A Question of Authority: Religion and Cultural Conflict in the 2004 Election


In this study I adopt a view of cultural conflict that extends beyond the usual set of controversial “moral” issues like abortion and gay rights to include symbolic issues related to patriotism and group affect. Using a set of survey items asking about respondents’ preferences in child-rearing, I create a measure of individuals’ orientations toward authority that proves to be a potent predictor of attitudes on cultural issues, affect toward social groups, party identification, and vote choice. This authority effect persists even in the presence of extensive multivariate controls for demographic and religious variables. I find that both authority measures and religion measures shape political attitudes, suggesting the need for a multi-faceted approach to understanding cultural conflict.

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  1. 1.

    Measuring the complex personality profile of an authoritarian would require a diverse set of items designed to capture the multiple aspects of the authoritarian personality. Such specialized items are not available on the ANES surveys that serve as the data source for the analyses below. Therefore, I do not label my independent variable “authoritarianism.” However, it should be noted that the empirical findings presented below would not be altered by adopting the assumption that pro-authority responses to the items I employ do reflect an underlying authoritarian personality.

  2. 2.

    The data were downloaded from the ANES website, www.electionstudies.org. The ANES site provides full documentation of sampling design, response rates, weighting, and question wording.

  3. 3.

    To the extent possible using ANES data, I follow the classification system developed by Kellstedt and colleagues (Green & Kellstedt, 1993; Kellstedt et al., 1996; see also Steensland et al., 2000). In this framework, religious tradition is conceptualized as “a group of religious communities that share a set of beliefs that generates a distinctive worldview” (Kellstedt et al., 1996, p. 176).

  4. 4.

    I find this measurement strategy more straightforward than the approach taken by Barker and Tinnick (2006, p. 254), who use only three of the four items and drop from the analysis the respondents who say “both” to the questions. My version of the scale is no less reliable, and results in fewer missing cases.

  5. 5.

    This measure of patriotism captures only one facet of a complex concept. According to Sullivan, Fried, and Dietz (1992, p. 212), the variable used in this study would best be termed “symbolic patriotism” because it taps a “strong, emotional view of country” and “positive resonance toward patriotic symbols” such as the flag. A citizen who holds a different perspective on patriotism might disagree with the items in the symbolic patriotism scale despite loving his or her country. The other variants of patriotism identified by Sullivan et al. (iconoclastic, environmental, capitalist, and nationalistic) are not measured in the 2004 ANES survey.

  6. 6.

    This linkage to patriotism took different forms from the competing camps, of course. On the Democratic side, there was an effort to counter the usual Republican advantage on national security issues by emphasizing Kerry’s biography, which included recognition for heroism in combat. There was also a notable effort by the Democrats at their national convention to sound patriotic themes, including flag-waving tributes to those in military service and singing of patriotic songs like “God Bless America.” On the Bush side, the now infamous “Swift Boat” ads chipped away at Kerry’s appealing biography by highlighting his active role in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era, and showing Vietnam veterans questioning his fitness for command. Bush and his surrogates raised concerns that war protests at home could aid the enemy in Iraq. Whatever the merits of the arguments on both sides, it seems safe to conclude that the linkage of foreign affairs issues with patriotism was an intentional campaign tactic.

  7. 7.

    For example, see Weisberg and Hill (2004), Kessel (2004), Sanbonmatsu (2002), and Hetherington (1999). The single-equation approach differs from the bloc recursive approach used by Miller and Shanks (1996) in The New American Voter, where explanatory variables are arranged in sequential stages according to the order in which the variables are thought to affect the vote decision. It is often difficult to decide on the causal order of variables, which in fact led to slight changes in the Miller and Shanks model across their analyses of different elections. Because of the difficulty in selecting the composition and order of the stages, I opt here for the simpler single-stage approach. A direction for future research would be to test various specifications of multi-stage models to determine the impact of different causal orderings.

  8. 8.

    Differences in the 2000 study compared to the 2004 study included the lack of measures for rural residence, patriotism, military interventionism, and US policy toward Iraq. The 2000 study did include measures of abortion attitudes (the standard 4-option item) and gay rights attitudes (views on homosexual couples adopting children, gays serving in the military, and laws protecting homosexuals from job discrimination).


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I thank John Bruce, Geoff Layman, Jill Rickershauser, and Clyde Wilcox for helpful comments.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephen T. Mockabee.

Additional information

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Conference on the Wartime Election of 2004, Mershon Center, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, January 12–15, 2006, and at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, September 1–4, 2005.



Classification of Religious Affiliations into Religious Traditions

Mainline Protestants

American Baptist Churches, USA; Disciples of Christ; United Church of Christ; generic Congregational; Episcopal; Society of Friends; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; generic Lutheran; United Methodist Church; generic Methodist; Presbyterian Church, USA; generic Presbyterian; Reformed Church in America.

Evangelical Protestants

Non-denominational (fundamentalist, charismatic, neo-evangelical); all Adventists; all Baptists (except American Baptist Churches, USA); all Brethren; Christian Church; Church of Christ; Conservative Congregationalists; Evangelical Congregationalists; Reformed Episcopal; Evangelical Covenant; Evangelical Church in North America; Evangelical Free Church; Moravians; Evangelical Friends; Independent Fundamentalists; Plymouth Brethren; Christian and Missionary Alliance; Church of God—Anderson, IN; Church of God—Holiness; Free Methodist; Salvation Army; Wesleyan; generic Holiness; Free Lutheran; Lutheran Brethren; Missouri Synod Lutheran; Wisconsin Synod Lutheran; sectarian Lutheran; sectarian Methodists; Mennonites; Assemblies of God; Church of God—Cleveland, TN; Church of God—Huntsville, AL; Church of God of Prophecy; Church of God—Apostolic; Worldwide Church of God; Four Square Gospel; Pentecostal Church of God; Pentecostal Holiness; generic Pentecostal; Cumberland Presbyterian; Orthodox Presbyterian; Presbyterian Church in America; Reformed Presbyterian; sectarian Presbyterian; Christian Reformed Church.

In addition to the denominational coding above, the views of the Bible item was used to assist in classifying respondents with ambiguous Protestant affiliations.

African-American Protestant

Black non-denominational; National Baptist Convention; Progressive Baptist Convention; other Black Baptists; Black Holiness; African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion; Christian Methodist Church; Church of God in Christ; other Black Pentecostals.

In addition to the denominational coding above, African-American respondents who were initially classified in the Mainline or Evangelical Protestant categories were classified as Black Protestants. Ideally one would use a question asking about the racial composition of the congregation to make this determination, but the ANES questionnaire does not include such an item.

No Affiliation

Atheist; Agnostic; No religious preference.

Roman Catholic


Other Smaller Religious Traditions

In addition to the groupings described above, the religious tradition classification scheme also includes several groups that are relatively small in the United States, and thus do not have adequate representation in most sample surveys. The “catch-all” category used in this analysis is too diverse to permit any meaningful interpretation, but it is useful because it preserves the reference category in the regression models.

Eastern Orthodox—Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, other Orthodox

Latter-Day Saints (“Mormons”)

Conservative non-traditional—Jehovah’s Witnesses; Christian Science

Liberal non-traditional—Unitarian-Universalists; Unity; Humanists; Spiritualists; Divine Science; New Age

Other non-Christian non-Jewish religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Sources: Kellstedt, Green, Guth, and Smidt (1996), pp. 188–189; Steensland et al. (2000), pp. 314–316.

Question Wording for Selected Survey Items

Religious Commitment Scale

  • Lots of things come up that keep people from attending religious services even if they want to. Thinking about your life these days, do you ever attend religious services, apart from occasional weddings, baptisms or funerals? (If “yes”) Do you go to religious services...—every week, almost every week, once or twice a month, a few times a year, or never?

  • Outside of attending religious services, do you pray...—several times a day, once a day, a few times a week, once a week or less, or never?

  • (If R says religion is important in his/her life) Would you say your religion provides some guidance in your day-to-day living, quite a bit of guidance, or a great deal of guidance in your day-to-day life?

Views of the Bible

Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible? You can just give me the number of your choice.

  1. 1.

    The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.

  2. 2.

    The Bible is the word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.

  3. 3.

    The Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God.

Authority Scale

Introduction: Although there are a number of qualities that people feel that children should have, every person thinks that some are more important than others. I am going to read you pairs of desirable qualities. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have:

  • Independence or Respect for Elders

  • Curiosity or Good Manners

  • Obedience or Self-reliance

  • Being Considerate or Well Behaved

Patriotism Scale

  • When you see the American flag flying does it make you feel...—extremely good, very good, somewhat good, or not very good?

  • There are some things about America today that make me feel ashamed of America—do you agree, neither agree nor disagree, or disagree?

  • There are some things about America today that make me feel angry about America

  • How strong is your love for your country...—extremely strong, very strong, somewhat strong, or not very strong?

  • Is being an American extremely important, very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important to you personally?

Abortion Scale

  • There has been some discussion about abortion during recent years. Which one of the opinions on this page best agrees with your view? You can just tell me the number of the opinion you choose.

  1. 1.

    By law, abortion should never be permitted.

  2. 2.

    The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger.

  3. 3.

    The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established.

  4. 4.

    By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.

  • Would you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow the use of government funds to help pay for the costs of abortion for women who cannot afford them? Do you [favor/oppose] government funding for abortions strongly or not strongly?

  • There has been discussion recently about a law to ban certain types of late-term abortions, sometimes called partial birth abortions. Do you favor or oppose a law that makes these types of abortions illegal? Do you strongly or not strongly [favor/oppose] a law that makes these types of abortions illegal?

Gay Rights Scale

  • Recently there has been a lot of talk about job discrimination. Do you favor or oppose laws to protect homosexuals against job discrimination?

  • Should same-sex couples be allowed to marry, or do you think they should not be allowed to marry?

  • Do you think gay or lesbian couples, in other words, homosexual couples, should be legally permitted to adopt children?

  • Do you think homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the US Armed Forces or don’t you think so?

Death Penalty

Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder? Do you favor/oppose the death penalty strongly or not strongly?

Importance of a Strong Military

How important is it for the United States to have a strong military force in order to be effective in dealing with our enemies? Is it extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not at all important?

Interventionism by Diplomacy versus Military Force

Some people believe the United States should solve international problems by using diplomacy and other forms of international pressure and use military force only if absolutely necessary. Suppose we put such people at “1” on this scale. Others believe diplomacy and pressure often fail and the United States must be ready to use military force. Suppose we put them at number 7. And of course others fall in positions in-between, at points 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?

Iraq war

Taking everything into account, do you think the war in Iraq has been worth the cost or not?


Standard version: Do you agree or disagree with this statement: This country would be better off if we just stayed home and did not concern ourselves with problems in other parts of the world.

Experimental version: Do you think this country would be better off if we just stayed home and did not concern ourselves with problems in other parts of the world, or do you think that this country would be better off trying to solve some problems in other parts of the world?

Defense Spending

Some people believe that we should spend much less money for defense. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others feel that defense spending should be greatly increased. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?

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Mockabee, S.T. A Question of Authority: Religion and Cultural Conflict in the 2004 Election. Polit Behav 29, 221–248 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-006-9023-4

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  • Religiosity
  • Culture wars
  • Authoritarianism
  • Presidential vote