July 24, 2003

Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus

Part II. Religion, Voting, and the Campaign

In this section
Many Wary of Voting For an Atheist or a Muslim
The 2004 Campaign
More See GOP As ‘Friendly’ to Religion

Most people (67%) say that their religious beliefs play at least an occasional role in helping them decide what to do in their lives. But far fewer (38%) say religion has the same influence on their voting decisions. Overall, 45% say they frequently find themselves using their religious beliefs to help make choices and decisions on a typical day. But just 22% say they frequently rely on their religious beliefs to help them decide how to vote and 16% say they do so occasionally.

Women are more likely than men to say religion frequently affects their vote (26% vs.17%). And religion plays a larger role in the voting decisions of Republicans (31% frequently) than Democrats (20%) or independents (17%). Twice as many people who say they voted for Bush in 2000 as for Gore say they rely frequently on their religious beliefs in making voting decisions (32% Bush, 16% Gore).

Nearly half (48%) of white evangelical Protestants ­ and fully 60% of highly committed evangelicals ­ say their religious beliefs frequently affect their electoral choices, compared with 10% of white mainline Protestants, 12% of white non-Hispanic Catholics, and 12% of Hispanic Catholics. Black Protestants fall between these extremes, with 31% saying their religion frequently affects how they vote.


Many Wary of Voting For an Atheist or a Muslim

The survey shows that a significant number of Americans would be reluctant to vote for a well-qualified candidate if he or she were a member of a particular religious group, especially a Muslim (38%). But many more express reservations about voting for a candidate without religion than one with a specific faith (52%). In all, 64% of Americans admit that a candidate’s religion, or lack thereof, could lead them to vote against a well-qualified candidate from their own party.

The same pattern is evident among respondents who were given a different form of the question, which asked if there are “any reasons” not to vote for a candidate with a particular religious affiliation if he or she were nominated by the respondent’s preferred party. In this case, slightly fewer (41%) say there are reasons why they would not vote for an atheist ­ far more than say that about a Muslim, an evangelical Christian, a Catholic or a Jew.

Atheism is a particular concern for white evangelical Protestants and African-Americans ­ majorities of each say there are reasons why they might not vote for an atheist if one received their party’s presidential nomination.

Nearly a third of the public (31%) says there are reasons they might not vote for a Muslim presidential candidate. Again, white evangelicals are the most skeptical ­ 42% say this could be a sticking point for them. Not surprisingly, the tendency not to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate is closely related to perceptions of the Islamic faith. People who think Islam encourages violence more than other religions are more likely to say they have reason not to vote for a Muslim candidate than people who think Islam is no more violent than other faiths (43% vs. 23% margin).


The 2004 Campaign

Just under half of registered voters (47%) say they would like to see the president reelected in 2004 compared with 37% who say they would like to see a Democratic candidate win the election. While it is still early in the political season, Bush goes into his campaign for reelection with his political base intact. He draws strong support among white evangelical Protestants, gun owners, and social conservatives who support the death penalty and oppose gay marriage.

Among registered voters, nearly seven-in-ten white evangelicals (69%) say they want to see the president reelected, while just 21% prefer a Democrat. Among white voters, the president holds a 60% to 28% lead among those for whom religion is very important, but trails by 44% to 35% among those who say religion is not very important in their lives. The president is current favored by a majority of white Catholics (52% vs. 31% who favor a Democrat).

Policy issues also shape the opinions of voters. Among those who oppose allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry, 54% would like to see Bush reelected. Among those who favor gay marriage, just 31% favor his reelection. Most Americans support providing universal health insurance even if that means repealing recent tax cuts. A plurality of this group (45%) favors the Democrat while 36% back Bush. The president has an advantage over the Democratic candidate among voters who oppose this idea (71% to 17%).

Major differences in voter preferences also are seen between those who display the American flag and those who do not, and between gun owners and those without guns. For example, those who display the flag at their home, office, or on their automobile support the president’s reelection by a margin of 52% to 32%. About half of those who do not display the flag (51%) would prefer that a Democrat win the election while 30% favor the president’s reelection.

But there is a narrower gap in presidential preferences between those who trade stock and those who do not. The president has a large advantage among Americans who say they trade stocks (54%-33%) and a smaller edge among those who do not (43%-39%). At this point in the election cycle, voter preferences are more strongly related to displaying the flag or owning a gun ­ or to views on policy issues ­ than to trading stocks in the market.


More See GOP As ‘Friendly’ to Religion

The public generally believes both political parties are friendly toward religion, though somewhat more say this about Republicans than Democrats (52% vs. 42%). But there is a much bigger gap in views of whether conservatives and liberals have a favorable approach toward religion. Nearly twice as many people say conservatives are friendly toward religion than say that about liberals (51% vs. 26%).

For the most part, however, people do not see liberals as unfriendly to religion. Rather, opinion is divided, with a plurality (33%) saying that liberals are neutral toward religion. Larger pluralities say the news media and university professors are neutral to religion (41%, 40%, respectively), though substantial minorities in both cases think these groups are unfriendly to religion (34% news media, 26% university professors).

As might be expected, Hollywood and the entertainment industry are seen as more unfriendly toward religion than are the other groups that were tested. Nearly half of Americans (45%) say Hollywood and the makers of movies and TV entertainment shows treat religion unfavorably, compared with 31% who see them as neutral and 16% who believe they are friendly toward religion.

Partisanship and ideology strongly influence views of how the political parties approach religion. Majorities of Republicans and Democrats both say their own party is friendly toward religion, with Republicans more likely to hold this view than Democrats (73% vs. 56%). Yet there are differences within parties over whether Republicans and Democrats ­ and conservatives and liberals ­ are friendly toward religion.

For example, while three-quarters of conservative Republicans see conservatives as friendly toward religion, 59% of moderate and liberal Republicans agree. These groups have different views of the Democratic Party as well, with moderate and liberal Republicans more likely than conservative Republicans to say that the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion (44% vs. 28%).

Among Democrats, a different pattern is evident. Liberal Democrats tend to view both parties as more religious than do conservative and moderate Democrats. More than six-in-ten liberal Democrats (64%) say the GOP is friendly toward religion; four-in-ten conservative and moderate Democrats agree. About the same percentage of liberal Democrats (65%) believe the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion compared with about half of conservative and moderate Democrats (53%).

Solid majorities of white Catholics and Protestants see the Republican Party as friendly toward religion (59% of white evangelical Protestants, 58% of white Catholics, and 56% of white mainline Protestants). There are somewhat larger differences in views of the Democratic Party’s approach toward religion; roughly four-in-ten white mainline Protestants (45%) and Catholics (41%) say the Democratic Party is favorable toward religion compared with 34% of white evangelicals.

Divisions among religious groups in views of how Hollywood, the news media and university professors treat religion are much more substantial. Just 8% of white evangelical Protestants believe the entertainment industry is friendly toward religion, while nearly two-thirds (65%) think it is unfriendly and 23% say it is neutral. White mainline Protestants and Catholics are more divided, and fewer than half in each group see Hollywood as unfriendly toward religion (44% each).

The gap is nearly as large when it comes to the news media and religion; about half of white evangelicals (48%) see the news media as unfriendly to religion, compared with a third of white Catholics and about the same number of mainline Protestants (32%). A smaller proportion of these groups believe university professors are unfriendly toward religion. About four-in-ten white evangelicals (39%), a third of white Catholics (34%) and 18% of white mainline Protestants say university professors are unfriendly toward religion.