Are religious Americans always conservative?

A common refrain in commentary on the primaries has been that Mitt Romney is regarded as insufficiently conservative.

This is said to account for a difficulty garnering support from the religiously traditional segments of the Republican base. This claim is consistent with a broader theme in American political commentary during the last four decades: religiosity is said to go naturally with political conservatism. And a regular consumer of political news will receive a preponderance of messages implying that these characteristics are organically linked.

But to what extent are highly religious Americans actually more politically conservative than are less religious and secular Americans? And if they are more conservative, what are the real reasons for this? My colleagues and I conduct research on this topic, so permit me to share what we and others have found.

Religious Americans are, on average, more politically conservative than are less religious Americans, but they are so to an extent that varies substantially across different issue domains. Religiosity -- how important a person considers religion to be in his or her life, as well as an individual's frequency of religious behaviors such as church attendance -- has its strongest correlations with the "moral" issue stances. To a relatively strong extent, highly religious people are more pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage than are less religious people.

But when it comes to other political issues, the links between religiosity and conservative positions are tenuous. For example, consider the long-running political division between Americans who support larger government and greater social welfare spending -- generally characterized as liberals -- and Americans who support smaller government and lower social welfare spending, whom we regard as conservatives.

Religiosity possesses a weak to non-existent relation with conservative economic attitudes. The highly religious are either no more likely or ever-so-slightly more likely to hold conservative economic attitudes. Moreover, religious people tend to be no more conservative than the less religious on many other political issues, such as gun control, racial policy, and the death penalty; in fact, they may actually be more liberal on the latter. "God and guns" do not go together naturally in the way that some media commentary suggests.

Why, then, does religiosity relate to conservatism at all? One possibility is that there is some type of organic connection between being a religious person and being a conservative person. Perhaps the traits, moral standards and ways of thinking that characterize religious people also naturally lead them to prefer conservative social outcomes and policies. Another possibility, however, is that this relation really has to do with the messages from political and religious discourse, and how some people respond to these messages.

Two pieces of evidence support this latter explanation. First, the relationship between religiosity and conservatism varies across people exposed to different religious messages. This tends to be strongest among white evangelical Protestants, the very group whose elites have been the most vocal supporters of a religiously based conservatism. But this connection tends to be weaker among white mainline Protestants as well as white and Latino Catholics. And black Protestants -- whose religious tradition has emphasized rectification of prior injustice -- display a relation between religiosity and many liberal political attitudes.

If being religious were naturally associated with political conservatism, then the relation between these characteristics would not vary so much across groups receiving different religious messages.

Second, if the religious tend to be conservative because they are responding to political messages, one would expect a reliable relationship between religiosity and conservatism only among Americans who are highly exposed to such messages. Our recent findings suggest that this is in fact the case.

When one looks only at the politically engaged Americans -- those who are very politically knowledgeable and interested -- the religious are more conservative than are the less religious on almost all political issues. However, when one looks at the Americans who are not that interested in or knowledgeable about politics, the religious and the less religious tend to hold very similar political attitudes. That is, exposure to messages that point to a bond between religiosity and conservatism seems to be necessary to translate one's religiosity into conservative positions on most issues.

Such findings run counter to the narrative depicting a psychologically deep-seated schism between religious conservatives and secular liberals. Rather, they suggest that if Americans were exposed to different political messages, the relation between religion and political attitudes would likely be different. Perhaps there is no enduring feature of human psychological makeup that favors a link between religiosity and political conservatism.

Ariel Malka is a social/personality psychologist who studies the psychology of public opinion.