Barry McNamara  |  Published October 05, 2022

The Politics of Church Shopping

Politics is shaping more people’s religion, according to research conducted by Professor Andre Audette and Shay Hafner ’23.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – More Americans are allowing their politics to shape their religion, according to a study by a Monmouth College political science professor.

ANDRE AUDETTE: Political science professor shared his research project at a faculty colloquium in... ANDRE AUDETTE: Political science professor shared his research project at a faculty colloquium in September.“Church shopping” based on political beliefs is one of the findings of a recent research project by Monmouth political science professor Andre Audette in collaboration with political science and data science double major Shay Hafner ’23 of Sterling, Illinois.

“It was fun for me to go back to a project that was near and dear to my heart,” said Audette, who describes himself as a political psychologist and, in particular, a political behaviorist. “At least historically, religion has been a non-political field, or it’s supposed to be a non-political field.”

Audette’s hometown in Wisconsin had one Catholic church, but his options grew substantially when he attended graduate school a decade ago at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

“Attending Notre Dame was an interesting religious experience in and of itself,” he said. “I went from having one Catholic church in my town in northern Wisconsin to having 30 Catholic churches to choose from in South Bend – some liberal and some conservative. People could base their church choice on their politics.”

Audette said politics and religion are not only separated theoretically through the U.S. Constitution, but some would argue through two entirely different spheres of thought. Most people are indoctrinated into religion by their parents as part of the worldview that’s ingrained in them.

Which comes first?

“Our religion comes first, and then our politics,” said Audette.

He also cited the Constitution’s First Amendment, which reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“It’s almost heretical if we choose our politics based on our religion,” he said.

But there appears to be a lot of such heresy in modern society.

“It seems like our politics is impacting our religion,” he said of his research.

“You think the music is horrible? You think the pastor is boring? Look elsewhere. Brand loyalty is not as strong as it used to be.” Andre Audette

A recent Pew Research Center poll indicates that 44% of church-goers have switched religion or stopped attending church altogether. Audette and Hafner conducted their own survey, and out of a nationally representative sample of 2,000 respondents, they found that 52% had shopped for a church, and that roughly a third had done so more than once.

“You think the music is horrible? You think the pastor is boring? Look elsewhere,” said Audette. “Brand loyalty is not as strong as it used to be.”

Audette said that American churches operate in a “laissez-faire religious marketplace,” which means without interference, and that means churches have to compete with each other. Once people have decided to abandon tradition and leave a church they grew up in or that had their parents’ support, they shop for a church, and “the winners are evangelical Protestants, a conservative group that is the largest coalition in the Republican Party, and secularism,” which means non-religion or unaffiliated.

Reconciling a dilemma

“In the 1970s and ’80s, conservative Christians moved into the Republican Party,” said Audette. “People associate religion with conservative politics. This is complicated for liberals and moderates, because if you go to a church that you experience as being conservative, it can hurt your brain a little bit, because you start to think, ‘I’m very liberal, but here I am at this conservative church. What do I do? How do I fix this?’ This is known as cognitive dissonance in psychology.”

Mired in that dilemma, most people today are staying true to their politics.

“The way to reconcile this is, you’ve got to change one or the other,” said Audette. “Are you going to change your politics, or are you going to change your religion? Interestingly, people change their religion, not their politics.”

They make that change, even if it means choosing no religion at all.

“More people are saying that politics causes religion. I find that fascinating as a scholar because, again, religion is supposed to be our deeply held beliefs about humanity and where we came from, where we’re going. The fact that we’re changing that for our politics is fascinating.” Andre Audette

“Because of the religious right, people are leaving religion,” said Audette. “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost over half its members in a 35-year period from 1983 to 2018. We could literally see some of these religious affiliations disappear in our lifetime.”

Through about 2000, said Audette, “heaven forbid” if a person were to choose their church based on political reasons.

“Today, more people are willing to say that,” said Audette. “More people are saying that politics causes religion. I find that fascinating as a scholar because, again, religion is supposed to be our deeply held beliefs about humanity and where we came from, where we’re going. The fact that we’re changing that for our politics is fascinating.”

Audette and Hafner’s survey showed that 25% of respondents had left or considered leaving a church because of political reasons. The number who “disaffiliated” was higher among Democrats.

“We think this is notable, especially given that we haven’t really talked about this in the literature before,” said Audette. “I think this has a lot of implications for democracy. Part of the record polarization we’re experiencing may be attributed to our religion and politics because, increasingly, if we’re pushing people on the left and moderates out of religion, and pushing people on the right into religion, then we’ve just divided ourselves even more. And we’ve divided our social institutions in a political way.”

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