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What Explains Newt's Conversion - Or Anyone Else's?

As the Iowa caucuses draw near, Newt Gingrich­­—down, but not quite out—is offering a feel-good religious message to primary voters. This comes amid a new story exploring Newt’s conversion to Catholicism, which, as TNR has explained, is pretty typical for American politicians. What factors might explain the levels of religious conversion in a society?

A 2007 paper argues that, among other things, high rates of religious conversion are correlated with high rates of religious diversity. That helps explain why conversion is more common in countries like the United States and less common in, say, Spain or Italy. The paper also verified suspicions that conversions are less common in formerly-Communist countries, since people in those countries tend to place less importance on formal religion affiliation in general. The authors reported one other intriguing finding: Conversion is positively correlated with education. “More educated people are likely to find it easier to change religions,” they write, “because they are better at learning and adjusting to new ways of thinking.” This finding matches a suggestion made by George Mason professor Mark Rozell, who was quoted in the story about Newt’s Catholicism:  “Let's not forget this is a Ph.D., a former professor, a man who loves books and loves big ideas, and there is of course a very deep intellectual tradition within Catholicism […] And perhaps Gingrich found a natural connection there. It connects with his persona.” (Newt Gingrich, intellectual? It seems Professor Rozell missed this issue of TNR.)