we are talking about and whether the person has adopted a religious worldview that is apt to reject secular authority and credibility.
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash
This credibility problem is exacerbated when politicians like Donald Trump instill distrust of sources reporting critical information. Trump carefully cultivated the animus of his followers towards so-called “fake news”, which increasingly referred to anything that put him in a negative light. Conservative white evangelicals were effectively presented with the following choice: Believe Trump, who embodies your political aspirations and protects your status and interests; or follow the secular news media that despise your values and lifestyle. Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway has been widely ridiculed by Democrats for saying the Trump administration used “alternative facts,” but that really gets to the heart of the phenomenon. It is very useful politically if you can regularly discredit negative reporting from sources beyond your control and construct an impenetrable reality that your supporters embrace and who are already trained to defend them.
The limits of the facts
The New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said in 1983: “Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.” Unfortunately, the world does not work that way. With increasing social and affective polarization, distrust of those who support the party on the “other side” grows, and even trust in supposedly neutral institutions will suffer. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear now than in the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Messages coming from the Centers for Disease Control, the president, and experts on television will have limited impact on people prepared to distrust these messengers. Instead, when looking for information, it will come from others whom they trust more (often of dubious quality). And conservative religion in particular will serve as a barrier to the internalization of facts provided by untrustworthy sources, especially as these religious identities continue to be associated with partisanship. These individuals may be well informed about general political facts, but still reject much of the current information that calls into question their disposition.
To sum up, it is often impossible to simply “educate” citizens about politics by exposing them to factual information, as we need to consider not only how facts reach people but also the nature of the facts themselves. Exactly political understanding is based more on social trust than on actual distribution. And this project – strengthening civil trust, reducing social polarization and depoliticizing political facts – remains a much larger task, especially in the face of politicians and media elites who see it as their political or economic advantage to actively undermine social trust.
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Note: This article represents the views of the author and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
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About the author
Ben Gaskins – Lewis & Clark College
Ben Gaskins is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. His research focuses on the influence of religion on social and economic attitudes and the role of religious engagement on political knowledge, elections and media use. His research has been published in journals such as the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, and Politics & Religion.