Date of Degree

9-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Political Science

Advisor

Leslie McCall

Committee Members

David R. Jones

Sanford F. Schram

Subject Categories

American Politics

Keywords

religion, politics, inequality, interpretation, Bible, polarization, policy

Abstract

This dissertation explores the role of biblical interpretation in the politics of inequality in the United States. Building on scholarship in American Political Development that identifies ideas as integral to institution building, I analyze the interplay between biblical interpretations, organizational structures, and political strategies within two contemporary religio-political groups: the New Poor People’s Campaign (NPPC) and Capitol Ministries (CM). Methodologically, I combine in-depth, interpretative readings of primary source documents with an historical institutional analysis of the secondary literature on the role of religion in American politics. I argue that the two organizations’ elite leaders – Reverends William Barber II and Liz Theoharis (NPPC) and Pastor Ralph Drollinger (CM) – are religious versions of Hans Noel’s “coalition merchants” because they “inherit, modify, and transform” (in the words of Rogers M. Smith) pre-existing religio-political ideas in order to justify their respective political agendas and strategies related to issues of inequality. This “strategic agency” (in words of Smith) has been critical to interest formation and coalition building for both groups as they seek to advance their desired policies and visions for American society within government institutions and among the public at large. Additionally, I argue that these elites’ biblical interpretations have the potential to affect American politics in ways that extend beyond the success or failure of each group’s political agenda, by, for instance, increasing or mitigating affective and policy-based polarization and shaping Americans’ orientations toward democracy at both the elite and mass levels.

More generally, the dissertation suggests that the study of religion and politics, and the study of the politics of inequality, would each benefit from a better understanding of religio-political ideas and discourses, and the religio-political actors who generate them, in shaping policy agendas and political outcomes. Contrary to influential political theories that contrast orthodox religious conservatism with modernist religious liberalism, or that claim the former by definition results in political and economic conservatism, this dissertation demonstrates that theologically conservative religion can be mobilized for conservative or progressive political ends across multiple American inequality issues.

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