August 21, 2008

More Americans Question Religion’s Role in Politics

Section 1: The Mix of Religion and Politics

More Say Churches Should Keep Out of Politics

Chart A slim majority of the public (52%) says that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics, an eight point increase compared with 2004. Fewer (45%) take the view that churches should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions. This marks the first time since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 1996 that those who say churches should keep out of politics outnumber those who say churches should express their political views.

While Democrats and liberals have traditionally been the most wary of church involvement in political matters, the increase in opposition over the past four years has come mostly from Republicans and conservatives. As a result, where there was once a substantial partisan and ideological gap on this question, there is now far less of a divide.

Chart The share of Republicans who say churches should keep out of social and political matters has increased from 37% to 51% since 2004. Opposition to church involvement also is up 10 points among political independents (from 45% to 55%). Meanwhile, Democratic views remain largely unchanged. The sharp partisan divisions on this question that existed in 2004, when Democrats were significantly more opposed than Republicans to church involvement in politics, have disappeared almost completely, with slim majorities of both parties now agreeing that churches should keep out of politics.

This pattern is equally stark along ideological lines. In 2004, liberals were twice as likely as conservatives (62% vs. 30%) to say churches should keep out of political matters. Today, the ideological divide is much smaller, with 57% of liberals and 50% of conservatives holding this view.

As a result of the shifting opinions on the right, this is no longer an issue that divides supporters of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.

In August of 2004, just 38% of Bush’s supporters felt that churches should keep out of political matters, compared with 54% of Kerry’s supporters. Today, supporters of McCain and Obama are nearly identical in their views on this question (52% and 54%, respectively, say churches should keep out of politics).

Among demographic and religious groups, the increase is seen primarily among those with lower levels of education, Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated. A majority of those with less than a college education now oppose churches expressing their political views, an 11 point increase since 2004. Similarly, white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline alike, are significantly more wary of church involvement today as compared with 2004. And nearly half (45%) of those who attend religious services weekly or more now say that churches should keep out of politics, up 14 points in four years.

Chart Further analysis shows that among Republicans, opposition to churches expressing their political views has increased most among conservatives, Protestants, weekly churchgoers and those with lower levels of education. Roughly half of conservative Republicans now want churches to keep out of politics, up 18 points over four years ago. Similarly, 46% of Republican Protestants now express reservations about church involvement in politics, up from 28% in 2004. Even among white evangelical Republicans, more than one-third (36%) now want churches to keep out of politics, up 16 points since 2004.

Continuing Opposition to Church Endorsement of Candidates

Chart Two-thirds of all adults say that churches should not come out in favor of one political candidate over another. The high level of opposition to church endorsement of candidates is consistent with Pew polling conducted in recent years and is found across a wide variety of groups in the population.

Older adults are more likely than younger adults to say churches should refrain from endorsing candidates (75% of those over the age of 65 take this point of view); but even among those under 30, more than six-in-ten (62%) say churches should avoid favoring one candidate over another. Similarly, majorities of every religious group, including black Protestants (55%), white evangelicals (64%) and those who attend church at least once a week (63%) oppose church endorsements of political candidates.

While the overall balance of public opinion has been steady on this question, Republicans have become significantly more opposed to churches endorsing candidates today as compared with 2004 (64% vs. 53%). The trend is even more pronounced among white evangelical Republicans, who are nearly 20 points more likely to oppose church endorsements now compared with four years ago. Whereas Republicans were much less concerned with church endorsements in 2004 as compared with Democrats, partisan differences on this issue are now virtually nonexistent.
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When Candidates Talk About Their Faith

Chart Overall, half of Americans (50%) say that it does not bother them when politicians talk about how religious they are, but the number expressing discomfort has edged upward over the past four years. Today, 46% say they are uncomfortable when politicians talk about how religious they are, up from 40% in 2004. More Republicans, in particular, are expressing discomfort with politicians talking about their own religion. McCain supporters, for instance, are substantially more likely than were Bush supporters in 2004 to say they are uncomfortable with politicians talking about how religious they are (40% of McCain backers today vs. 30% of Bush backers in 2004).

Despite increasing Republican discomfort with politicians’ religious talk, Democrats (49%) and political independents (48%) remain more likely than Republicans (40%) to say they are uncomfortable hearing politicians talk about their religion.

Protestants – especially white evangelicals (58%) – tend to be most comfortable with politicians’ talking about how religious they are. White Catholics, by contrast, are evenly divided on this issue (47% say this makes them uncomfortable while 49% disagree), and a large majority of the religiously unaffiliated (57%) express discomfort with hearing about politicians’ religion.
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Important That a President Have Strong Religious Beliefs

Chart An overwhelming majority of the public continues to say that it is important to them that a president have strong religious beliefs. More than seven-in-ten Americans express this opinion, and attitudes on this issue have not changed in recent years.

Republicans especially want to have a president who has strong religious beliefs, with 86% expressing this opinion. But even among Democrats and independents, more than two-thirds (68% and 66%, respectively) say that presidents should have strong religious beliefs. A similar consensus exists across religious groups; only among the religiously unaffiliated do fewer than half (36%) express a desire for a president with strong religious beliefs.

The poll also finds that public opinion about the amount of religious expression by political leaders has held steady in recent years. A 36% plurality of Americans say that there is too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, while 29% say there is too much and 28% say there is the right amount. Compared with 2004, there has been a slight increase among the public overall in the number saying there has been too little religious talk from politicians (36% now vs. 31% in 2004), and a ten point increase among Republicans taking this point of view (46% now compared with 36% in 2004).
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Are the Parties Religion-Friendly?

The Republican Party has long been viewed as being religion-friendly. Currently, about half of Americans (52%) say the GOP is friendly toward religion, 29% say it is neutral and just 9% say the party is unfriendly toward religion. These views have remained stable over the past five years.
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By contrast, views of the Democratic Party’s relationship with religion have varied substantially in recent years. The latest Pew survey finds a significant increase in the number saying that the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion; 38% of the public now expresses this point of view, up from just 26% in 2006. An additional 37% say that the Democratic Party is neutral toward religion, down from 42% two years ago and just 15% say the party is unfriendly toward religion, down from 20% in 2006.

Despite these gains, the Democrats still trail Republicans in perceptions of friendliness toward religion. A slim majority (52%) says the GOP is friendly toward religion, compared with 38% who say the same about the Democratic Party.

For the most part, views of the Democratic Party’s friendliness toward religion mirror opinions in 2004, when 40% said the party was friendly toward religion. This perception changed in 2005, when just 29% said the Democratic Party was friendly toward religion.

ChartPeople who view a party as unfriendly toward religion tend to express unfavorable views of that party, while those who see a party as neutral or friendly toward religion are much more positively inclined toward that party overall. This is particularly true when it comes to the Democratic Party. Overall, 57% of Americans have a positive view of the Democratic Party. This number is highest (70%) among those who see the party as friendly toward religion and lowest (22%) among those who say the party is unfriendly toward religion. The Republican Party’s image is far less favorable than that of the Democratic Party – just 43% overall have a favorable opinion of the GOP. Even among those who say it is friendly toward religion, just 48% view the Republican Party favorably. Favorability falls to just 21% among the small number who say the Republican Party is unfriendly toward religion.

Who Controls the Parties?

It is also possible for a party to be viewed as too closely tied to particular religious groups, and the poll indicates that the public increasingly sees polarization between the two parties; for example, nearly half of adults (48%) say that religious conservatives have too much power over the GOP, up from 43% one year ago. And nearly as many (43%) say that liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democratic Party, an impression that has also become more widespread over the past year (37% held this view a year ago).
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Not surprisingly, Democrats (57%) and political independents (51%) are each substantially more likely than Republicans (31%) to see the GOP as overly beholden to religious conservatives. Within religious groups, white evangelicals are less likely than other groups to say religious conservatives have too much power over the Republican Party; 36% of evangelicals take this view, compared with 48% of white Catholics, 49% of black Protestants, 53% of white mainline Protestants and 62% of the religiously unaffiliated. While low, the number of white evangelicals who see the GOP as unduly influenced by religious conservatives has increased significantly from 28% a year ago to 36% today.

Most Republicans (62%) believe that secular liberals have too much power over the Democratic Party. Far fewer independents (44%) or Democrats (31%) hold this impression. Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants express the most concern about secular liberals’ control over the Democratic Party (60%); among all other religious traditions, fewer than half espouse this point of view.