Rethinking the Relationship between Religion and Politics: A Test of the Life Cycle Theory

56 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2013 Last revised: 7 Nov 2014

See all articles by Michele Margolis

Michele Margolis

University of Pennsylvania - Department of Political Science

Date Written: September 4, 2014


Surveys show that Democrats are less religious than Republicans. Academics and causal observers alike assume that this pattern has arisen because religious beliefs influence political identities. But, might political identities also affect religious beliefs? In this paper, I show that religious attitudes both shape and are shaped by political identities. I develop a theory that explains when and why partisanship ought to affect religious attitudes by drawing on the religious and political socialization literatures. Briefly, partisanship typically crystallizes in adolescence and early adulthood, which is the very time when religion is typically on the back burner for most individuals. As young people emerge into adulthood, however, they must decide whether to remain on the outskirts of religion or re-enter the religious realm. Political identity, which for many has been solidified since young adulthood, can help shape this new religious identity. Using both a natural and an Internet experiment to test my theory, I find that when people are in the process of raising children – a time that often pulls them back into the religious fold – their partisanship changes their reported religious behavior. In contrast to the common assumption that one’s religious beliefs drive political attitudes in a unidirectional fashion, I find that the relationship also works in the other direction. Although many bemoan religion’s role in creating a polarized political arena, this blame may be unfairly assigned as partisans themselves help produce an increasingly polarized electorate.

Keywords: religion and politics, public opinion, experiments

Suggested Citation

Margolis, Michele, Rethinking the Relationship between Religion and Politics: A Test of the Life Cycle Theory (September 4, 2014). MIT Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2013-36, Available at SSRN: or

Michele Margolis (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania - Department of Political Science

Stiteler Hall
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States


Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics