January 6, 2004

Poll: Americans Comfortable with Politicians’ Religious Rhetoric

Public Thinks Republicans more friendly toward religion than Democrats

View the poll results

Democratic presidential candidates are beginning to speak more openly about their religious faith on the campaign trail. A July 2003 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that relatively few Americans express concern about the use of religious rhetoric by political leaders. In fact, nearly twice as many say there has been too little reference to religious faith and prayer by politicians (41 percent) than say there has been too much (21 percent).

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President Bush receives particularly positive ratings for speaking so openly about his faith. Most (62 percent) say the president mentions his religious faith the right amount with only a minority saying he does this too much (14 percent) or too little (11 percent).

This same sentiment carries over to religion’s influence on the president’s policymaking as well. Overall, six in ten Americans say the president relies a great deal (20 percent) or a fair amount (40 percent) on his own religious beliefs in making policy decisions. Roughly three quarters of those who believe this say the influence of religion on the president’s policy decisions is appropriate. Just 22 percent of those who see Bush influenced a great deal by his religion say it is inappropriate.

If anything, there is more criticism of the president for taking his faith into account too little, rather than too much. While most (58 percent) say the president relies on his faith the right amount, twice as many (21 percent) would like to see religion play a larger role in the president’s policymaking as see it as excessive (10 percent).

Most Americans (57 percent) say it is proper for journalists to ask politicians how their religious beliefs affect their opinions on issues of the day. Roughly four in ten (39 percent) disagree, but about half of those who object (20 percent of the overall sample) say it is okay for journalists to inquire about a politician’s religious beliefs if the politician raises the issue first.

The Republican Party is more widely viewed as being friendly toward religion than the Democrats, and the margin is much wider among whites. By more than two to one, white respondents view the Republican Party as friendly toward religion rather than neutral (58 percent vs. 26 percent), while just 7 percent think the GOP is unfriendly toward religion.

Whites are divided in their perceptions of the Democratic Party’s attitudes toward religion (41 percent friendly, 37 percent neutral, 13 percent unfriendly). By comparison, African Americans are nearly twice as likely to say that the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion as to say that about the Republicans (53 percent vs. 27 percent).

For the most part, people say religion does not frequently affect their voting decisions. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) say their religious beliefs seldom if ever affect their voting decisions, while 38 percent say their vote choices are at least occasionally affected by their beliefs. White evangelicals and African-American Protestants are most likely to report that their religion shapes their votes at least occasionally, while white mainline Protestants and Catholics mostly say that religion has little or no impact on their votes.

The nationwide survey of 2,002 adults was conducted June 24-July 8, 2003, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life serves as a town hall and clearinghouse of information, providing independent research, new polling information, balanced analysis, and referrals to experts in the field. The Pew Forum is nonpartisan and seeks to serve as a true forum for the exchange of ideas. It is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to Georgetown University.

View the poll report online. For a hard copy of the survey report or for more information about the Pew Forum, please contact Robert Mills at 202.419.4564.