In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religion, Politics, and Civic Engagement in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • History of Religion and Politics in the United States
  • Religious Behavior and Civic Engagement
  • Religion’s Effects on Quality of Democratic Society
  • Political Engagement of Religious Communities
  • Building Civic Skills and Resources within Religious Communities
  • Political Mobilization of Religious Communities
  • Clergy as Political Mobilizers
  • Religion and Civic Engagement in American Elections
  • Engagement beyond Politics: Volunteerism and Trust
  • Religious Coalitions in Politics
  • Christian Right Movement
  • African American Churches
  • Civic Engagement of Specific Religious Traditions

Political Science Religion, Politics, and Civic Engagement in the United States
J. Tobin Grant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0071


Though church and state are constitutionally separated, religion and politics are often intertwined. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic Democracy in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), the nation is both highly religious and unapologetically democratic. Some of the most effective political movements in the US political development included the active involvement of churches and religious communities. One reason is that churches and other religious communities in the United States often encourage civic engagement. Civic engagement is a broad concept that includes any activity aimed at changing society, government, or policy. Education and psychology often focus on civic activities such as volunteering or participating in a nonprofit organization. Political science and sociology often use the term “civic engagement” more narrowly to mean “political participation.” This would include activities whose aim is to affect political outcomes. Political participation includes voting, persuading others to vote, campaign contributions, working for a campaign, contacting or lobbying public officials, and protesting. A consistent empirical finding in the study of religion and civic life is that those who are involved in religion are more likely to be more civically engaged as voters, volunteers, and activists. Churches and other religious communities can become active as organizations. They can also increase the civic engagement of their adherents by mobilizing them, providing the skills to participate, or fostering democratic values. Political parties and candidates target religious voters to bring them into the political process. Studies of religion and civic engagement continue to examine the many ways religion affects civic engagement in the United States.

General Overviews

The study of religion in the United States is wide ranging, as is the literature on civic engagement. Sources that are able to adequately review the nexus of religion and civic engagement are valuable but rare. Smidt, et al. 2008 provides a comprehensive study of religion and political participation in the America. For coverage of specific issues in American religion and politics—including Weilhouwer 2009 on political participation—see Smidt, et al. 2009 on religion and politics in the United States. Essays on more specific questions on religion and civic engagement in American democracy can be found in Wilson 2007 and Wolfe and Katznelson 2010.

  • Smidt, Corwin E., Kevin R. den Dulk, James M. Penning, Stephen V. Monsma, and Douglas L. Koopman. Pews, Prayers, and Participation: Religion and Civic Responsibility in America. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008.

    Assesses religion’s influence on political participation in American society, exploring behavior, knowledge, and ideals. Argues that religion plays a major role in fostering civic responsibility in the United States.

  • Smidt, Corwin E., Lyman A. Kellstedt, and James L. Guth, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195326529.003.0001

    Collection of primarily quantitative essays on religion and politics in America. Presents the “Three B’s” (belief, behavior, and belonging) paradigm for understanding religion’s influence on political participation and behavior.

  • Weilhouwer, Peter W. “Religion and Political Participation.” In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics. Edited by Corwin E. Smidt, Lyman A. Kellstedt, and James L. Guth, 394–426. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Chapter reviewing literature on political participation in the United States and how religion shapes citizen involvement in politics.

  • Wilson, J. Matthew, ed. From Pews to Polling Places: Faith and Politics in the American Religious Mosaic. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007.

    Collection of essays exploring the role of specific faiths in American political action. Chapters include analysis of evangelical and mainline Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. By including a variety of religious traditions and ideologies, including secularists, this collection broadly tackles the important question of how faith informs political activity.

  • Wolfe, Alan, and Ira Katznelson, eds. Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    Discusses the effects of religion on the American system of government by considering religion’s role in a liberal society, how religious ideas affect political views, and so on. The authors, a diverse collection of scholars in American religion and politics, helpfully discuss the state of the literature on their subject, providing a nice introduction to and overview of the topics presented.

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