In This Report:
Many Americans continue to say their religious beliefs have been highly influential in shaping their views about social issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage. But far fewer cite religion as a top influence on their opinions about several other social and political issues, including how the government should deal with immigration, the environment and poverty.
Despite the fact that many religious leaders have been outspoken advocates for immigration reform, just 7% of adults who take a position on immigration say that religion is the most important influence on their views on this issue. About one-in-four churchgoers (24%) say the clergy at their places of worship have spoken out about immigration, nearly the same as in 2006. About half of those who hear about immigration in church say their clergy are favorable to immigrants and immigration, but nearly one-quarter are hearing anti-immigration messages.
In contrast with the issue of immigration, 35% say religion is the top influence on their thinking about same-sex marriage, including fully 60% among those who oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. More than four-in-ten (44%) hear clergy speak out about homosexuality in church, with the overwhelming majority hearing negative messages about homosexuality. On the issue of abortion, 26% overall say religion is the most important influence on their opinion, including 45% among abortion opponents.
The death penalty is another issue on which a substantial number of Americans cite religion as a key influence. Nearly one-in-five (19%) say religion is the most important factor in their thinking, including about one-third (32%) among death penalty opponents. Just 13% of death penalty supporters say religion is the key influence on their opinion.
The vast majority of regular churchgoers (88%) say they hear about the issue of hunger and poverty from their clergy, but just 10% cite religion as the top influence on their opinions about government’s role in providing assistance to the poor. Nearly half (47%) say their clergy speak out on the environment, almost always to encourage environmental protection. But just 6% say their own views on the environment are shaped primarily by their religious beliefs.
These are among the key findings of a survey exploring religion’s connection with opinions about current social and political issues. The survey was conducted July 21-Aug. 5 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. It interviewed 3,003 respondents reached on landlines and cell phones in both English and Spanish.
For most voters, the economy and jobs outpace all other issues in the election this fall, and religious voters are no exception. As previously reported (see “Republicans Faring Better with Men, Whites, Independents and Seniors,” Aug. 10, 2010), nine-in-ten voters (90%) rate the economy as very important, and 88% do so for jobs; the numbers are nearly identical among all major religious groups, including people who are unaffiliated with a religion. Health care also rates near the top, with 78% saying it will be very important. Terrorism, the budget deficit and taxes are also seen as important, especially by white evangelicals and black Protestants.
In contrast, hot-button social and cultural issues fall at or near the bottom of the list, even for relatively conservative religious groups such as white evangelical Protestants. Though both issues are among the least important for evangelicals, abortion (61% very important) and same-sex marriage (46%) are more important to evangelicals than to other religious groups. About four-in-ten voters (43%) overall rate abortion as very important and about one-third (32%) say this about same-sex marriage.
White evangelicals also stand out for the relatively high importance they place on immigration: 67% say immigration is a very important issue, compared with 60% among Catholics, 56% among white mainline Protestants, 50% among the unaffiliated and 48% among black Protestants.
A plurality of Americans (42%) favor immigration policy that gives equal priority both to better border security and stronger enforcement of immigration laws as well as to creating a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens (a so-called path to citizenship). One-third (33%) believe the priority should be on better border security and greater enforce-ment, while slightly more than one-in-five (22%) consider offering a path to citizenship the top priority.
Support for placing a priority on strict enforcement of current immigration laws is higher among whites (37%) than blacks (26%) and stands at roughly one-in-ten (11%) among Hispanics. A similar divide is seen among religious groups: Relatively few Hispanic Catholics would make better border security the top priority (8%). Support for doing so is much higher among white Catholics (37%), evangelicals (42%) and mainline Protestants (40%).
While nearly half (47%) of Republicans prioritize better border protection, just 21% of Democrats do. There is also a large divide between those whose house of worship includes many immigrants and those whose house of worship is comprised of fewer immigrants. Among those who attend congregations where many or nearly all members are immigrants, 22% favor better border protection, while support stands at nearly four-in-ten among those with fewer immigrants at their house of worship (37%).
Few Americans (7%) consider religion the most important influence on their opinions about immigration policy. Larger numbers cite a personal experience (27%), their education (20%) or something they have seen or read in the media (21%). Those who cite religion as the most important influence are somewhat less likely than other respondents to place priority on enhanced immigration enforcement.
The subject of immigration does come up during religious services. About one-quarter (24%) of those who attend religious services at least once a month say their clergy have spoken out about the issue. Catholics (32%) are more likely than Protestants (20%) to say their clergy speak out about the issue.
Among those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, nearly four-in-ten of those whose house of worship includes many immigrants (38%) and nearly one-third (32%) of those who place a priority on creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants have heard their clergy speak out on the issue.
Respondents who say they have heard about immigration in their house of worship were asked to describe what kinds of things they have heard from their clergy. Nearly half (49%) say their clergy were generally favorable toward immigration and immigrants, with 24% specifically urging tolerance or a welcoming attitude toward strangers. About one-quarter (23%) characterize the messages from their clergy as generally negative about immigration, with equal numbers saying they have heard their clergy appeal for strict enforcement of the law (7%), contend that immigrants are a burden because they unfairly take jobs and government services (7%), or make general anti-immigrant remarks (7%).
Roughly half of the public (49%) sees immigrants as strengthening society while 38% say immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values. Attitudes on this question are somewhat more favorable toward immigrants than in mid-June, when 44% saw them as a positive influence and the same number said that immigrants threaten American customs and values.
The public is more evenly divided on immigrants’ contribution to the economy: 42% believe that immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents, while 45% believe they are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care.
Democrats, younger Americans, Hispanic Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated are more likely than other groups to express positive views of immigrants on both of these questions; white evangelicals are among those expressing the least favorable views of immigrants, with 27% saying immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents and 36% saying they strengthen society rather than threaten traditional customs and values.
Roughly half of those whose clergy speak out about immigration say immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents, compared with 38% among regular worship attenders whose clergy do not speak about immigration. There is very little difference between these two groups on the question of immigrants’ impact on American customs and values. Those who report that many or most members of their congregation are immigrants are far more favorable toward immigrants than those whose house of worship is comprised of fewer immigrants.
By a wide margin, Americans favor tougher laws and regulations to protect the environment. Eight-in-ten (81%) favor greater protections, while just 14% oppose them. Similar questions from past Pew Research polls show comparable levels of support for environmental protection; however, fewer people prioritize environ-mental protection over keeping energy prices low (See "Public Remains of Two Minds on Energy Policy," June 14, 2010).
While an overwhelming majority favors tougher environmental protections, the subject of the environment is only a mid-tier issue for voters in the fall Congressional elections. Roughly six-in-ten voters (57%) cite the environment as very important, far behind the economy (90% cite it as very important) or jobs (88%), but higher than social issues such as abortion (43%) or same-sex marriage (32%).
For many policy issues, political or religious affiliations reveal sizeable gaps in support, but on the general question of stronger environmental protection these differences are relatively modest. Fewer Republicans favor tougher environmental laws and regulations than either Democrats (88%) or independents (80%), but even among Republicans, 73% support stronger safeguards for the environment.
There is only a modest religious element in attitudes about environmental protection. Solid majorities of all major religious traditions favor stronger laws and regulation, including 73% of white evangelical Protestants, 79% of black Protestants, 85% of Catholics and 84% of the unaffiliated.
Religion has far less influence on opinions about environmental policy than other factors do. Just 6% say that their religious beliefs have had the biggest influence on what they think about tougher environmental rules. Education and what people hear or read in the media are the strongest drivers of opinions about environmental regulations; roughly three-in-ten cite their education (29%), and 26% mention the media as having the most influence on their thinking about this issue.
While few describe religion’s influence as most important in shaping their thinking on environmental protection, some variation exists among religious groups. White evangelical Protestants, black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics are more likely than white mainline Protestants and white Catholics to cite religion’s influence as most important to their views on the environment.
Although religion is generally not a key influence on people’s opinions about the environment, many churchgoers report that clergy at their place of worship discuss the topic. Just under half (47%) of those who attend worship services regularly say that their clergy speak out on the environment. More black Protestants (59%) than other religious groups report hearing about the environment from their clergy. The majority of white Catholics (64%), white evangelical Protestants (59%) and white mainline Protestants (51%) in the survey say that the environment is not discussed at their place of worship.
Those hearing about the environment in church report hearing a variety of mostly pro-environment messages. Roughly three-in-ten (29%) are encouraged to “protect it” or “clean it up,” while 11% say their clergy encourage conservation. One-in-five (20%) report warnings and discussion about environmental damage, including the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (6%). For 10% of those who hear about the environment, the messages include explicit religious language and themes promoting stewardship of the earth or care for God’s creation.
Homosexuality and Abortion
In contrast with many other social and political issues, religion is clearly an important influence on public opinion about same-sex marriage and abortion. Significant numbers of Americans report that religion is the most important factor in their thinking about these topics, and sizeable numbers of churchgoers hear about them from their clergy.
On the issue of abortion, half of Americans (50%) say abortion should be legal in all (17%) or most (33%) cases while fewer, 44%, say it should be illegal in all (17%) or most (27%) cases. Support for legal abortion has edged upward since last 2009, when 47% said it should be legal in all or most cases.
Almost six-in-ten Democrats (59%) and 53% of independents say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 59% of Republicans take the opposite view, saying it should be illegal in all or most cases. Religious groups also vary significantly in the extent to which they support legal abortion. Almost seven-in-ten (69%) of the religiously unaffiliated (including 85% of atheists and agnostics) say abortion should be legal, as do 60% of white mainline Protestants and 50% of white Catholics. By contrast, just 41% of black Protestants and 32% of white evangelical Protestants say abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Roughly a quarter (26%) of those with an opinion on abortion say religion is the most important influence on their views about the issue. A similar number cite their education (23%), while fewer say that a personal experience (17%) was most important in determining their views on abortion.
Fully 45% of those who say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases cite religious beliefs as the top influence on their views, compared with just 9% of those who say abortion should be legal. Among religious groups, just over half of white evangelical Protestants (53%) say religion has the biggest influence on their views of abortion, while a third of black Protestants (33%), roughly a quarter of Catholics (23%) and 17% of white mainline Protestants say the same.
Almost six-in-ten regular churchgoers (59%) say their clergy speak out on the issue of abortion, higher than for any other issue in the survey except hunger and poverty (88%). Despite divided opinions on abortion among Catholics as a whole, seven-in-ten Catholics (70%) who attend church at least once a month report that their clergy speak out on the issue of abortion. Similarly, 65% of white evangelical Protestants and 55% of black Protestants who attend services at least once a month report that their clergy talk about abortion, while fewer mainline Protestants (39%) say this.
Among those who attend religious services at least once a month and say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, two-thirds (66%) report having heard about the issue from their clergy. Among regular worship attenders who think abortion should be legal in most or all cases, fewer (50%) report having heard about this issue from their clergy. Half of those who say their clergy speak out on abortion cite religion as the most important influence on their views on abortion, compared with 29% of those who do not hear from their clergy about the issue.
On the issue of same-sex marriage, about four-in-ten Americans (41%) say they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally while 48% are opposed. A slight majority of Democrats (52%) favor same-sex marriage, while independents are evenly split (44% favor, 45% oppose) and two-thirds (67%) of Republicans are opposed. Democrats are divided sharply along racial lines; 63% of white Democrats favor same-sex marriage, compared with just 27% of black Democrats and 46% of Hispanic Democrats.
Stark differences in opinion exist across religious groups. Roughly six-in-ten of the religiously unaffiliated (61%) favor same-sex marriage, including fully 78% of atheists and agnostics and 54% of those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” Slightly fewer than half of white mainline Protestants (48%) and white Catholics (49%) favor same-sex marriage. By contrast, just 22% of white evangelical Protestants favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, along with 26% of black Protestants. Roughly one-quarter (24%) those who attend worship services at least once a week favor same-sex marriage, but that rises to 49% among those who attend monthly or yearly and 57% among those who attend seldom or never.
More than a third of those who hold an opinion on same-sex marriage say that their religious beliefs are the biggest influence on their views (35%); roughly half as many say a personal experience plays the greatest role in their views (17%) and about one-in-ten cite their education (13%) or views of friends and family (10%).
Support for same-sex marriage is closely tied to what respondents report as the most important influence on their views. Among those who say religious beliefs are the most important influence on their opinion on same-sex marriage, a scant 6% favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, but among those who cite some other influence (including education, views of friends and family, or a personal experience), two-thirds (66%) are in favor.
Religion is more commonly cited as the top influence on opinion by people in certain religious groups, including 62% of white evangelical Protestants and 46% of black Protestants. Fewer white mainline Protestants (30%) and white Catholics (27%) name religion as a key factor.
More than four-in-ten regular churchgoers (44%) report hearing their clergy speak about laws regarding homosexuality. About half of white evangelical Protestants (52%) and black Protestants (54%) say they hear about this subject from their clergy, while only a third of white mainline Protestants (34%) and Catholics (33%) say their clergy speak about homosexuality.
Of those who report hearing about homosexuality, roughly seven-in-ten (72%) report that their clergy say it should be discouraged, while just 8% say it should be accepted.
Religion also appears to shape public attitudes on another issue related to homosexuality: whether or not to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. By a two-to-one margin, most Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military (60% favor vs. 30% oppose). The level of support has been consistent in recent years. Majorities of Democrats (67%) and independents (64%) favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military, while Republicans are more divided (47% favor and 43% oppose).
Large majorities of white mainline Protestants (68%), white Catholics (71%), Hispanic Catholics (60%) and the religiously unaffiliated (66%) favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, while support is lower among white evangelical Protestants (43%) and black Protestants (46%). Even among the least supportive religious groups, though, less than half oppose allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military.
Americans continue to express support for the death penalty for persons convicted of murder. Currently 62% favor the death penalty, while 30% oppose it. This is nearly identical to the level of support in 2007 but somewhat lower than earlier in the 2000s and especially the 1990s. In 1996, 78% favored the death penalty and just 18% were opposed.
Support for the death penalty is lower among Democrats than independents or Republicans, but even among Democrats, half (50%) are in favor of it.
There are relatively modest differences in support across religious groups, with majorities of white evangelicals (74%), white mainline Protestants (71%) and white Catholics (68%) favoring capital punishment. But less than half of black Protestants (37%) and Hispanic Catholics (43%) favor the death penalty.
About one-in-five Americans with an opinion about the death penalty (19%) say that religion is the most important influence on their thinking about the issue. A comparable number (22%) cite their education as most important. Slightly fewer cite the media or personal experience (15% each). Just 7% say the views of friends or family are the most important influence.
Death penalty opponents are more apt to cite religion as the top influence on their views than are death penalty supporters. About one-third of those who oppose capital punishment (32%) cite religion, compared with 13% among those who favor it. Black Protestants (35% cite religion) and white evangelicals (31%) were the religious groups most apt to cite religion’s influence. Fewer white mainline Protestants (14%) and Catholics (17%) do so, though among opponents of the death penalty, 31% of Catholics cite religion as the top influence.
Most regular churchgoers do not report hearing about the death penalty from their clergy; just 24% say that their clergy speak out about the issue. Among Catholics, roughly one-third of regular churchgoers (32%) say they hear about the death penalty from their clergy. Despite their own low levels of support for the death penalty, black Protestants are no more likely than the average churchgoer to report that their clergy speak out on the issue.
Government Assistance to the Poor
By a margin of about two-to-one, Americans support providing more generous government assistance to the poor. In the current survey, 63% favor more generous aid to the poor while 31% are opposed; this marks a slight decline in support from July 2005, when 69% favored more generous assistance to the poor and a quarter (25%) were opposed.
There are sharp partisan differences in opinion on increased government aid to the poor. A large majority of Democrats (80%) favor more government aid to the needy, while just 16% oppose increased aid. By contrast, half of Republicans (50%) are against increasing aid to the poor, while 43% favor such a measure. Independents, on balance, favor increased assistance to the poor by a 60%-34% margin.
Majorities of all major religious groups favor more government assistance to the poor, and support is especially high among black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics. Overall, 62% of Protestants favor more generous government aid to the poor; this includes 54% of white evangelicals, 57% of white mainline Protestants and 81% of black Protestants. Similarly, most white Catholics (58%) favor more government assistance to the needy and support is even higher among Hispanic Catholics (77% favor).
Just one-in-ten (10%) of those with an opinion on government assistance to the poor say their religious beliefs are the most important influence on their views of the issue. More cite a personal experience (35%) or their education (20%) as having the biggest influence on their views. Those who favor increased aid are more likely than those who are opposed to cite religion as the main influence on their views (12% vs. 4%).
While religion plays a relatively minor role in shaping views of government assistance to the poor, most regular churchgoers say they hear about the issue of hunger and poverty at their place of worship. Overall, 88% of those who attend services at least once or twice a month say their clergy speak out on the issue. There is very little variance on this question across religious groups. A somewhat higher number of those who favor additional assistance to the poor have heard about their clergy’s views on the issue (90%) than those who oppose additional government assistance to the poor (86%).
Clergy Discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Candidates and Elections
Roughly half of regular worship attenders (51%) say the clergy at their congregation speaks out about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (63%) have heard their clergy discuss Iraq or Afghanistan, compared with 50% of white evangelical Protestants and 46% among both white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. Roughly one-quarter of religious service attenders (24%) say their clergy speak out about candidates and elections. Fully half of black Protestants say clergy at their congregation discuss candidates and elections, much higher than the one-quarter (25%) of white evangelical Protestants, 15% of white Catholics and 13% of white mainline Protestants who say the same.
About the Survey
Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a national sample of 3,003 adults living in the continental United States, 18 years of age or older, from July 21-August 5, 2010 (2,002 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 1,001 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 431 who had no landline telephone). Both the landline and cell phone samples were provided by Survey Sampling International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. 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/ethnicity, region, and population density to parameters from the March 2009 Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. The sample is also 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 2009 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 error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence for different groups in the survey:
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.
About the Projects
The survey is a joint effort of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Both organizations are sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and are projects of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press is an independent opinion research group that studies attitudes toward the press, politics and public policy issues. The Center’s purpose is to serve as a forum for ideas on the media and public policy through public opinion research. In this role it serves as an important information resource for political leaders, journalists, scholars, and public interest organizations. All of the Center’s current survey results are made available free of charge.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. It studies public opinion, demographics and other important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. It also provides a neutral venue for discussions of timely issues through roundtables and briefings.
This report is a collaborative product based on the input and analysis of the following individuals:
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Luis Lugo, Director
Alan Cooperman, Associate Director, Research
Sandra Stencel, Associate Director, Editorial
Greg Smith, Senior Researcher
John C. Green, Senior Research Adviser
Neha Sahgal and Christine Bhutta, Research Associates
Scott Clement, Research Analyst
Tracy Miller and Hilary Ramp, Editors
Diana Yoo, Graphic Designer
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
Andrew Kohut, Director
Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research
Carroll Doherty, Associate Director, Editorial
Michael Dimock, Associate Director, Research
Michael Remez, Senior Writer
Leah Christian and Jocelyn Kiley, Senior Researchers
Robert Suls, Shawn Neidorf and Alec Tyson, Research Associates
Jacob Poushter, Research Analyst
Mattie Ressler and Danielle Gewurz, Research Assistants
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