SALT LAKE CITY — Polite chitchat can be awkward for Michele Margolis, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. When she mentions her research specialty, people sometimes assume she's joking.
"They're like, 'No. That's not a thing,'" she said.
Margolis studies how political affiliation influences religious beliefs and practices, a cause-and-effect that reverses traditional assumptions. People like to believe their faith informs who and what they vote for, not the other way around.
"It's tricky to say something like your religion, which is premised on things like whether you'll go to heaven or hell, can be affected by the dirty, secular world of politics. It's counterintuitive," said Margolis, whose book, "From Politics to the Pews," was released in August.
But a growing body of research concludes just that: Our political concerns can affect which church we attend, how faithful we are and whether we drop out of organized religion altogether.
"I don't think this is really a matter of debate anymore" among scholars of religion and politics, said David Campbell, chair of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame.
As Margolis' small talk experiences illustrate, everyday people aren't there, yet. But people of faith will need to be aware of the power of politics in order to keep it from corrupting their communities, Campbell said.
"If religious people want to have their voices heard in the public square … they need to rise above partisanship. Unfortunately, I see less and less of that," he said.
For decades, political scientists and religious believers assumed the causal relationship between religion and politics flowed in one direction: Religion affected politics. Faith was seen as a powerful, personal force that couldn't be rocked by contentious elections or political ad campaigns.
"Many still treat religion as a characteristic outside a person's own choosing," Margolis wrote in "From Politics to the Pews."
In evangelical circles, faith has often been described as a "mountain of culture," noted Carmen LaBerge, a Christian talk radio host. It casts a shadow over the other aspects of people's lives, affecting the decisions they make.
"The idea is that politics is downstream or downhill" from religion, she said.
Margolis and other scholars don't deny that religion is a central influence for many people. But they do reject the idea that faith is unchangeable or immune to pressure applied by other forces. People regularly switch churches or stop attending worship services for long stretches of time, whether because they moved, got close to a new group of friends or grew more invested in their political party.
"I'm not out to convince everyone religion doesn't matter. I think it does. But I want to tell a more nuanced story," Margolis said.
In her book, Margolis spends a lot of time on life cycle theory, or the notion that our beliefs and commitments ebb and flow over time. Many teenagers and young adults take a step back from the religious tradition they were raised in, whether because they're busy enjoying college or launching their career. When they get married and have their own kids, some will return to regular church attendance.
This common downturn in religious involvement coincides with the time when our political identities take shape. Our choice of a political party can go on to affect whether we return to faith or which house of worship we choose, Margolis said.
We make religious decisions based on our needs and "politics can be one of them," she said.
People aren't necessarily aware that this is happening, which explains why nonscholars sometimes react strongly and negatively when they hear the latest research on religion and politics, Margolis added.
"I don't think anyone actively says, 'My politics are more important than my religion and I'm going to let politics drive my religious decisions,'" she said.
Moving the mountain
When LaBerge discovered Margolis' research this summer, she started to question that traditional map of the mountains of culture.
"I thought, 'If she's right, then we have our geography wrong,'" she said.
LaBerge wanted to know more. She bought Margolis' book and invited her to discuss it on-air. In the process, she discovered that her own religious journey helps illustrate the findings.
LaBerge spent many years attending a politically progressive, mainline Protestant church. She's a registered Republican and the faith's approach to politics frustrated her to the point that she stopped attending.
"I would definitely say that the progressive, partisan political agenda pursued by that denomination eventually drove me out," she said, noting that she now worships at a Southern Baptist church.
Around 1 in 10 people who've looked for a new congregation cite a church's religious teachings or political stances as the reason they chose it, according to a 2016 study from Pew Research Center.
Politics' influence on religious choices doesn't end there, Campbell and Margolis said. It also affects how deeply people commit to their religious community and whether they attend one at all.
Recent research shows "people who are politically centrist or liberal will drop their religious affiliation because they view religion as an extension of conservative politics," Campbell said. "We've also seen evidence that if you are politically conservative, you have a tendency to become more religious over time."
Margolis has studied how this plays out among young adults, who, as she noted, generally drift away from their childhood faith groups, at least temporarily. In her book, she analyzes a long-term study of 1,500 people, who were surveyed as high school seniors, then in their 20s, 30s and 50s.
"I find that 20-something Democrats and Republicans were equally secular. … But nine years later, Republicans had become much more likely to attend church than their Democratic counterparts," she wrote in an op-ed about her research for The New York Times.
These outcomes stem, in part, from the fact that Republican politicians for about the last four decades have talked about God and their faith a lot more than Democrats. Additionally, conservative Christians have been more vocal and visible supporters of the GOP than progressive Christians have been for the Democratic Party.
To be clear, researchers aren't arguing that there are no religious Democrats or secular Republicans. They're saying that each party's religious reputation affects people whose religious status is still evolving.
Among liberals, "it's not that you find people who are already highly engaged in religion just stopping on a dime and leaving," Campbell said. It's that people who are only loosely committed to their faith group decide that religion's conservative reputation in the public square is reason enough to leave.
Like Margolis, Campbell often encounters people who are confused by his research. Even if they accept the basic premise, they may not see why they should care.
It can seem silly to get worked up about people leaving church who weren't that committed in the first place, he noted. But it's important to remember that a growing number of Americans fit that description.
"The rise of religious 'nones' is … one of the most significant social trends of the last 25 years," he said. One-quarter of U.S. adults are religiously unaffiliated, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
The close relationship between the Republican Party and religion likely helps explain this trend, Campbell and others said.
"I don't know how one could prove or how one could quantify exactly how much the growth of the 'nones' is attributable to (the entanglement of religion with conservative politics.) But it's consistent in the sense that religious 'nones' are by and large one of the most consistently liberal and Democratic religious groups in the U.S. population," said Greg Smith, Pew Research Center's associate director of research.
In 2017, 68 percent of religiously unaffiliated registered voters identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared to 52 percent in 1994, Pew reported earlier this year.
People of faith should also care about the complicated relationship between politics and religion because it holds serious consequences for religion's moral witness, Campbell said. When religious communities come to be defined by their political interests, they lose the support of half of America.
"When politics is put ahead of religion, it corrupts religion," Campbell said.53 comments on this story
To illustrate this point, he often cites data showing how President Donald Trump's candidacy changed evangelical Christians' views on immoral behavior. In 2011, just 30 percent of white evangelicals believed an elected official who committed an immoral act in their personal life could still be an ethical leader, according to Public Religion Research Institute. By 2016, that figured jumped to 72 percent.
Similarly, Margolis worries that current trends of congregations becoming more politically homogenous may sabotage religion's ability to bring diverse people together.
"I don't have an agenda, but I don't think it's a good thing that this has happened," she said.