Let’s talk about religion, politics…and mentoring

by Jean Rhodes, Matt Hagler, and Sam McQuillin

We are living through one of the most bitterly partisan periods in history. In the latest New Republic, policy analyst Rachel Bitecofer drew dispiriting parallels between today’s climate and the period leading up to the Civil War, “Then, as now, the nation and its elected leaders were divided into two sharply opposed factions, harboring deep-seated cultural and philosophical resentment toward each other. Then, as now, each side gravitated toward intractable positions while showing little appetite for continued compromise.”

In these acrimonious times, it is interesting to consider how political and philosophical affect attitudes and behaviors toward youth mentoring? In a recent study, Matt Hagler, Sam McQuillin, and I set out to explore whether support for federal spending on mentoring programs and the willingness to serve as volunteers differed as a function political and religious beliefs. Below is a brief summary of what we found, summarized and excerpted from Hagler, M., McQuillin, S., & Rhodes, J. (2020). Ideological profiles of US adults and their support for youth mentoring programs. Journal of Community Psychology. 


Political opinions tend to track with attitudes about spending on youth programs. For example, the conservative political attitudes associated with the Republican Party in the United States are typically associated with support fo limited governmental oversight and lower spending on social programs. By contrast, liberal political attitudes associated with the Democratic Party tend to be associated with support for greater governmental involvement and higher spending on social programs Those who identify as liberal also tend to support  social change and social justice movements, while conservatives typically support the status quo.

According to opinion polls, however, a sizable minority of Americans self‐identify with the conservative label but hold more liberal policy views. These so‐called “conflicted conservatives,” who make up an estimated 40% of self‐identified conservatives and 30% of the general public, partly account for the widely documented “ideology puzzle” —the paradox that more voting‐age adults in the United States self‐identify as conservative than liberal while the majority take liberal positions when asked about specific policy issues.  President George W. Bush’s doctrine of “compassionate conservatism,” led him to hold some positions on immigration, foreign aid, and social programs that may traditionally be categorized as “liberal” (Du Vall, 2010, p. 43). In a speech, President Bush (2000) explained, “It is compassionate to help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results” (p. 645). In fact, throughout his presidency, he publicly supported and funded several mentoring initiatives, such as Mentoring Children of Prisoners, and sought to promote mentoring by increasing federal partnership with religious agencies and providing federal funding for faith‐based mentoring programs (White House Archives, 2008). He thus serves as prominent example of moral and fiscal support for youth mentoring crossing traditional ideological and party lines, particularly under the influence of religion. By some interpretations of US conservatism, however, this support for mentoring may not constitute ideological conflict at all.  Conservatives may see mentoring as a way of addressing inequality by helping young people “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” one relationship at a time (rather than increasing government spending on welfare, universal healthcare, higher education, etc.).

Conservative ideology and religiosity may also influence the extent to which adults are willing to give up their time to volunteer in mentoring programs. Some studies have suggested that political conservatives are more charitable with their time and money (e.g., Brooks, 2006), though most suggest that this association is driven less by politics than by the fact that conservatives tend to be more religiously involved than liberals. Volunteerism is core to the teachings of most major religions, and many religious organizations encourage (and provide opportunities for) their members to volunteer. Thus, religiosity may be the driving force in conservatives’ ideological support for youth programs.

Our study

To examine associations among political ideology, religiosity, and attitudes toward youth mentoring programs , we drew on data from MENTOR’s Power of Relationships Study (Garringer & Benning, 2018)  (N = 1,700). Latent class analysis (LCA) was used to identify underlying ideological profiles of US adults and the extent to which attitudes toward mentoring were associated with membership in latent ideological classes.


Three groups emerged from our analyses.

Classic Conservatives (N = 426) were characterized by modest religious affinity and majority conservative ideology. Classic Conservatives were also the oldest (average age > 45) and the wealthiest group. No one in this class agreed or strongly agreed with support for social justice movements, and slightly over half felt like the country was headed in the wrong direction.

Progressives (n = 963) reported low religious affinity (approximately 70% endorsed no or little affinity) and endorsed moderate or liberal political ideology. The Progressives were younger than the Classic Conservatives and reported the lowest income. This class overwhelmingly felt the country is headed in the wrong direction (i.e., >78%) and showed modest support for social justice movements (i.e., >57%).

Religious Outsiders (n = 205) had strong religious affinity (approximately 90% endorsing some or strong religious affinity), strong conservative identity (approximately 90% moderately or strongly conservative), and has the sense that the country was on the right track (approximately 75%). The Religious Outsiders were the youngest group.  Interestingly, this group showed strong support for social justice movements (i.e., >85%). Compared to the other two groups, Religious Outsiders displayed far greater average support for both the importance of mentoring and the need for federal investment in mentoring compared to the other two groups. What’s more,  the Religious Outsider participation in formal mentoring programs exceeded that of both Classic Conservatives and Progressives.

Overall, despite relatively lower support by older, traditional conservatives, there appears to be a younger generation of self‐identified conservatives who are highly enthusiastic about mentoring, including government funding for programs and volunteering. Thus, governmental support for mentoring might be an area for potential bipartisan collaboration during this period of unprecedented partisanship.