Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communication

Document Type



In spite of a corpus of work over the last three decades acknowledging the centrality of religion in politics, (see e.g. Hunter, 1991; Layman, 2001; Putnam & Campbell, 2010; Wuthnow, 1988), there remains a scarcity of research examining the consequences of religious communication in political campaigns. The current study fills this void through an empirical exploration of the effects of religious campaign appeals on prospective voters. Specifically, this interdisciplinary investigation develops a theoretical framework and subsequent expectations as to how religious appeals are likely to activate individual religiosity thereby influencing the formation of political attitudes. Hypothesized expectations are then tested through a series of controlled media experiments administered to college students and a representative cross-section of U.S. adults. Consistent with expectations, results demonstrate exposure to religious appeals activates, or “primes,” religiosity, which significantly influences individual political evaluations. Priming effects are shown to be most pronounced based on one’s religious beliefs relative to level of religious commitment or denominational affiliation. Those individuals holding more orthodox religious beliefs become significantly more likely to evaluate a candidate favorably following exposure to an appeal incorporating religious cues. At the same time, analysis demonstrates religious priming effects are attenuated in more complex information environments. Individuals exposed to additional partisan and non-partisan political information in the context of viewing religious appeals become less reliant on religiosity in forming political attitudes. Nevertheless, study findings strongly suggest religious beliefs remain a consequential consideration in the minds of potential voters regardless of information environment complexity. Additionally, experimental results point to the ability of candidates to prime religiosity through both implicit and explicit appeals. In a novel experiment, study results illustrate that a candidate can effectively activate the religious beliefs of viewers without formally referencing religion vis-à-vis implicit pro-life appeals and endorsement of traditional family values. Formal analysis then explores the potential for candidates to face backlash effects for mounting religious campaigns. Findings, however, suggest candidates face little adverse effects from explicitly appealing to religion. Indeed, general social acceptance of religion in the U.S. suggests candidates may appeal to religion more explicitly without fear of voter repercussions. The study concludes with a discussion of study results and implications for political discourse as well as a call for further research into the growing and influential role of religion in modern American politics.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Weber, Christopher R.