Religion, Redistribution and Political Participation

Author(s): Gwyneth McClendon (Harvard) and Rachel Riedl (Northwestern)

Abstract: Since Marx and Weber, social scientists have attempted to understand the impact or lack thereof of religion on two core domains of political life: whether religion influences attitudes about wealth accumulation, inequality and redistribution; and whether religion dampens or inspires political participation. However, the effect of religious ideas on these domains is difficult to identify, at the very least because citizens often select into religious associations whose messages they find appealing. We shed light on this issue through an experiment in Nairobi, Kenya. Focusing on the effects of two important contemporary Christian messages, we find evidence that exposure to religious messages can reduce egalitarianism in complex distribution decisions, compared to exposure to secular messages. We also find that exposure to self-affirmation messages—both religious and secular—can be politically empowering and motivate activism. We discuss implications of these findings for political mobilization and policy preferences in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as for the study of religion and politics more generally.

Status: Working Paper