During the campaign of 1960, when Catholic John F. Kennedy was running on the Democratic ticket, religion became an important voting issue, and it comes up again from time to time. Voters in 1960 were concerned about a President who might listen to The Pope while John Kerry's Catholicism was barely worth a mention in 2004. More often today, the discussion is on 'values.'
So, hyperbole from both sides notwithstanding, how much influence does religion have on values?
Kennon Sheldon, a University of Missouri a professor of psychology, set out to discover if any political party really had a greater monopoly on 'values' and what impact religion has on those values. Sheldon compared the "extrinsic" values (financial success, status, appearance) with "intrinsic" values (growth, intimacy, helping) of self-declared Democrats and Republicans in four different samples.
He found Republicans to be consistently higher on the extrinsic value of financial success and lower on the intrinsic value of helping others in need. Closer examination showed that only non-religious Republicans (presumably economic conservatives) differed from Democrats on the value of helping those in need. However, even religious Republicans exceeded Democrats in valuing financial success. Religious and non-religious Democrats did not differ in their values.
Sheldon also wonders whether the primarily economic-oriented values of conservative Republican politicians can allow them to work for large changes with religious conservatives, who have more intrinsic values., namely on a topic like global warming.
"The one thing that struck me the most was that the value differences were rather small – really, people were more alike than different, in that almost everybody favored intrinsic values more than extrinsic values," Sheldon said. "It was just a small relative difference between the two parties. Still, these data suggest that economic conservatives have been 'drafting' on the values of religious conservatives, using conservative Christians' willingness to care for less fortunate others as a cover for their own willingness to exploit the situation."