August 24, 2006

Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics

Section I – Religion and Public Life

Americans overwhelmingly consider the U.S. a Christian nation: Two-in-three (67%) characterize the country this way, down just slightly from 71% in March 2005.1 A decade ago, Americans were somewhat less likely to tie the nation’s identity to Christianity. In 1996, 60% considered the U.S. a Christian nation. By 2002, however, the figure had climbed to 67%, and since then views on this question have remained fairly consistent.

Seculars are the only subgroup in which fewer than a majority sees the U.S. as a Christian country, although even among seculars nearly half (48%) view the U.S. this way. More whites than blacks characterize the United States as a Christian country (by 70% to 58%), and people ages 50 and older are more likely to express this view than are younger people (by 74% to 63%). Opinions also differ along party lines, with more Republicans (76%) than either Democrats (63%) or independents (67%) viewing the U.S. a Christian nation.

Religion and American Law

Although the public clearly sees a strong link between Christianity and the country’s national identity, most Americans think citizen preferences should outweigh the Bible as an influence on American law. When asked which should have more influence over the laws of the country ­ the Bible or the will of the people, even when it conflicts with the Bible ­ most Americans (63%) say the people’s will should have more sway. A significant minority (32%), however, believes the Bible should be more important.

Views about the appropriate relationship between scripture and the law vary significantly among demographic groups. Whites overwhelmingly say the people’s will should be more influential (65% to 30%), while blacks are almost evenly divided (50% say the Bible, 48% the will of the people). There also is a modest gender gap, with women (37%) more likely than men (29%) to say the Bible should be more important. Additionally, younger people and highly educated people are more likely to say that the will of the people should have greater influence.

And while there are some partisan differences on this issue, both parties are deeply divided along ideological lines. Roughly half (49%) of conservative Republicans say the Bible should trump popular will, but just 29% of moderate Republicans agree. And 77% of liberal Democrats say the people’s will should determine the laws, compared to 60% of moderate and conservative Democrats.

Not surprisingly, religious identities, behaviors, and attitudes influence how people feel about this question. Strong majorities of seculars, mainline white Protestants, and Catholics think popular will should have the greatest impact on law. Among white evangelicals and black Protestants, however, majorities believe the Bible should have more authority.

Meanwhile, people who attend religious services frequently are more inclined to consider the Bible the ultimate source of legal authority, with 52% of those who attend at least once a week saying the Bible should be more influential.

Views about Biblical literalism are significantly correlated with this question; among those who believe the Bible is the actual word of God and is literally true, 65% think it should have more influence over law than the will of the people. Among those who believe the Bible is the word of God, but that not everything in it should be taken literally, only 20% think the Bible should have more influence. And only 3% of people who say the Bible is not the word of God feel it should be more important than popular will.

Religion’s Influence

Since the late 1980s, polls have consistently shown that most Americans think religion’s influence on the nation is waning. The only exception to this pattern was in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when Americans overwhelmingly felt that religion’s influence was on the rise.

Today, roughly six-in-ten (59%) say religion is losing influence on American life, while 34% say it is gaining influence. And, overwhelmingly, Americans favor more, not less, religion in the country. Fully 79% of those who say religion’s role is declining ­ representing 50% of the public overall ­ believe this is a bad thing. Meanwhile, among the minority who feel religion’s influence is growing, more say it is good than bad, by a margin of almost two-to-one.

While most think religion’s influence on American life is in decline, there is a division of opinion over whether religion’s influence on government is rising or falling. About as many say religion is losing influence on government leaders and institutions, such as the president, Congress and Supreme Court (45%), as say religion’s political influence is on the rise (42%).

Most of those who say that religion’s influence on government is declining believe this is a bad thing. But Republicans and Democrats who perceive a growing religious influence on government differ over the impact of this trend. Overall, about a third of Republicans say religion’s influence over government is growing, and by a wide margin (23% vs. 10%) they say this is a good thing for the country. Among Democrats, 45% say religion has a greater impact on government today, but they generally say this is a bad thing (28%) rather than a good thing (14%). Independents, for the most part, share the views of Democrats.

  1. On the current survey, respondents were asked two versions of this question. The first, which has been asked in previous Pew polls, reads: "Do you consider the United States a Christian nation, or not?" The second reads: "Some people think of the United States as a Christian nation. Others don't think of the U.S. that way. Which of these comes closest to your view?" Results revealed no significant differences between the two versions. All results presented here are for the first version.