Scoring the Five Explanations
Adherence to traditional moral standards accounts for the link between white evangelicals and conservative politics across a wide range of issues. Moral standards traditionalism emerged as an important explanation for conservative politics in the U.S. adult population generally, controlling for other covariates. Many evangelicals as well as members of other Christian religious traditions see the world as governed by moral standards and these standards lead them to oppose changes in society that threaten these standards. Commitments to traditional moral standards and fears about threats to these standards shape both their attitudes about government social provision and their attitudes about acceptable forms of social relations within families and society (see also Hetherington and Weiler 2009).
One reason for the strength of these relationships may be that traditional moral standards are supported by the value structure of many institutions in American society, including not only religious injunctions to obey God's commandments, but also business ideologies of leadership, military ideologies of command, and athletic ideologies of fortitude in competition. Republicans during this period recognized the importance of appeals to traditional moral standards by focusing on such qualities as “moral strength,”“moral clarity,” and “traditional values” as characteristics of their candidates and their party (and as failings of the opposition's candidates and party).
We found more limited support for two of the remaining four explanations. On the issues of abortion and homosexuality, religiosity and male-dominant gender role attitudes were closely linked to conservative views, but they were not as important in the other areas we investigated. We conclude that these sources of conservatism play a specialized role in contemporary American politics; they are important for binding together the conservative moral values coalition, led by evangelicals and supported by conservative members of other Christian religious traditions (Green 2009a), but they have little influence beyond this arena. This finding should not be interpreted as downplaying the importance of religiosity and gender and family ideology in American politics. Although their influence is more narrowly focused, the arena of moral values politics in which they play an important role has been an important source of mobilized energy for the Republican Party, and the moral values coalition represents a sizable part of the party's electoral base (see also Brint and Abrutyn 2009).
Nevertheless, once we go beyond the issues appealing to the moral values coalition, religious people and people who uphold male-dominant gender roles were not predictably conservative in their political views (see also Greeley and Hout 2006; Smith 1998; Woodberry and Smith 1998). This is particularly true of religious people. They were not, in the main, opposed to government social programs or to internationalism and diplomacy in foreign policy. Nor were they notably anti-immigrant or opposed to environment-friendly policies (on environmentalism, see, e.g., Breslau and Brant 2006; and Totten 2006). In this respect, commentators have frequently overstated the support of religious people for the broader conservative movement. They have failed to see how narrowly focused this support has been on issues like abortion, gay rights, and end-of-life care.
We find less evidence in favor of the final two explanations. In the context of salient divisions in American politics during the period of this study, class failed as a general explanation and, in particular, neither low income nor lack of managerial authority was consistently or strongly associated with conservative views.
However, educational level showed significant net associations on several issues (see also Davis 1982; Kingston et al. 2003). In so far as these patterns persist, it will be important to reformulate the class argument to focus on the divisions between highly educated and less educated people.15 Among whites, the conflict between less educated conservatives and more educated liberals has certainly been an important one in American politics over the last 40 years (see, e.g., Hodgson 1976:Chap. 14; Leege et al. 2002:Chaps. 2–4; Perlstein 2008; Williams 2009). As we have noted, several explanations for the conservatism of less educated people are now in contention. These explanations focus on the influence of powerlessness; restricted social networks; lack of information; and symbols of cultural difference, as deployed by conservative commentators. Each one of these explanations is interested in discerning the sources of inclusive as opposed to distrustful attitudes. The sources of liberal attitudes among the highly educated also merit further investigation.16
The fifth explanation, cultural geography, finds very little support in these analyses. At most, rural people show signs of distrust in the face of unfamiliar others, as indicated by their conservative views on homosexuality. But rural residence operates independently of religion. Indeed, rural evangelicals were significantly less conservative on abortion and homosexuality than rural nonevangelicals. The causes of this finding require further investigation, but the finding itself is, in our view, sufficient to lay the cultural geography argument to rest, as it applies to evangelicals.
The Search for Parsimony and the Search for Votes
We began by proposing to identify the most important source of conservatism's appeal to white evangelicals and members of other religious groups. Although our quest to discover the key to unlock the relationship between religion and politics has been at least moderately successful, reflection on our findings, as well as consideration of the developing literature on political parties, has led us to question the usefulness of looking for a single master key to explain this relationship. We can best show the limitations of such a quest by comparing the interests and methods of social scientists and those of political party organizations.
Social scientists often look for parsimonious explanations because social scientific reputations can be built upon elegant explanations that unlock or provide a new perspective. The search for qualities and processes that explain large amounts of variance in social outcomes, or provide new ways of looking at old problems, are consequently the lode stars of many social science careers. Those who succeed in discovering the underlying cause of a social pattern increase the likelihood that they will attract attention and followers (see, e.g., Lamont 2009:Chap. 3; for the case of philosophy, see Collins 1998).
Some social scientists argue that politics work similarly in so far as they are based on creating singular, powerful, and coherent views of the world. The sociolinguist George Lakoff writes, for example: “What conservative and liberal political leaders and ideologues do is to try to get voters to become coherent in their view to move to one pole or the other, that is, to be entirely liberal or entirely conservative over the full range of issues” (Lakoff  2002:15–16). However, a developing literature in political science and sociology (see, e.g., Brint and Abrutyn 2009; Leege et al. 2002; Monson and Oliphant 2007) shows that modern party politics work in a fundamentally different way than Lakoff indicates, and that this difference undermines the possibility of finding master keys to unlock the source of relationships such as that between religion and conservatism.
Political parties are responsible for aggregating interests in society to gain electoral power. In a highly differentiated electorate, leaders of political parties understand that no singular master key exists to bring voters into their electoral coalitions; instead, they operate to assemble electoral coalitions by explicitly appealing both to broad and narrow bases of affiliation. They must also keep in mind the mobilization potential of the different constituencies to which they appeal. Constituencies that contain many activists are valuable because activists can stir enthusiasm for candidates and help to deliver votes.17
Parties rely on modern campaign technology (including polling, focus groups, test marketing of advertisements, and sophisticated market segmentation) to detect what symbols and symbolic associations can be used to create support for the party or anxiety about the opposition (Leege et al. 2002:Chaps. 2–4). Our data suggest that messages about moral strength and moral perseverance attract conservatives, both those who are religious and those who are not. We can see the attractive power of these messages by examining individual NES items. Three out of five NES respondents believe that newer lifestyles are causing societal breakdown, and only two out of five say that people should adjust their moral views to a changing world. Messages about the importance of family ties also attract very widespread support; more than four out of five NES respondents said they favor more emphasis on traditional family ties. Many institutions in American society, not only churches, support these traditionalist views.
Views supporting the centrality of religion in public life or the validity of male-dominant gender ideology have narrower appeal because the number of people who are particularly responsive to these messages is smaller, and few institutions in American society, outside of theologically conservative churches, reinforce these messages. Again, we can see the limits of these messages by examining responses on relevant NES items. Thus, nearly three out of five NES respondents rejected the idea that the Bible is the literal word of God, and fewer than two out of five said that religion provided a great deal of guidance in their day-to-day life. Similarly, three out of four NES respondents said that men and women should have equal roles in society, and three out of five rejected the idea that obedience was one of the most important qualities in children. Conservative messages about the centrality of religion and the different roles of men and women are nevertheless important for drawing religious people and people favoring male-dominant gender roles into the Republican Party's moral values coalition. In this respect, they play a specialized role in the cultural system of electoral politics, but one that is important for rallying activists.
Broadly resonant messages and specialized messages attuned to activists are two instruments of political parties. More targeted messages are also used by parties to reach out to smaller segments of the electorate, such as people with children serving in the armed forces or swing voters worried about changes in their marginal tax rates. These micro-targeting efforts began in earnest a generation ago (Blumenthal 1980:Chap. 12) and have become ever more sophisticated since that time. A study of political communications of the Republican National Committee in the 2004 presidential election showed that the market segmentation of political messages has advanced to the point that small slivers of the electorate are targeted with messages appealing to their particular interests (Monson and Oliphant 2007). Similar micro targeting informs communications strategies of the Democratic Party as well (Penn and Zalesne 2007:Chap. 6).
The partisan search for votes, in short, deploys a wide variety of symbolic resources, some with relatively broad appeal, some with specialized appeal to mobilized constituencies, and many with very narrow and targeted appeal, to assemble winning electoral coalitions, piece by piece, across numerous organizational and demographic contexts. For Republicans, messages resonating with adherence to traditional moral standards represent one important symbolic resource, but not the only one.
The social scientist's search for parsimony and the partisan search for votes thus work on different principles. This is an important reason why no overarching social science explanation of modern conservatism's appeal can be possible. In Berlin's (1953) terms, social scientists have incentives to be hedgehogs, but political parties have incentives to be foxes.