Religion-State Interaction at the Local Level: Key Findings from a Survey of Religion and Local Elected Officials.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Forthcoming.

Authors: Gary Adler (Pennsylvania State University), Damon Mayrl (Colby College), Jonathan Coley (Oklahoma State University), Rebecca Sager (Loyola Marymount University), and Eric Plutzer (Pennsylvania State University)

Abstract: Relationships between religion and state are a core focus for social scientists, but little is known about a central set of actors in “church-state” relations in the United States: local elected officials (mayors, town councilpersons, city commissioners). We report on a unique, representative survey of local elected officials, examining their religiosity, their interactions with religion through governance (prayers, meetings, symbol placement requests), and their preferences for religion-state relations. Our results show that local elected officials are no more religious than the general adult public, that they interact with religion in their formal governance at low rates, and that a quarter strongly prefer increased state engagement with religion. Minority religious affiliation, Democratic political affiliation, and urban context predict opposition to religion-state engagement. We describe how local elected officials may produce local regimes of religion-state interaction that vary by geographic location and suggest pathways for future research.

Religion at the Frontline: How Religion Influenced the Response of Local Government Officials to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Sociology of Religion 82(4): 397-425. Published in 2021.

Authors: Gary Adler (Pennsylvania State University), Selena Ortiz (Penn State), Eric Plutzer (Penn State), Damon Mayrl (Colby College), Jonathan Coley (Oklahoma State University), and Rebecca Sager (Loyola Marymount University)

Abstract: Frontline officials (such as mayors and commissioners) are responsible for local-level responses to the COVID-19 pandemic across the United States. Their actions and attitudes, either in support of or opposition to public health recommendations, have resulted in widespread variation in local-level pandemic response. Despite evidence that religion significantly impacts the general public’s response to the pandemic, the influence of religion on officials’ behaviors and attitudes is unknown. Using a unique, two-wave, representative survey of frontline officials, we examine how religion influenced officials’ reported personal health behaviors (mask wearing, social distancing) and attitudes toward institutional reopenings. Results show high levels of compliance with public health recommendations, but religious nationalism negatively influences all outcomes. Other religious factors, like affiliation and attendance, vary in their influence and even work differently among officials compared to the general public. Frontline officials are key for understanding how religion influences the pandemic and state action more generally.

The Frontline of Church-State Relations: Local Officials and the Regulation of Religion in a New Era.” RGK Center Working Paper Series. Published in 2020.

Authors: Gary Adler (Pennsylvania State University), Damon Mayrl (Colby College), Rebecca Sager (Loyola Marymount University), and Jonathan Coley (Oklahoma State University)

Abstract: Interactions between religion and government, between church and state, have occurred with regularity throughout U.S. history. Over the past several decades, a new church-state regime of accommodationism has encouraged broader and more extensive church-state interaction. Nearly all such interaction is local in nature, but little scholarship systematically focuses on a key actor: frontline officials. We introduce the concept of frontline officials to research on government and religion, explaining why frontline officials have been previously missing. Frontline officials, appointed and elected, regulate church-state interaction, making decisions about whether and how to promote or limit closer engagement between religion and government. This regulation is often informal and discretionary, leading to diverse church-state patterns at the local level. We theorize the cultural and contextual factors that shape frontline officials’ ways of interacting with religion, then report basic results from a first-ever survey of frontline officials. Our results show that, among frontline officials, there are a wide range of attitude toward church-state relations, as well as practices that bring religion into relationship with the state. We suggest that scholars focus on the patterns of how church-state interaction happens at the frontline and the individual, contextual, and cultural factors for why church-state interactions differ across communities.