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The structure and dynamics of ideological pluralism in American religion

Yonghe Yang, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Using the most comprehensive data available from the General Social Surveys, this dissertation examines four important hypotheses regarding the structure and dynamics of ideological pluralism in American religion through cluster analysis and other multivariate statistical techniques. The following hypotheses are derived from the recent literature: (1) religious denominations form relatively distinct ideological clusters or moral communities; (2) the public is polarized in the ongoing ideological debate so that there are two well-separated ideological clusters in the general population; (3) the ideological divide in the general population runs through all religious denominations such that individuals within each denomination are also polarized based on their ideological views; and (4) denominational switching is determined by individual evaluation of the religious product on the market. Cluster analyses successfully identify four distinct denominational clusters in the data and, therefore, support the moral communities hypothesis. However, they provide little evidence of ideological polarization at the individual level, either among the general public or within denominational boundaries. Instead, all cluster analyses, based on different annual subsamples and various clustering algorithms, produce three poorly-separated clusters of respondents which may be loosely labeled Liberal, Moderate, and Conservative clusters along an ideological continuum. The remarkable cross-sample and cross-method stability of the tripartite clustering pattern provides strong evidence that the data are not structured in the way that the polarization theses anticipate. Accordingly, a tripartite classification is proposed to characterize ideological pluralism in American religion. This study also rejects the fourth hypothesis. It indicates that denominational switchers are not consumers on the religious market, because switchers are generally not significantly different from nonswitchers in their ideological characteristics, and the switching patterns are largely determined by individual life circumstances or personal contextual factors rather than by rational choice among ideological and religious options. The polarization theses are misleading because they fail to emphasize the force of moderation, oversimplify ideological diversity, and vastly exaggerate the cultural divide among Americans. The evidence supports a Bergerian market as a sign of secularization rather than a Warnerian market as a symptom of sacralization.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Yang, Yonghe, "The structure and dynamics of ideological pluralism in American religion" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9619459.