The Influence of Religious–Political Sophistication on U.S. Public Opinion

An Erratum to this article was published on 27 February 2017

This article has been updated


Scholarly accounts of elite–mass communication often suggest that political sophistication is a necessary condition for adopting the attitudes of partisan elites. Some have also suggested that political knowledge promotes religious–political issue constraint among religious identifiers. This paper contributes to the political sophistication literature by piloting and testing a new measure, religious–political sophistication (RPS), assessing knowledge of church teaching on particular political issues. Using original measures launched on the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, I show that for evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, RPS (in conjunction with frequent church attendance) depresses support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Moreover, I argue that assessing RPS this way is not fatally contaminated by unsophisticated respondents interpolating that their clergy must share their political positions. Results suggest religion-and-politics scholars should adopt RPS measures to gain a greater understanding of the unique sources of political communication upon which religious identifiers draw.

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Change history

  • 27 February 2017

    An erratum to this article has been published.


  1. 1.

    I use the term “church” interchangeably with monotheism-neutral terms not for ease of presentation, but because the present study confines its attention to the attitudes of identifiers with Christian religious traditions.

  2. 2.

    Evangelical Protestant affiliation is indicated by those denominations classified as evangelical Protestant by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life (see

  3. 3.

    I dropped from the sample all Protestants whose stated affiliations were too vague to be certain about their religious tradition (e.g. “Other Baptist,” “Other Pentecostal,” etc). When I instead use born-again status and white ethnicity to include those ambiguous cases likelier to be evangelical or mainline Protestants than members of other religious traditions, the sample size increases moderately but there is no substantive change to the results.

  4. 4.

    Given the subsamples under consideration, unweighted results are presented (West et al. 2008); using weights in the estimation procedure, however, has minimal substantive impact on the findings.

  5. 5.

    For Roman Catholics, these official positions come from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition. For evangelical Protestants, I referred (where available) to the position papers of the major bodies. Some denominations tolerate abortion in cases of rape or incest, while many other evangelical denominations only tolerate legal abortion to save the mother’s life, or (occasionally) in no instances whatsoever. Otherwise, this understanding is based on conventional wisdom about the general political orientation of evangelical Protestant denominations.

  6. 6.

    In some instances, the dropped cases are due not just to panel attrition—but to respondents unsure of their ideological orientation and/or unwilling to report their family income (two standard control variables). When the analysis is run dropping income and ideology from the models, the results do not change dramatically, and the crucial church–RPS interaction retains statistical significance at the \(p = 0.03\) level (abortion attitudes) and \(p = 0.09\) level (same-sex marriage attitudes).

  7. 7.

    I code “don’t know” responses as incorrect.

  8. 8.

    In Table 1, the dependent variable is support for same-sex marriage (1 = support; 0 = oppose); in Table 2, the dependent variable is agreement with the statement that we should “Always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice” (1 = agree; 0 = disagree).

  9. 9.

    In the cases of education, income, and ideology (as well as the biblical literacy index), note that I have collapsed some categories to ensure adequate cross-tabular cell counts for logistic regression. Results remain substantively unchanged regardless of whether the logistic regressions use the collapsed or uncollapsed scales.

  10. 10.

    The most direct comparison with RPS would be to assess whether respondents know their parties’ positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, due to limited space, I was unable to include these questions on my home institution’s module of the 2014 CCES. If this piece persuades religion and politics scholars to assess RPS on future national surveys, we might consider using concomitant measures of whether respondents know partisan issue stances as well.

    Still, the sophistication literature suggests that knowledge of party control of Congress is a reasonable proxy for whether respondents know their parties’ stances. Zaller (1985) even suggests that in national surveys with face-to-face interviews, interviewer perception of respondents’ political knowledge is an especially accurate proxy for their actual knowledge levels. Moreover, since party control of Congress in November 2014 was split between chambers (with the Democrats controlling the Senate and the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives), respondents that correctly identify party control of both chambers have already demonstrated an uncommonly specific awareness of political affairs.

  11. 11.

    All percentages reported here are for those respondents that saw and answered the prompt in question.

  12. 12.

    For correlations between the two dichotomous RPS instruments, I report tetrachoric correlations (\(r_{t}\)). For correlations between the continuous biblical literacy score and each dichotomous RPS instrument, I report biserial correlations (\(r_{b}\)).

  13. 13.

    Granted, the dependent variable representing abortion attitudes is not the only CCES measure to ask about abortion. Other measures ask whether abortion should be permitted only in rare circumstances (rape, incest, life of mother); whether abortion should be banned beyond the 20th week of pregnancy; whether employers’ health insurance plans should be required to cover abortion services; and whether federal funding for abortion should be banned. I selected support for unrestricted abortion rights because, among the five items, it most clearly divides participants along the pro-choice versus pro-life continuum. However, I respecified the relevant models using both 1) the four other items individually, and 2) a Poisson specification with a dependent variable representing the number of pro-choice responses across the five items. None of these re-specifications replicated the significant church–RPS interaction of the models presented. The various tests were inconsistent in their identification of statistically significant alternative mechanisms (i.e. secular, naive, “culture wars”) that influence the likelihood of holding pro-choice views on more detailed concerns. This suggests several possibilities. First, the item asking whether we should “Always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice” may best imply the type of clear-cut RPS acquired at church. Second, the effects of RPS on abortion attitudes may simply be more limited than the effects of RPS on same-sex marriage attitudes.

  14. 14.

    First difference simulations were calculated using Zelig (Choirat et al. 2016), and graphs were created using ggplot2 (Wickham 2009). Both are free software available for use in R, an open-source statistical computing program (R Development Core Team 2008).

  15. 15.

    Including the full range of controls, however, does not substantively change the results.

  16. 16.

    Moreover, we cannot attribute the null effects of the church–RPS interaction to the low sample size of mainline Protestants. The sample size is large enough to show a clear effect (in the model predicting abortion attitudes) from the “culture wars” interaction term between church attendance and secular political knowledge. Recall that this term was not significant for evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. We might speculate that for mainline Protestants, formal church teaching is unavailable as a heuristic for forming policy attitudes. In that case, secular political knowledge would have an increased role, with church providing the necessary training to participate in political affairs (see Verba et al. 1995). However, I leave for future research the question whether religious–political sophistication means something different for mainline Protestants compared to evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics.

  17. 17.

    Of course, saying that one’s church opposes abortion rights in all instances and opposing unrestricted abortion rights does not imply a perfect match between RPS reports and personal attitudes. A closer match, for abortion opponents, would be seeing whether those that support abortion in rare instances report that their church endorses identical exceptions. Among those that agreed with the statement (elsewhere in the CCES common content) that we should “permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger,” 47% reported that their church leaders took the same position. This is consistent with the parallel finding that a minority of respondents that endorsed unrestricted abortion rights reported that their church leaders also did so.

  18. 18.

    Note that the coefficients on this variable will be slightly different than those on the constituent church attendance parameter in Tables 1 and 2—because in both cases, “don’t know” responses are coded as zero.


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The author thanks Christopher DeSante, Edward G. Carmines, Indiana University’s Center on American Politics, and the Social Science Research Commons for funding data collection. The following individuals also provided extremely helpful feedback and support: Robert and Merri Schmidt, Edward G. Carmines, William Bianco, Christopher DeSante, Bernard Fraga, Matthew Hayes, Brian Schaffner, Jacob Neiheisel, Gabrielle Malina, Katelyn Stauffer, Colin Fisk, Alex Badas; and the editor and two anonymous reviewers. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the 2016 Southern and Midwest Political Science Association’s annual meetings. Replication data is publicly available at

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Correspondence to Eric R. Schmidt.

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An erratum to this article is available at



The exact question wording for the original instruments on my home institution’s CCES module is documented below.

  • Biblical Literacy Question 1:

    • Question wording: Now we would like to test your knowledge about the Bible, its books and figures. What was the name of the angel who visited the Virgin Mary?

    • Choices were Isaiah, Gabriel, David, or Judah.

    • Coded 1 for correct answer of ‘Gabriel’; otherwise coded 0.

  • Biblical Literacy Question 2:

    • Question wording: According to the book of Exodus, who led the Israelites out of Egypt?

    • Choices were Abraham, Peter, Lazarus, or Moses.

    • Coded 1 for correct answer of ‘Moses’; otherwise coded 0.

  • Biblical Literacy Question 3:

    • Question wording: Please identify the book of the Bible that contains the following verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

    • Choices were Luke, Matthew, Psalms, or John.

    • Coded 1 for correct answer of ‘John’; otherwise coded 0.

  • RPS Question 1:

    • Question wording: Religious leaders sometimes comment on political issues. Which of the following best represents the view on same-sex (that is, homosexual) marriage taken by the highest-ranking leaders of your religious group?

    • Choices were (1) Neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions for same-sex couples should be legal; (2) Same-sex marriage should not be legal, but civil unions for same-sex couples should be; (3) Same-sex marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples should both be legal; (4) Don’t know.

    • For both evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, choice (1) coded 1; all other choices coded 0.

    • For mainline Protestants, choices (2) and (3) coded 1; all other choices coded 0. (Note: codes for mainline Protestants denote belief that church leaders take liberal positions—not RPS per se. See text for details.)

  • RPS Question 2:

    • Question wording: Similarly, which of the following best represents the view on abortion taken by the highest-ranking leaders of your religious group?

    • Choices were (1) By law, abortion should never be permitted; (2) The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger; (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) By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice; (5) Don’t know.

    • For Roman Catholics, choice (1) coded 1; all other choices coded 0.

    • For evangelical Protestants, choices (1) and (2) coded 1; all other choices coded 0.

    • For mainline Protestants, choices (3) and (4) coded 1; all other choices coded 0. (Note: codes for mainline Protestants denote belief that church leaders take liberal positions—not RPS per se. See text for details.)

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Schmidt, E.R. The Influence of Religious–Political Sophistication on U.S. Public Opinion. Polit Behav 40, 21–53 (2018).

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  • Religion and politics
  • American politics
  • Public opinion
  • Sophistication
  • Evangelical Protestants
  • Roman Catholics