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Study by Ariel Malka Explores Connection Between Being Religious and Politically Conservative

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

Religious Americans are no more inherently politically conservative than non-religious Americans, according to a new study by YU

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 an assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva University. He conducts research in political psychology and public opinion. Read the full study here. This article first appeared on The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to Yeshiva University.

Learn more about the role of religion and its impact on the 2012 presidential election from leading political experts at the Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Scholar-in-Residence program on April 30.


YU High Schools Film Project Keeps Memories of the Holocaust Alive

For one week in December and February, classrooms in the Yeshiva University High School for Boys / Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (YUHSB) and the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls (YUHSG) were transformed into a professional recording studio. Two cameras and an advanced lighting system focused in on a small table with two chairs. Every day of the week, YU High School seniors invited Holocaust survivors to share memories of their lives before, during and after the tragedies of the Shoah as part of the Names, Not Numbers project.


Created in 2003 by Tova Rosenberg, director of Hebrew language and the Israel exchange programs at both high schools, Names, Not Numbers teaches students the skills needed to interview and film an oral history of Holocaust survivors. To date more than 250 testimonials of survivors and World War II veterans have been recorded by more than 750 students.

The demanding project is offered as an elective or senior project to seniors and involves thorough participation of the students at every level of the process.

“Students are taught the skills needed to produce their own Holocaust oral history documentary,” said Rosenberg. “Professionals train them on everything from researching and interviewing to filming and editing.”

YUHSB's Akiva Blumenthal interviews his grandmother, Edith Blumenthal. To date, Names, Not Numbers has recorded more than 250 testimonials of survivors and World War II veterans.

The project culminates in a documentary film and DVD titled Names, Not Numbers and a behind-the-scenes film, Names, Not Numbers: A Movie in the Making. The documentaries are archived at the National Library of Israel, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library.

This year, a first occurred during the project. Mina Tiefenbrunn, a YUHSB parent, told the story of her parents’ survival while being interviewed by three different students, one of whom was her son Aryeh.

“I felt very strongly that there is not enough second-generation advocacy,” said Tiefenbrunn. “For children of survivors, it is important to get the message across—the message being: have faith, help your fellow man, share and be kind.”

Aryeh shared these sentiments and said, “It is so important for these stories to be perpetuated to the next generation.”

Rosenberg was particularly satisfied because three of the interviewees had never shared their story of survival before.

“I started this program as an intergenerational project,” said Rosenberg, “but over time I realized that it has become something else. The project touches the souls of the students. This is not just about Holocaust studies; it is about hesed [good deeds].”

Rosenberg described how students contacted the survivors whom they interviewed to wish them a Shabbat Shalom and forge a stronger relationship—a gesture that greatly touched one survivor, Chaim Weiser.

Yolly Dratch of YUHSG, interviews Joseph Guttmann, a Holocaust survivor.

“It was very heart-warming to have received the special warm wishes for a Good Shabbos,” Weiser wrote in an e-mail to Rosenberg. “The last few days following the interview a certain calmness, a feeling of relief has descended upon me. It feels as if a heavy stone has been lifted from my heart. You have provided me a platform where I was able to unburden myself, somewhat, of the great pain that is forever lurking within.”

As the student participants of Names, Not Numbers finish their studies at YU High Schools, the effects of the program become more and more apparent. One YUHSG alumna, Mindy Sojcher, described how her involvement influenced her studies in college. A current Legacy Heritage student at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Sojcher intends on pursuing a career in Holocaust education.

“What’s amazing about Names, Not Numbers is that my generation has grandparents and great grandparents who are survivors. We all know about the Holocaust, but we rarely really think about it,” said Sojcher, who serves at the associate director of YU’s Student Holocaust Education Movement. “The program helped me understand what the Holocaust was and why it is so important that we learn about it.”

Names, Not Numbers will be screened at YUHSB on May 1 and YUHSG on May 7.

Yeshiva University and the Student Holocaust Education Movement (SHEM) will present a Yom Hashoa Ceremony on April 17 at 8:30 p.m. in Lamport Auditorium on the Wilf Campus.