August 24, 2004

Voters See GOP as the Religion-Friendly Party But the Stem Cell Issue May Help Democrats, New Pew Poll Finds

Republicans gathering this week in New York to nominate George W. Bush for a second term will be heartened by the results of a new poll showing that voters see the GOP as the more religion friendly of the two major political parties. But the same survey also holds good news for Democrats, notably that a growing number of Americans now support embryonic stem cell research, putting them in opposition to the president and in agreement with his opponent, Democratic nominee John Kerry, on this religiously linked issue.

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The nationwide survey, conducted August 5-10 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, shows that 52 percent of the voters surveyed see the GOP as being a more religion-friendly party than the Democrats, who are perceived similarly by only 40 percent of respondents. A majority (53 percent) also are comfortable with the way Bush’s religious beliefs affect his policymaking.

Another possible piece of good news for Bush and the Republicans is that 67 percent of voters, according to the poll, are paying at least some attention to the gay marriage controversy. While the survey also shows that the issue is not a high priority for most voters, it could help energize religious conservatives, who overwhelmingly support GOP candidates.

As already noted, the Democrats can take heart that a majority of voters (52 percent) now favor embryonic stem cell research, up from 43 percent just two years ago. Moreover, the poll shows increasing awareness of the issue, with 42 percent of voters now focused on the stem cell debate, compared to 27 percent in 2002.

In another piece of good news for Kerry, a solid majority of voters (56 percent) polled by Pew are comfortable with the amount of time the Massachusetts Democrat devotes to talking about religion. Kerry is now statistically tied with President Bush (56 percent – 53 percent) in this important religious approval rating.

More generally, the new poll shows that even in an election campaign dominated by the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy, a substantial majority of voters (64 percent) say that “moral values” also will be an important factor when they cast their ballots in November. But while many voters are focused on moral issues, they also have expressed considerable ambivalence on questions concerning the appropriate role for churches and other houses of worship in politics. Most notably, 65 percent of those surveyed in the Pew poll said that churches should not endorse a candidate, compared to 25 percent who find it acceptable.

This ambivalence extends to recent efforts to mix religious practice with politics. The poll found that 64 percent of all voters (including an overwhelming 77 percent of white Catholics) reject the idea of Catholic bishops withholding communion from Catholic politicians who support abortion rights in defiance of church teachings. This is another piece of good news for Kerry, who, as a pro-choice Catholic, has been caught up in the communion controversy.

On the other hand, voters came down squarely on the other side of an issue that mixed religion and politics – the failed effort two years ago by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to display a monument to the Ten Commandments in the State Supreme Court building. A large majority (72 percent) said that they believe it is proper to display the commandments in public buildings.

The full text of the survey report is available at pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=51

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. The Forum pursues its mission by delivering timely, impartial information to opinion leaders, including government officials and journalists. The Forum functions as both a clearinghouse and a town hall. As a clearinghouse, it gathers and disseminates objective information through polls and reports. As a town hall, it provides a neutral venue – through its issue roundtables and rapid response events – for discussions of important issues where religion and politics intersect. The Forum is a project of the Pew Research Center.