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Moral Power: How Public Opinion on Culture War Issues Shapes Partisan Predispositions and Religious Orientations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

University of Minnesota
St. Olaf College
Paul Goren is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (
Christopher Chapp is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN 55057 (


Party-driven and religion-driven models of opinion change posit that individuals revise their positions on culture war issues to ensure consonance with political and religious predispositions. By contrast, models of issue-driven change propose that public opinion on cultural controversies lead people to revise their partisan and religious orientations. Using data from four panel studies covering the period 1992–2012, we pit the party- and religion-based theories of opinion change against the issue-based model of change. Consistent with the standard view, party and religion constrain culture war opinion. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, but consistent with our novel theory, opinions on culture war issues lead people to revise their partisan affinities and religious orientations. Our results imply that culture war attitudes function as foundational elements in the political and religious belief systems of ordinary citizens that match and sometimes exceed partisan and religious predispositions in terms of motivating power.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2017 

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We presented a draft of this article at the 2015 Midwest Political Science Association's annual meeting in Chicago, IL. We thank the four reviewers and Valerie Martinez-Ebers for their astute commentary on how to strengthen our article. We are also grateful to David Campbell, Howard Lavine, Geoffrey Layman, Lilliana Mason, Matt Motta, Phil Shively, and Michael Tesler for their thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this work. Thanks also to Ron Asheton and James Williamson. Note finally that the authors contributed equally to this article.



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