August 24, 2006

Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics

69% Say Liberals Too Secular, 49% Say Conservatives Too Assertive

Introduction and Summary

The relationship between religion and politics is a controversial one. While the public remains more supportive of religion’s role in public life than in the 1960s, Americans are uneasy with the approaches offered by both liberals and conservatives. Fully 69% of Americans say that liberals have gone too far in keeping religion out of schools and government. But the proportion who express reservations about attempts by Christian conservatives to impose their religious values has edged up in the past year, with about half the public (49%) now expressing wariness about this.

The Democratic Party continues to face a serious “God problem,” with just 26% saying the party is friendly to religion. However, the proportion of Americans who say the Republican Party is friendly to religion, while much larger, has fallen from 55% to 47% in the past year, with a particularly sharp decline coming among white evangelical Protestants (14 percentage points).

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted July 6-19 among 2,003 adults, finds that most Americans (59%) continue to say that religion’s influence on the country is declining, and most of those who express this view believe that this is a bad thing. The public is more divided on the question of whether religion’s influence on government is increasing (42%) or decreasing (45%). And in contrast to views of religion’s influence on the country, most of those who think that religion is increasing its influence on government leaders and institutions view this as a bad thing.

The survey finds that religious conservatives, and white evangelical Christians specifically, have no equal and opposite group on the religious left. About 7% of the public say they identify with the “religious left” political movement. That is not much smaller than the 11% who identify themselves as members of the “religious right,” but the religious left is considerably less cohesive in its political views than the religious right.

The survey traced the spiritual roots of the religious right and left to two broader faith communities. On the right, white evangelical Christians comprise 24% of the population and form a distinct group whose members share core religious beliefs as well as crystallized and consistently conservative political attitudes.

On the left, a larger share of the public (32%) identifies as “liberal or progressive Christians.” But unlike evangelicals, progressive Christians come from different religious traditions and disagree almost as often as they agree on a number of key political and social issues.

These differences in the makeup of the religious left and right are an important reason why white evangelicals remain a more politically potent force. On issues ranging from the origins of life to Christ’s second coming, evangelicals express distinctly different views from those held by the rest of the public and even other religious groups.

For example, six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants say that the Bible should be the guiding principle in making laws when it conflicts with the will of the people, a view rejected by an equally large majority of Americans, including most Catholics and white mainline Protestants.

Seven-in-ten white evangelicals (69%) believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people and a solid majority (59%) believes that Israel is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy ­ views rejected by majorities of the rest of the public, including most mainline Protestants and Catholics. Significantly, those who believe that God gave Israel to the Jews and that the state of Israel fulfills biblical prophecy are much more likely than others to sympathize with Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians.

On matters of faith, fully 62% of white evangelicals say the Bible is the actual word of God, to be taken literally. In contrast, only 35% of the public ­ including just 24% of Catholics and 17% of white mainline Protestants ­ share this literal view of the scriptures, with most believing that although the Bible is God’s word, not everything in it is literally true.

The survey also finds continuing tension in the public’s views of science and religion, especially in opinions about evolution and the origins of life. However, there is broad agreement across the religious spectrum that scientific advances will help rather than harm mankind. Nearly two-thirds of all Americans (65%) express a positive opinion of scientific advances, compared with 19% who feel such advances harm mankind.

Despite the ongoing conflicts over the role of religion in public life, contemporary policy issues are being widely addressed in churches and other houses of worship. More than half of those who attend services at least monthly say members of the clergy in their place of worship have spoken out about such politically charged issues as abortion (59%), the situation in Iraq (53%), laws regarding homosexuals (52%), and the environment (48%). Smaller proportions report hearing their clergy talking about evolution and intelligent design (40%), the death penalty (31%), embryonic stem cell research (24%) and immigration (21%). But nearly everyone ­ 92% ­ says that their clergy has spoken out about poverty and homelessness.

Finally, while an overwhelming percentage of Christians (79%) say they believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ, far fewer see Christ’s return as imminent. Overall just 20% of all Christians expect Christ to return to earth in their lifetime; even among those who say that the Bible is the literal word of God, just 37% expect Christ to return to earth in their lifetime.

Roadmap to the Report

Section I, which begins on page 5, covers public attitudes toward religion’s role in the nation, including opinions about whether the Bible or the will of the people should have greater influence on the country’s laws. Section II, beginning on page 9, shows continuing differences over issues involving religion, politics and policy. Section III highlights attitudes toward religion and science; it begins on page 16. Section IV, which starts on page 21, focuses on people’s religious beliefs. Following the report, beginning on page 25, is a statement on the survey’s methodology followed by complete topline results.