March 21, 2012

More See “Too Much” Religious Talk by Politicians

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A new survey finds signs of public uneasiness with the mixing of religion and politics. The number of people who say there has been too much religious talk by political leaders stands at an all-time high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question more than a decade ago. And most Americans continue to say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics.

Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) now say there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders, while 30% say there has been too little. In 2010, more said there was too little than too much religious expression from politicians (37% vs. 29%). The percentage saying there is too much expression of religious faith by politicians has increased across party lines, but this view remains far more widespread among Democrats than Republicans.

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Slightly more than half of the public (54%) says that churches should keep out of politics, compared with 40% who say religious institutions should express their views on social and political matters. This is the third consecutive poll conducted over the past four years in which more people have said churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics than said they should express their views on social and political topics. By contrast, between 1996 and 2006 the balance of opinion on this question consistently tilted in the opposite direction.

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These are among the findings from the latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted March 7-11 among 1,503 adults. While there are substantial partisan differences over religion and politics, the survey finds there also are divisions within the GOP primary electorate.

Nearly six-in-ten (57%) Republican and Republican-leaning voters who favor Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination say churches should keep out of political matters. By contrast, 60% of GOP voters who support Rick Santorum say that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions.

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And while 55% of Santorum’s supporters say there is too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, just 24% of Romney’s backers agree, while 33% say there is too much expression of faith and prayer by politicians.

The new survey finds that more people view the GOP as friendly to religion than say the same about the Democratic Party, a pattern observed for much of the past decade.

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At the same time, 51% of the public say that religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party. Fewer express the view that liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democratic Party (41%).

Opinions about whether the Obama administration is friendly toward religion have shifted modestly since 2009. Currently, 39% say the administration is friendly to religion, 32% say it is neutral and 23% say it is unfriendly. The balance of opinion was comparable in August 2009, although somewhat fewer (17%) said the administration was unfriendly to religion.

However, there has been a noticeable shift in opinions among white Catholics, perhaps reflecting effects from the controversy over the administration’s policies on contraception coverage. The percentage of white Catholics who say the administration is unfriendly to religion has nearly doubled – from 17% to 31% – since 2009. Three years ago, far more white Catholics said the administration was friendly (35%) than unfriendly to religion (17%); today, nearly as many say the administration is unfriendly (31%) as friendly (38%).

Expressions of Faith by Political Leaders

A plurality of the public (38%) says that there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders, while 30% say there has been too little religious expression and 25% say there has been the right amount of discussion of religion from political leaders. The number saying there has been too much religious talk from political leaders now stands at its highest point since the Pew Research Center began asking the question more than a decade ago.

Since October 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the rise in the number saying there has been too much religious expression by political leaders has been most pronounced among Democrats and independents. Nearly half of Democrats (46%) now say there has been too much discussion of religious faith and prayer by politicians, as do 42% of independents.

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The number of Republicans expressing unease with the amount of politicians’ religious talk also has increased (from 8% in 2001 to 24% currently). But Republicans have consistently been less inclined than either Democrats or independents to say there has been too much religious talk from political leaders.

Since 2010, there have been sizable increases in the percentages of white mainline Protestants, white Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated saying that there has been too much discussion of religion by political leaders.

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However, there has been no change in opinions among white evangelical Protestants, who remain far less likely than those in other religious groups to say that politicians express religious faith too much.

Roughly half of college graduates (49%) now say there has been too much religious discussion from political leaders, up 14 points since 2010. Those with some college education have also become increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of religious expression from political leaders, with 38% now saying there has been too much religion talk from politicians (up from 27% in 2010). By contrast, there has been little change in opinion on this question among those with a high school degree or less education.

Views of Churches’ Involvement in Politics

A majority of Americans (54%) say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, while 40% say they should express their views on social and political questions. After a decade in which the balance of opinion tilted in the opposite direction, this is the third consecutive survey in the past four years in which more people say churches should keep out of politics than say churches should express their views on social and political issues.

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When this question was first asked by the Pew Research Center in 1996, there was little partisan division. Roughly four-in-ten Republicans and independents said churches should keep out of politics (42% each), as did 44% of Democrats. Currently, 44% of Republicans say churches should stay out of politics, compared with 60% of Democrats and 58% of independents.

There also are significant divisions on this issue among religious groups. A majority of white evangelical Protestants (60%) say that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues. The views of this group have changed little since 2006, even as the public as a whole has increasingly taken the view that religious institutions should keep out of politics.

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Black Protestants are divided on this question, with 51% saying churches should express their views and 43% saying they should keep out of politics. By contrast, in July 2006, 69% of black Protestants said churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues.

Majorities of the religiously unaffiliated (66%), Catholics (60%) and white mainline Protestants (60%) say churches and other houses of worship should steer clear of politics.

Political Parties’ Friendliness to Religion

A majority of the public (54%) views the Republican Party as friendly to religion, while 24% say the GOP is neutral to religion and 13% say it is unfriendly toward religion. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) rate the Obama administration as friendly, with 32% saying it is neutral and 23% saying the administration is unfriendly to religion. The Democratic Party is seen as friendly to religion by 35% of the public; it is seen as neutral by 36% and as unfriendly by 21% of the public.

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Approximately one-in-five Americans (19%) rate news reporters and the news media as friendly to religion, and 14% say university professors are friendly to religion. Roughly one-in-three say that reporters (35%) and professors (32%) are unfriendly to religion.

Over the past decade, the Republican Party has consistently been seen as friendly to religion by more people than has the Democratic Party. The current poll finds a significant rebound since 2010 in the number describing both parties as friendly to religion.

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The increase in the percentage viewing the GOP as friendly to religion has been broad-based. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) describe the GOP as friendly to religion, up eight points since 2010, as do roughly half (54%) of political independents, up 12 points. Among Democrats, 48% now view the GOP as friendly to religion, compared with 36% who said this in 2010.

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The rise in the number saying the Democratic Party is friendly to religion is concentrated among Democrats and independents. A clear majority of Democrats (57%) now view their party as friendly to religion, up 15 points since 2010. The percentage of independents describing the Democratic Party as friendly to religion now stands at 29%, up from 20% in 2010.

The Obama Administration and Religion

A plurality of the public (39%) says the Obama administration is friendly to religion, while 32% say the administration is neutral toward religion and 23% say it is unfriendly to religion. A majority of Democrats (59%) say the administration is friendly to religion, while about half of Republicans polled say it is unfriendly toward religion. Independents are evenly divided between those who view the administration as friendly to religion (36%) and those who see it as neutral toward religion (38%); 21% of independents see the Obama administration as unfriendly to religion.

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These partisan leanings are reflected in the views of religious groups. A plurality of white evangelicals (44%) views the administration as unfriendly toward religion, while two-thirds of black Protestants (65%) say it is friendly toward religion.

The number of people saying the Obama administration is friendly to religion is steady compared with 2009, when this question was last asked. But over the same period of time, there has been a small but noticeable increase in the number saying the Obama administration is unfriendly to religion (from 17% in 2009 to 23% today). This change is concentrated exclusively among Republicans, among whom half (52%) now view the Obama administration as unfriendly to religion.

The number of Catholics describing the Obama administration as unfriendly to religion has risen 10-percentage points since 2009 (from 15% to 25%); among white Catholics, roughly one-third (31%) now view the administration as unfriendly to religion, up 14 points since 2009. There also has been a significant increase in the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated who view the Obama administration as unfriendly to religion.

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Reporters, Professors and Religion

About a third of the public (32%) perceives university professors as unfriendly to religion, while 37% describe professors as neutral to religion; far fewer (14%) say university professors are generally friendly toward religion. Compared with 2003 (when this question was last asked), there has been a noticeable rise in the number describing professors as unfriendly to religion and a slight downturn in the number saying professors are friendly to religion.

College graduates are more apt than those with less education to describe professors as neutral toward religion, while more of those who have not graduated from college express no opinion on this question.

A majority of Republicans (56%) say that professors are unfriendly toward religion. By contrast, a plurality of Democrats (46%) says that professors are neutral toward religion. Among independents, 37% say professors are neutral toward religion, while 31% describe them as unfriendly and 16% say they are friendly to religion.

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Among white evangelicals surveyed, 56% view professors as unfriendly toward religion. Among most other religious groups, pluralities or majorities describe professors as either neutral or friendly toward religion.

Roughly a third (35%) of the public says that news reporters and the news media are unfriendly toward religion, while 38% describe reporters as neutral to religion and 19% describe the media as friendly toward religion. The number saying news reporters are friendly toward religion has increased slightly compared with 2009, whereas the number describing the media as neutral toward religion has ticked down since then.

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A majority of Republicans (56%) see the media as unfriendly to religion, while most Democrats and independents say reporters are neutral or friendly to religion. About half of white evangelicals in the survey (53%) say reporters and the news media are unfriendly toward religion. Among other religious groups, half or more rate the news media as neutral or friendly to religion.

Religious Conservatives Seen as Having Too Much Control over GOP

About half of the public (51%) agrees that religious conservatives have too much control over the GOP. Fewer (41%) agree that liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democratic Party. These opinions are little changed from August 2008, during the last presidential campaign.

Partisans break along predictable lines in views of the influences over their own party and the opposing party. Independents, by a wide margin (57% to 42%), are more likely than to say that religious conservatives have too much influence over the GOP than that secular liberals have too much sway over the Democratic Party.

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The religiously unaffiliated stand out as the religious group most inclined to think that religious conservatives have too much sway in the GOP, with 66% expressing this view. Roughly half of white mainline Protestants (53%) and white Catholics (56%) say the same. By contrast, 56% of white evangelicals disagree that religious conservatives have too much power in the GOP.

The belief that secular liberals have too much control over the Democratic Party is most pronounced among white evangelicals (58%). White mainline Protestants, white Catholics and black Protestants are divided on this question, while the large majority of the religiously unaffiliated (64%) rejects the idea that secular liberals have too much power over the Democratic Party.

About the Survey

The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted March 7-11, 2012, among a national sample of 1,503 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (900 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 603 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 310 who had no landline telephone). The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. A combination of landline and cell phone random digit dial samples were used; both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Respondents in the landline sample were selected by randomly asking for the youngest adult male or female who is now at home. Interviews in the cell sample were conducted with the person who answered the phone, if that person was an adult 18 years of age or older. For detailed information about our survey methodology, see http://people-press.org/methodology/

The combined landline and cell phone sample are weighted using an iterative technique that matches gender, age, education, race, Hispanic origin and nativity and region to parameters from the March 2011 Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and population density to parameters from the Decennial Census. The sample also is weighted to match current patterns of telephone status and relative usage of landline and cell phones (for those with both), based on extrapolations from the 2011 National Health Interview Survey. The weighting procedure also accounts for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones have a greater probability of being included in the combined sample and adjusts for household size within the landline sample. Sampling errors and statistical tests of significance take into account the effect of weighting. The following table shows the sample sizes and the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:

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Sample sizes and sampling errors for other subgroups are available upon request.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

© Pew Research Center, 2012

Photo Credit: © Tim McGuire/Corbis