How Religion Becomes Political. A Comparative Study of Religion and Morality Policy

22 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2013

See all articles by Lars Thorup Larsen

Lars Thorup Larsen

Aarhus University

Isabelle Engeli

University of Ottawa

Christoffer Green-Pedersen

University of Aarhus - Department of Political Science

Date Written: 2013


Studies of morality policy have long noticed the significance of religious values in conflicts over morality issues. What Americans typically know as the ‘culture wars’ on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage are really conflicts over the relative weight given to religious or secular values in politics and public life. Similarly, religious actors like the Roman Catholic Church are known to take rigorously conservative stands on morality issues and publicly criticize any political development toward liberalization. Given the importance of religion, however, scholars may easily misinterpret the direct impact of religion on morality policies.

This paper argues that while religious values are often involved in morality policy conflicts, the interaction between the two domains is far from simple. It is not as if the relative religiosity or secularization of a given country serves as a barometer of the policies they eventually adopt. On the contrary, most modern political systems and actors have developed historically to achieve independence from religious institutions and creeds, which is why permissive morality policies can coexist with relatively religious societies and even the most secular societies may hold on to conservative policies even without the religious backing.

The paper proposes an understanding where the politicization of morality issues is largely dependent on the ability of the political parties in a given country to conflict over the role of religious and secular values in public life. Whether or not this is the case is determined by factors internal to the political system rather than the level of religion in society. Some party systems easily serve up opportunities for actors to politicize morality issues and perhaps also the role of religious values in society. In other countries, however, the party structure either excludes morality conflicts or reframes the issues into recognizable conflicts between left and right, economic redistribution, etc.

The empirical analysis compares the politicization of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) and same-sex marriage across four countries, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Suggested Citation

Larsen, Lars Thorup and Engeli, Isabelle and Green-Pedersen, Christoffer, How Religion Becomes Political. A Comparative Study of Religion and Morality Policy (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN:

Lars Thorup Larsen (Contact Author)

Aarhus University ( email )

Nordre Ringgade 1
Aarhus, DK-8000

Isabelle Engeli

University of Ottawa ( email )

Christoffer Green-Pedersen

University of Aarhus - Department of Political Science ( email )

Nordre Ringgade 1
DK-8000 Aarhus C, 8000

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