March 20, 2002

Americans Struggle with Religion’s Role at Home and Abroad

Part 3: Religion, Politics and Policy

Last year’s survey by the Pew Research Center and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that nearly half of Americans favored churches expressing their views on social and political subjects. But the public draws the line at churches making political endorsements. By 70%-22%, Americans believe churches should not come out in favor of political candidates. Views on this practice vary, both by denomination and level of religious commitment.

White non-Hispanic Catholics and white mainline Protestants ­ regardless of their level of religious commitment ­ oppose political endorsements by churches by better than three-to-one. Mainline Protestants are even slightly more likely than seculars (78%-74%) to say that churches should not come out in favor of candidates.

White evangelicals and black Protestants also oppose political endorsements by churches and other houses of worship, but by a smaller margin than do white mainline Protestants and Catholics. Highly committed white evangelicals are the most supportive of churches making political endorsements ­ 41% back this practice, while 48% are opposed.

Government Marriage Programs Opposed

As a general proposition, Americans believe the government should not develop programs to encourage people to get and stay married. When asked, nearly eight-in-ten (79%) prefer that the government “stay out” of such activities, while 18% favor this idea.

Overall, more than twice as many white evangelicals as white mainline Protestants (27%-11%) support programs aimed at promoting marriage. Among highly committed white evangelicals, 35% favor government programs to encourage marriage, far more than any other religious or demographic group, although 60% oppose such programs.

Addressing Poverty

Americans are strongly supportive of helping those in need. Eight-in-ten (79%) say people should do more to help the needy, even if that entails some personal sacrifice, while 67% favor more generous government assistance to the poor. Majorities of all political groups ­ except conservative Republicans ­ support more generous government aid.

Fully two-thirds would be willing to forgo tax cuts to do more to help the needy and 57% would accept cuts in government programs to achieve this goal. Race, ideology and partisanship are more important than religious affiliation in influencing these views. For instance, 85% of African-Americans are in favor of holding back on tax cuts to provide more help to the needy, compared with 62% of whites.

While a majority of conservative Republicans (57%) disagree with the idea of making cuts in government programs to fund more aid to the needy, they are much more evenly divided over reducing tax cuts to fulfill this objective ­ 44% agree with that idea, while 47% disagree.

Religion is not a major factor in opinions on political tradeoffs. But when it comes to attitudes on private charity, those who are highly committed to their religion are more likely than others to completely agree that people have an obligation to do more to help the poor. Overall, 79% agree that people should do more to help others in need, and 31% completely agree with this statement. Four-in-ten (42%) of those with a high degree of religious commitment completely agree with that sentiment, compared with 30% of those with average commitment and 25% of those with weak religious commitment. The biggest gap occurs among white Catholics ­ 37% in the high commitment group completely agree with the need to aid the poor, compared with 21% in the low commitment group.

Welfare ­ Changed for the Better

By 46%-17%, Americans say the welfare reform legislation passed in 1996 changed things for the better compared with the previous system. Significantly, those who are most familiar with the system ­ current or former welfare beneficiaries and their families ­ also react positively to the changes. By 47%-27%, this group believes the system has been changed for the better.

There are few major religious, demographic or political differences on this issue, although African-Americans are somewhat more likely than whites to take a negative view of the revamped system. Republicans overwhelmingly endorse the welfare changes (52%-12%); Democrats agree, by a smaller margin (47%-20%).

A majority of the public (53%) still agrees with the traditional critique of the old welfare system: that it encourages recipients to be too dependent on government aid. But in a reflection of how the 1996 law has changed opinions on this subject, 32% say the welfare system improves things by helping recipients support themselves; just 12% expressed that opinion in 1994.

There is a modest gap among religious groups on this question, with black Protestants and white Catholics more likely than white Protestants to view the welfare system in a positive light. Roughly four-in-ten black Protestants and nearly as many white Catholics (36%) say welfare changes things for the better by helping the needy; 28% of white mainline Protestants and 25% of white evangelical Protestants agree.

Poverty Seen as Individual Failure

Despite the support for more private and government aid to the poor, the public shows strong support for individual responsibility. Fully 61% say most people are poor because of their own individual failures, while far fewer (21%) blame society’s failures.

By a smaller margin (50%-31%) Americans also say child poverty is the fault of individual parents, not social and economic problems. Even when reminded that more than ten-million American children currently live in poverty, this perception does not change.

Race and ideology influence attitudes on these issues far more than religion or even income. African-Americans and liberals are the only groups in which pluralities blame child poverty on social and economic problems. These groups also are somewhat more likely to see society as to blame for poverty generally, although 52% of liberals and 48% of African-Americans point the finger at individual failures.

Experience with the welfare system has only a modest effect on these views. Current and former welfare recipients say individual failures, not society, are to blame for poverty by more than two-to-one (53%-25%). And a narrow 44% plurality of those who have received welfare affix responsibility for child poverty on the failures of parents, while 36% blame social and economic problems.

National Service Supported; But Not By Young

Public opinion on mandatory national service has changed little since the 1980s. Currently, 61% back a one-year service requirement for men, in either the military, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or a community service program. That represents a modest increase over the 55% who backed mandatory national service in 1987. Half the public supports a national service requirement for women, up from 44% in 1987.

Conservative groups make a clear distinction between mandatory service for men and women. White evangelical Protestants who are highly religious favor mandatory service for men, by 62%-34%, while opposing it for women (52%-41%). By contrast, liberals and seculars tend to support national service at lower rates than conservatives and evangelicals, but make less of a gender distinction.

But age is perhaps the most important factor in opinions on mandatory national service. Solid majorities of Americans under the age of 30 oppose this requirement for men (56% opposed) and women (63%). Older Americans are much more supportive of this idea, especially for men. As many as three-quarters of those over age 50 back national service for men, and 58% favor it for women.

Divisions Over Afghan Aid

Roughly half the public (49%) says the United States should come to the aid of Afghanistan, while 43% believe the U.S. should not get involved. Another group of respondents was asked whether the U.S. has a moral obligation to aid Afghanistan; the result was similar (50% said the U.S. had a moral responsibility, 39% disagreed).

Religious people are more likely to view aid for Afghanistan in moral terms. By 54%-34%, those with a high degree of religious commitment say the U.S. has a moral responsibility to provide aid. Those with average commitment also hold this view (51%-37%), but those with weak religious commitment are split (45%-46%).

Death Penalty Favored for Terrorists

Two-thirds of the public supports the death penalty for those convicted of murder, which is virtually unchanged from last March (66%) but down substantially since 1996 (78%). Support rises to 76% in the case of people convicted of terrorism. While members of all religious groups show stronger support for executing terrorists than convicted murderers, the views of seculars change very little; 72% favor the death penalty for murderers, and 69% favor it for terrorists. African-Americans, who traditionally oppose the death penalty, are the only group in which a significant minority opposes the death penalty for terrorists (39%).

This year’s survey finds that, as in the past, religion strongly influences views on the death penalty. In general, those with a high degree of religious commitment show less support for the death penalty for murder than do fellow church members with less religious commitment. This pattern does not hold for white evangelicals, however; white evangelicals with high levels of religious commitment are just as likely to back the death penalty as those who are not as committed.

The April 2001 report by the Pew Research Center and Pew Forum found that 42% of death penalty opponents cited religion as an influence on their position, compared with just 15% of supporters. (See “Faith-Based Funding Backed, But Church-State Doubts Abound,” April 10, 2001.)

Little Change on Faith-Based Aid

There has been little change in opinion over the past year on whether faith-based groups should receive government funding to provide social services. Currently, seven-in-ten favor permitting such organizations to apply for government funding, down slightly from 72% last June and 75% in March 2001.

Like last year, black Protestants are more likely than other religious groups to favor faith-based aid. More than eight-in-ten (83%) black Protestants back this idea, followed by white Catholics (75%), evangelical Protestants (72%) and mainline Protestants (67%). More than half of seculars (57%) want to allow faith-based organizations to be eligible for government aid, while 39% are opposed.

Church Scandal Draws Strong Criticism

The public is paying close attention to the recent criminal trials involving Catholic priests accused of child sexual abuse ­ and it takes a dim view of the Church’s handling of the problem. More than eight-in-ten (85%) have heard about the recent cases: 39% have heard a lot, 47% a little. By more than two-to-one, the public says that Church leaders have mostly tried to cover up the problem, rather than attempting to deal with it.

Catholics are following this story more closely than are members of other religions. Nearly all Catholics (91%) have heard about the case, and 46% have heard a lot. Interest in the story also is particularly high in the Northeast, the site of a recent high-profile trial of a former priest. Nearly half of northeasterners (49%) have heard a lot about the case.

Americans who have heard a lot about the case are more likely than others to think that Church leaders have covered up the problem. Among those who have heard a lot, 72% believe there was a coverup, compared with 54% of those who have heard only a little. Fewer Catholics say there was a coverup by Church leaders. However, even among Catholics, more than half (56%) fault Church leaders with hiding the problem, while only 32% say that leaders tried to deal with it.

Catholics with a high level of religious commitment are following the story more closely than are members of any other religious group (54% heard a lot), including Catholics with less religious commitment (40%). The highly committed group also is less critical of Church leaders for their handling of the problem. Half of the most observant Catholics (49%) think Church leaders were at fault, compared with 63% of Catholics with low religious commitment. But within both groups of Catholics, those who have heard a lot about the problem are much more likely to say that Church leaders tried to cover it up.

Honesty Up in Washington, Down in Boardrooms

In post-Enron and post-9/11 America, the public’s estimation of the honesty and ethical standards of government officials and corporate heads have switched positions when compared with the mid-1990s. Public officials in Washington are now seen more favorably, heads of major corporations less so.

Today, 34% of Americans say Washington public officials have high or very high standards of honesty and ethics, up from just 18% in 1995. Heads of major companies, however, have dropped from a 33% positive rating to only 24%. Likewise, only 25% say corporate board members have high ethical standards.

The shift in opinion on corporate executives has occurred fairly consistently across political party lines, while the change in attitudes about public officials varies by party affiliation. During the Clinton years, there was uniformity of opinion among Democrats and Republicans: 21% of Americans in both parties rated government officials’ ethics highly.

Today, members of all political parties have an improved view of Washington officials’ ethics, but the change has been most noticeable among Republicans. The share of Republicans who say that public officials in Washington have high ethical standards has doubled (to 43%), which is perhaps not surprising with a Republican administration now in power. By comparison, three-in-ten Democrats and independents give high ratings to the ethics of public officials (30% and 28%, respectively). Republicans continue to view corporate heads more favorably than do Democrats or independents, but those ratings have dropped among all parties.

Military leaders are rated highest, as they were in 1995. Today, 70% of Americans give military leaders a high rating for honesty and ethical standards, up from 63%. Religious leaders rate second on the current list (55% say they have high standards). People who think the Catholic Church has covered up cases of sexual abuse by priests are more critical of religious leaders generally ­ only 49% in those groups rate the clergy positively, compared with 71% of those who think the Church tried to deal with the problem.

Journalists get a relatively strong rating for honesty (44%), higher than either public officials or corporate heads. Among the most religious Americans, however, only 38% rate journalists’ ethics highly.

Most See Business Morals Slipping

Consistent with their diminished view of the ethical standards of corporate heads, Americans also are skeptical of business executives’ adherence to the law. Today, 58% say business executives try to find a way around laws, while just 35% give executives credit for trying to obey laws.

The Enron case, in particular, is seen as a sign that morals in American business are on the decline. Six-in-ten Americans subscribe to this view, compared with fewer than four-in-ten (37%) who don’t see it that way.

Cite this publication: “Americans Struggle with Religion’s Role at Home and Abroad.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 20, 2002) http://www.people-press.org/2002/03/20/americans-struggle-with-religions-role-at-home-and-abroad/, accessed on July 22, 2014.