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Do Political Attitudes and Religiosity Share a Genetic Path?


Social scientists have long recognized and sought to explain a connection between religious and political beliefs. Our research challenges the prevalent view that religion and politics constitute separate but related belief sets with a conceptual model that suggests the correlation between the two may be partially explained by an underlying psychological construct reflecting first principle beliefs on social organization. Moreover, we also push this challenge further by considering whether part of the relationship between political and religious beliefs is the result of shared genetic influences, which would suggest that a shared biological predisposition, or set of biological predispositions, underlies these attitudes. Using a classic twin design on a sample of American adults, we demonstrate that certain religious, political, and first principle beliefs can be explained by genetic and unique environmental components, and that the correlation between these three trait structures is primarily due to a common genetic path. As predicted, this relationship is found to hold for social ideology, but not for economic ideology. These findings provide evidence that the overlap between the religious and the political in the American context may in part be due to underlying principles regarding how to understand and organize society and that these principles may be adopted to satisfy biologically-influenced psychological needs.

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  1. 1.

    This paper will focus on Christianity as its primary religious system as it is the overwhelming majority religion in the United States (Wald and Calhoun-Brown 2007).

  2. 2.

    Religious affiliation (identification of Protestant, Catholic, etc.) is excluded from this analysis because the categories are too broad to tap into dimensions related to the overlap between religious and political beliefs. The other two religious options were self-identification as born again, which we excluded because it is a dichotomous variable and the methods used here assume normality, and self-identification as a spiritual person, which we excluded due its lack of variance (85 % of the sample indicated yes, they were spiritual, including a number of religious individuals).

  3. 3.

    Because the results presented here are reported as a percent of the variance accounted for in a trait, the confidence interval on these estimates cannot extend below zero. To determine if a coefficient is significant, we utilized the 95 % confidence interval around the standardized path coefficients reported in Tables 1, 2, and 3 of the Supplementary material.

  4. 4.

    We do not report results for the leadership subscale because the low variance and high skew in this sample render this variable inappropriate for methods that assume normality.

  5. 5.

    For the full scale and group subscale of the Society Works Best index, the MZ correlation is more than twice the DZ correlation. This suggests that it may be more appropriate to run ADE models for these variables, which estimate dominance effects (D) that capture certain types of gene by gene interactions instead of common environment effects. However, because it is not possible to estimate common environment and dominance effects simultaneously without an extended twin family design, and because our hypotheses do not hinge on whether the genetic effects that we are examining are additive or non-additive, we instead report ACE and AE models for all variables. In these models, we interpret the A as an estimate of broad-sense heritability, which includes both additive and non-additive genetic effects (see Coventry and Keller 2005).

  6. 6.

    The lower reliability of the economic ideology measure likely contributes to the higher unique environment component (E) in this measure. However, despite the lower reliability, we are able to find significant genetic effects on economic preferences in many of the analyses. Moreover, economic ideology may simply have less internal consistency than social ideology or suffer from greater measurement error (Ansolabehere, Rodden, and Snyder 2008), as evidenced by the lower median heritability among the single economic items as compared to the single social items.

  7. 7.

    For the relationship with social ideology and economic ideology, we can determine the proportion of variance in religious importance that is unshared with these variables by re-ordering the variables in the model so that religious importance is the second variable. This procedure is discussed in greater detail in the trivariate analysis section.


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The data employed in this project is publicly available and collected with the financial support of the National Science Foundation in the form of SES-0721378, PI: John R. Hibbing; Co-PIs: John R. Alford, Lindon J. Eaves, Carolyn L. Funk, Peter K. Hatemi, and Kevin B. Smith, and with the cooperation of the Minnesota Twin Registry at the University of Minnesota, Robert Krueger and Matthew McGue, Directors.

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Correspondence to Amanda Friesen.

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Friesen, A., Ksiazkiewicz, A. Do Political Attitudes and Religiosity Share a Genetic Path?. Polit Behav 37, 791–818 (2015).

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  • Behavior genetics
  • Religion and politics
  • Twin study
  • Ideology