Church or State?: The Effect of Religious Cues on Political Judgement

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Principal investigator:

Elizabeth N. Simas

University of Houston



Sample size: 1008

Field period: 8/15/2008-8/25/2008


This paper shows how making the religion of a candidate known affects perceptions of the candidate’s ideology. Specifically, I find that the addition an evangelical or Catholic cue prompts voters to perceive the candidate as more conservative than when such a cue as absent. Furthermore, I draw on the psychological literature on ingroup projection to show that individuals with high levels of religious orthodoxy do not actually view religious candidates as different from the typical Republican. In total, these findings reinforce previous findings on religious stereotypes and advance discussion by incorporating characteristics of the cue-receiver.


1. The presence of religious cues will lead individuals to draw different
inferences about candidate positions than those individuals who were only exposed to partisan cues.

2. The salience hypothesis: individuals of greater religious orthodoxy (i.e. for whom religion should be more salient) should be more likely to infer an issue position that is consistent with the religious stereotype presented.

3. The prototype hypothesis: individuals of greater religious orthodoxy will perceive a religious candidate as typical and therefore, will not infer an issue position that is any different from the candidate without a religious cue.

Experimental Manipulations

The study consists of a between-subject post-test-only multiple-treatment group experiment. A pre-stimulus questionnaire assesses religious affiliation and orthodoxy. All subjects are then presented with one hypothetical political candidate and be asked to place him on a 7-point liberal/conservative scale, as well as on the specific issue of abortion. The type of candidate the subject is asked to rate depends upon random assignment to one of eight groups: Democratic control, Evangelical Democrat, Jewish Democrat, Catholic Democrat, Republican control, Evangelical Republican, Jewish Republican, or Catholic Republican. This design enables me to compare subjects’ responses to religious and partisan cues to the responses given in the presence of only partisan cues. In addition, comparisons between groups with same religious affiliation can be made to gain leverage as to which religious labels reinforce partisan stereotypes and which contradict them.


Respondents are asked to place the hypothetical candidate on a 7-point liberal/conservative scale, as well as on the specific issue of abortion.

Summary of Results

The experimental results show both that people do respond religious cues and that how they respond depends upon their level of religious orthodoxy. In general, adding the Evangelical or Catholic cue to a candidate leads to the perception of that candidate as more conservative than when the cue is omitted. Among Republican candidates, however, that relationship is diminished when the individual rating the candidate is of a level of religious orthodoxy. Though more work on proving a feeling of cross-denominational group identity among the religiously orthodox needs to be done, I am able to offer the desire to be viewed as a prototypical Republican as a tentative explanation for why those of high levels of religious orthodoxy fail to distinguish Evangelical and Catholic candidates from their non-religious control.


Simas, Elizabeth N. 2009. “Church or State? How Voters Process Religious and Partisan Cues.” 2009 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, April 2-5.