June 25, 1996

The Diminishing Divide…American Churches, American Politics

Introduction and Summary

Religion is a strong and growing force in the way Americans think about politics. It has a bearing on political affiliation, political values, policy attitudes and candidate choice. Its increasing influence on political opinion and behavior rivals factors such as race, region, age, social class and gender.

More specifically, religion has a strong impact on the political views of Christian Americans who represent 84% of the voting age population. Christian political conservatism is associated with every religious dimension covered in The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press survey. Regardless of denomination, people who express more faith are more conservative. People who engage in more religious practices are more conservative. Those who say religion plays a very important role in their lives are more conservative. The Center’s polling finds indications that religious influences lead to a more liberal position on some issues, but there is little indication of a coherent pattern of liberal belief associated with any major religion or religious group.

The full effect of religion on American politics is best observed when race is factored into the equation. The conservatism of white evangelical Protestants is clearly the most powerful religious force in politics today. Analysis of the survey reveals that the most meaningful distinction is between Protestants who self-identify as evangelical or born again vs. those who do not. While the classification cuts across denominational lines, Baptists make up the largest share of evangelicals. Mainline denominations such as Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians are predominant among non-evangelical Protestants.1

White evangelical Protestants are not only much more conservative on policy questions that involve moral issues such as abortion, laws regarding homosexuality and family issues. But, they are also more conservative on a range of political values including environmentalism and beliefs about international security. Their greater conservatism on non-moral issues is independent of other factors in their backgrounds, such as income or the prevalence of evangelicals in the South according to analyses conducted for this study.

Rather these patterns reflect the increased politicalization of white evangelical Protestants. Compared to a decade ago, a greater percentage of them now self-identify as Republicans. The GOP has not made as many conversions among non-evangelical Protestants nor among white Catholics. Republican affiliation among white evangelical Protestants grew 9% points between 1978 and 1987 and 7% points more between 1987 and 1995.2

White evangelical Protestants have been much more critical of Bill Clinton than other white Christians. For example, in June of 1988 white evangelical Protestants gave 7% points more support than did non-evangelicals to George Bush when pitted against Michael Dukakis. That margin has swelled to 18% points in comparative support for Bob Dole.

 

                     Trend In Party ID

                     --- 1987 ---        --- 1994-95* ---

                    Rep  Dem  Indep      Rep  Dem  Indep

                     %    %     %         %     %    %

  Total              25   37    38        30    31   35

  White Evangelical

  Protestant         35   29    36        42    25   29

  White Mainline

  Protestant         31   29    40        34    26   37

  White Catholics    25   38    37        30    32   34

* Based on 9,652 interviews conducted from July 1994-October 1995

 

White evangelical Protestants now represent 24% of registered voters, up from 19% in 1987. They also make up a greater share of voters who self-identify as Republicans (34% vs. 26%)3. White Catholics and white non-evangelical Protestants also now each represent about one- fourth of the electorate. Black Christians constitute 8% of registered voters, non-religious Americans 6%4, Hispanic Catholics 2%, Mormons 2%, Jews 2%, Orthodox Christians 1% and other religions 2%.

Americans report a significant amount of politicking from the pulpit, but it is not only occurring in the Baptist churches of white evangelical Protestants. Divisive moral issues such as abortion and prayer in school are being raised in church almost as often as traditional issues of conscience such as hunger and poverty and world trouble spots like Rwanda or Bosnia. Fully 60% of churchgoers say their clergy speak out about abortion and almost as many, 56%, cite prayer in schools. Individual churches clearly differ in the issues they speak out on.

Catholics hear about abortion (75%) and right to die laws (38%) more often than other churchgoers. White evangelical Protestants hear more frequently about abortion (66%), but their clergy also talk about pornography laws (59%), prayer in schools (71%) and laws about homosexuality (45%) more often than the average. African American churches have a mixed liberal/conservative political agenda. Black Christians are much more likely to have heard about health care reform (62%) from their ministers than white Christians (19%), but they just as often hear them speak out on prayer in schools (73%). Mainline Protestants report less talk in their churches about a range of contemporary political issues than do other religious groups.

As many as one-in-five churchgoers say that their clergy speak out on candidates and elections. However partisan politicking from the pulpit is reported much more often by African American Christians (47%) and by white evangelical Protestants (20%) than by white Catholics (12%) or by white mainline Protestants (12%). Reflecting this pattern, nearly one- in-five white evangelical Protestants (18%) and an even larger percentage of black Christians (29%) said that campaign information was made available in their churches prior to the 1994 midterm elections. About one-in-twenty mainline Protestants or Catholics made such reports.

The connection between politicking from the pulpit and public opinion is more apparent among some religious groups than others. White evangelical Protestants have the most ideologically consistent point of view. Besides taking strong conservative positions on the moral issues (such as opposition to abortion and gay marriages), they also are more apt than other white Christians to oppose handgun control and sending troops to Bosnia. White evangelical Protestants are less in favor of disseminating birth control information to teenagers and less certain that women in the work force is a good thing.

A Catholic Schism

White Catholics and mainline Protestants are less consistently conservative on moral issues. Majorities oppose gay marriages, but most in both groups take a pro-choice position on abortion. There is an indication of a clear ideological schism within the Catholic population. As many as 41% of self-defined “progressives” favor gay marriages, compared to 24% among “traditionalist” Catholics. The two groups, which divide the Catholic population about evenly, also differ on abortion. Fully 73% of progressive Catholics support the availability of abortion, versus 43% among traditionalists. Few differences are seen in the views of the two Catholic groups on non-moral issues, except on the question of immigration and sending U.S. troops to Bosnia. Progressive Catholics divide evenly as to whether immigrants are a burden to the country or strengthen it. But a clear majority of traditional Catholics have a negative view of newcomers to the United States. On the issue of Bosnia, a majority of progressive Catholics favor U.S. involvement while a majority of traditional Catholics oppose it.

Progressive Catholics come closest to fitting the description of a religiously-based liberal group — but they are nowhere near as consistently liberal on a broad range of issues as white evangelical Protestants are conservative. They are better described as moderates, which is the political label a 51% majority of the group applies to themselves.

The views of black Christians reflect the mixed liberal/conservative agenda of their clergy. On the one hand, they express less support for the death penalty and more support for helping the poor than do other Christians. On the other hand, they oppose gay marriages and on balance take a pro-life position.

Those who profess no religion, who are mostly people under the age of 40, are predictably more liberal on moral issues — 74% are pro-choice, 45% favor gay marriages — but they are not much more liberal on issues such as helping the needy, support for the environment, opposition to the death penalty or having a favorable opinion of immigrants.

Acknowledging Religion’s Impact

In follow-up questions the Center survey respondents acknowledged the importance of religion to their thinking about important policy questions, particularly those that their clergy emphasize. A 37% plurality said religion most influenced their views about gay marriages. Education (17%) and personal experiences (10%) were the factors mentioned next most often. Religion was also most often cited as shaping views about abortion. Many interviewees (18%) said that religion is the most influential factor in their opinion of the death penalty, but about as many mentioned education (21%) and media (21%). In contrast, relatively few thought that religion was central to their opinions about welfare, the environment or women in the work force.

 

                % Citing Each As Biggest Influence

                         Reli-              Per-

                         gious     Educ-    sonal

                         Belief    ation    Exper    Media

                           %         %        %        %

On Views About ...

  Gay Marriages            37        17       10       9

  Abortion                 28        22       18       7

  Death Penalty            18        21       13       21

  Bosnia                   6         18       15       35

  Welfare                  6         24       26       22

  Working Women            4         23       45       7

  The Environment          3         36       22       24

  NOTE:  See questions 13-15 in the questionnaire for wording.

 

Personal experience was often cited as the dominant influence on views about working women, helping the needy and the environment. The news media was given credit by respondents for its effect on their thinking about Bosnia, the environment, welfare and the death penalty. Education was mentioned by a significant percentage as an important influence on every issue, but particularly with regard to the environment.

Not too surprisingly those who say their views on abortion and gay marriages were influenced by religion take more conservative positions than those who cite other factors. But those with religion-based views on the death penalty more often oppose it (41%) than do those who attribute their positions to their education (17%) or to the news media (10%). Similarly, the small number of Americans who say that their views about welfare are religion-based are much more apt to favor more money for the needy (75%) than those who point to other factors (47%).

Church, State Divide Slipping

There is more public acceptance of the role of religion and clergy in the political process than there was 30 years ago, but concerns nonetheless remain about how much political power specific religions have these days. In 1965 the Gallup Poll found that Americans by a margin of 53% to 40% thought that churches should keep out of political matters, and only 22% thought it was ever right for clergy to discuss political candidates or issues from the pulpit. In 1996 the balance of opinion has changed — by a 54% to 43% margin, the public thinks the churches should express their views on day to day political and social issues, rather than staying out of politics. And 29% now favor outright politicking from the pulpit.

The division of opinion on these issues surprisingly occurs more along religious lines than along partisan ones. By a margin of almost three-to-one black Christians and white evangelical Protestants think that it is okay for the churches to be involved in politics. However, white Catholics and white mainline Protestants split evenly on the issue. Only majorities of progressive Catholics and the non-religious think the churches should stay out of politics. Remarkably similar majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents express support for church political involvement.

Less Political Power For “Them”

While in principle Americans approve of churches expressing their views on political matters, a plurality of Americans wants each of the major religious groups in America to have less influence on politics and government than they now do. By a margin of 44% to 33% the public thinks that Protestants should have less rather than more political power. Somewhat greater margins want to see Roman Catholics (53% to 27%), evangelicals (51% to 27%) and Jews (49% to 27%) have less power.

Most white evangelical Protestants want to see Protestants and evangelicals have more political power. But non-evangelical Protestants want these religious groups to have less political power and influence. Protestants of all varieties favor less influence for Roman Catholics. Catholics themselves are divided about the political influence of their own church — traditionalists, on balance, want to see the church have more power, while progressives want to see it less influential. White mainline Protestants and white Catholics, as well as the non-religious, think Jews should have less political influence, but black Christians and white evangelicals are more evenly divided on the question.

Other Findings…

In the sections that follow, the relationship between religion and politics is examined in more detail. Section I provides a profile of religion in America today, including religious affiliations, religious practices and beliefs. The link between religion and basic political attitudes is covered in Section II, and the connection between religion and values is presented in Section III. Section IV looks at the extent to which religion influences views on policy issues. Finally, Section V addresses politicking in American churches, outlining the issues discussed from the pulpit, as well as churchgoers’ opinions about the role of the church in political debates.

Academic consultants to the Center for this project included John C. Green, Director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, University of Akron; Scott Keeter, Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University; and Michael J. Robinson, Fellow, Pew Research Center for The People & The Press.

  1. Throughout the report, the terms “non-evangelical Protestant” and “mainline Protestant” are used interchangeably
  2. CBS/New York Times survey, June 1978 (N=1,527); “The People, the Press, & Politics: The Times Mirror Study of the American Electorate.” Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, 1988. Washington, DC
  3. “The People, the Press & Politics: The Times Mirror Study of the American Electorate,” 1988
  4. Non-religious refers to those respondents who express no religious preference or say they are atheist or agnostic.