How do progressive religious leaders shape the objectives and electoral fortunes of the left? While existing research focuses on the effect of religious organizations’ morally conservative policy preferences, the effect of religious ideas about economic redistribution is often overlooked. I argue that church leaders who advance doctrinal interpretations that favor progressive economic policies may mobilize their adherents in support of the left, as long as doing so does not advance policies that contradict their conservative moral agenda. When the fraction of pious voters is large enough, these left parties may find it advantageous to attract the support of the church by moderating their position on the moral policy dimension. I test this argument using original archival data from the Catholic Church and drawing on a natural experiment in Brazil after Pope John Paul II’s appointment in 1978. Leveraging plausibly as-if random variation in bishop vacancies, as well as Pope John Paul II’s systematic appointment of conservative bishops to posts where progressives previously held court, I study the effect of progressive bishops on the electoral success of the left-wing Workers’ Party. I find that the left’s electoral prospects suffered significantly in places where progressive bishops were replaced between 1978 and Brazil’s first democratic elections after the military dictatorship. The party’s stronger performance in progressive dioceses can be partly explained by its access to religious networks, which allowed it to build organizational structures that delivered an electoral advantage. However, the electoral benefits of religious support came at the cost of marginalizing the political demands of the party’s feminist faction, thereby decreasing women’s access to party tickets and the implementation of policies that favor gender equality.
Guadalupe is pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science at UC Berkeley. Her research interests include comparative politics, political economy, and research methods. She holds an M.A. in Political Science from Yale University and a B.A. in Political Science from Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina.