A Matter of Context: Christian Right Influence in U.S. State Republican Politics

This is a review of A Matter of Context: Christian Right Influence in U.S. State Republican Politics (2010) by Kimberly H. Conger. State Politics and Policy Quarterly 10 (fall): 248-269. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

The Christian Right’s political influence from one state to the next has little to do with the size of each state’s Evangelical population.

In a new article, Kimberly Conger tries to explain why the Christian Right is more influential in some states than in others. Most commentary about Christian conservatives focuses on the national context, but Conger points out that Christian conservatives are often most active at the state level. So what, then, explains their varying level of influence from state to state, specifically within the Republican party?

Of course, any reader would expect that the size of each state’s Evangelical population would matter crucially. Surprisingly (or not–see below), this variable doesn’t seem to go very far in predicting the Christian Right’s influence within a state. The Christian Right’s political influence from one state to the next has little to do with the size of each state’s Evangelical population.

Instead, the Christian Right is strongest in states that have the most conservatives. If a state has more self-identified conservatives, it’s likely to also have a stronger Christian Right.

There’s also some weak evidence that the Christian Right is stronger if the Republican party is more “permeable”–that is, leaders are chosen through an open process (like caucuses) that can be influenced by Christian conservatives.

Comment and criticism

Why is it that people always think “Evangelical” when they think “Christian conservative”? Yes, Evangelicals tend to be conservatives, that’s true. But what about other conservative religious groups?

Conger’s Table 1 shows that Utah has the highest “Christian Right influence” score, yet Utah has very few Evangelicals. Why is Utah at the top of the list? Because of Mormons, not because of Evangelicals. I would wager that Mormons are also the reason that Arizona ranked fifth. The relationship between Evangelicals and Mormons is complicated, of course. Witness Huckabee versus Romney in 2008. But Mormons do lean right on social issues.

There are surely other non-Evangelical faiths that side with Evangelicals on many moral issues.

I think Conger may have a measurement problem in this article. She finds that the number of Evangelicals in a state doesn’t correlate with the Christian Right’s influence, but the number of conservatives does. Well, most Evangelicals probably identify as conservative. So do Mormons and other conservative non-Evangelical Christians. As such, perhaps her “conservative” variable was a better measure of the size of each state’s Christian conservative population than her “Evangelical” measure.

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