August 24, 2006

Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics

Section II – Religion and Politics

Faith and Politics

There is no consensus regarding whether churches and other houses of worship should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions. Roughly half (51%) say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on such issues, while 46% believe they should keep out of political matters. A year ago public opinion was almost exactly the same (51% should express views, 44% should keep out), and over the last five years these figures have remained remarkably steady.

Blacks, people under age 50, conservative Republicans, and Southerners are particularly likely to believe churches and other houses of worship should speak out on political issues. Meanwhile, whites, people ages 50 and older, liberal Democrats, and people who live in the East are more likely to think such organizations should stay out of politics.

Opinions on the issue also differ according to religious affiliation. White evangelicals and black Protestants tend to favor a vocal role for churches on political issues, while seculars, white mainline Protestants, and Catholics would prefer that churches stay out of the political arena.

While the public is divided over churches speaking out on political and social issues, most Americans view President Bush’s expressions of religious faith as appropriate. Roughly half (52%) say Bush mentions his religious faith the right amount, while another 14% say he talks about his faith too little. Only about a quarter (24%) believe that Bush mentions his faith too much, about the same as in the past two years but much higher when compared with July 2003 (14%).

Clergy Address Current Issues

Although many people have misgivings about organized religion taking stances on political matters, it is clear that political and social issues are being discussed in places of worship. For instance, nearly all respondents (92%) who attend religious services at least once or twice a month report that their clergy speak out on hunger and poverty. And majorities of those who attend services that frequently say their clergy address the issues of abortion (59%), Iraq (53%), and laws regarding homosexuality (52%). Nearly half (48%) say clergy discuss the environment and four-in-ten say they deal with the issue of evolution.

However, different religious groups tend to emphasize different issues. Abortion, for example, is frequently mentioned in Catholic, white evangelical, and black Protestant churches, but is discussed less in white mainline Protestant churches.

For many congregations, laws about homosexuality have become an increasingly prominent theme for sermons over the last decade; in 1996, only 36% reported hearing about this in their house of worship, compared with 41% in 20
03 and 52% today. The rise over the last three years has taken place largely among Catholics (25% in 2003 vs. 50% today) and black Protestants (50% in 2003 vs. 62% today).

In no group does a majority say their clergy address the issue of evolution and intelligent design. White evangelicals are among the least likely to believe in the theory of evolution and the most likely to favor teaching creationism in public schools,1 but only about half of evangelicals (48%) report hearing about this issue from the pulpit. Similarly, in no group does a majority say the death penalty is discussed in church, although black Protestants (41%) and Catholics (41%) are more likely than others to say this is a topic they hear about in sermons. Catholics are also especially likely to say their priests address the issues of stem cell research (38%) and immigration (31%).

A Religious Left?

In recent years, and particularly in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, politically liberal Christians have been more outspoken in their opposition to the political agenda of religious conservatives, arguing that they, too, are “values voters” who place a premium on such traditionally liberal beliefs as social justice, opposition to war as an instrument of foreign policy, environmental protection and a more accepting view of gays and lesbians. This increasing visibility has led some commentators to announce the emergence of the religious left.

The survey finds relatively few Americans identify with either the “religious left political movement” (7%), or the “religious right political movement” (11%). However, there are far more conservatives who identify with the religious right than liberals who identify themselves as belonging to the religious left.

A quarter of conservative Republicans ­ and 20% of white evangelical Protestants ­ say they think of themselves as members of the religious right. By comparison, a smaller number of liberal Democrats (15%) identify with the religious left. Fewer than one-in-ten in every major religious group identifies with the religious left.

A relatively high proportion of adults under age 30 (14%) say they think of themselves as a member of the religious left, twice the level of any other age group. However, roughly the same percentage of young people (13%) say they think of themselves as a member of the religious right. Similarly, higher percentages of African Americans than whites say they identify with both the religious right and the religious left.

Christian Progressives: Democratic, Not Very Liberal

The survey finds that about a third of all Christians (32%) identify themselves as “liberal” or “progressive” Christians. By comparison, only a somewhat higher percentage (38%) describe themselves as “born again” or evangelical Christians.

However, these characterizations overlap for many people and are far from being mutually exclusive. For example, more than a third of evangelicals (36%) also describe themselves as liberal or progressive Christians.

On many matters of politics and policy, the views of progressive Christians are not much more liberal than those of the general public. But their attitudes contrast sharply with Christians who do not describe themselves as liberal or progressive. For example, about half of progressive Christians (52%) oppose gay marriage, compared with 56% of all Americans, and 66% of non-progressive Christians.

However, there are smaller differences between progressive and non-progressive Christians in core religious beliefs. A third of progressives say the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally; among non-progressive Christians, 43% say the Bible is the literal word of God.

Generally, progressive Christians tend to be more moderate than left-of-center politically. Slightly more than one-in-four (27%) report they are politically liberal. Just as many (26%) say they are politically conservative while 45% characterize themselves as moderates. But more than four-in-ten (44%) identify themselves as Democrats, compared with 33% of the public and 29% of non-progressive Christians.

The Parties and Religion

The survey finds that the Republican Party is viewed less positively in its approach to religion by a constituency that has played a pivotal role in electoral politics in recent years: white evangelical Protestants. Currently just under half of evangelicals (49%) say the GOP is friendly to religion, a decline of 14 points in the past year. Catholics also are far less likely to view the Republican Party as friendly to religion; just 41% say that today, compared with 55% about a year ago.

More broadly, the decline in the proportion of Americans who view the Republican Party as being friendly to religion occurred uniformly across the parties. The proportion of Republicans who say the Republican Party is friendly to religion dropped by eight percentage points, while falling nine points among both Democrats and political independents.

Nonetheless, far fewer Americans see the Democratic Party as friendly to religion. Only about one-in-four (26%) say the party is friendly to religion, while 42% think it is neutral and 20% say it is unfriendly. That is largely unchanged from last year, but 16 points below the proportion who viewed Democrats as friendly toward religion just three years ago (42%).

Even most Democrats agree that their party is not particularly friendly to religion, though few believe that their party is hostile. Nearly half (47%) of all Democrats say that the Democratic Party is neutral toward religion, compared with 40% who feel the party is friendly, and just 5% who say it is unfriendly. By contrast, a solid majority of Republicans (61%) say the GOP is friendly to religion.

More Dissatisfaction with Left than Right

Americans remain conflicted about what the right mix should be between religion and politics. The public, however, is more critical of what it sees as efforts by the political left to diminish the influence of religion in government and the schools than with attempts by conservative Christians to impose their religious values on the country.

Democrats bemoan the influence of Christian conservatives, while Republicans are critical of the influence of liberals. Among independents, 56% say conservative Christians have gone too far in imposing their religious values while 65% are critical of liberals for trying too hard to keep religion out of schools and government.

Overall, nearly seven-in-ten Americans (69%) say liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of the schools and government, essentially unchanged from a year ago. Significantly, concern over efforts of the political left to limit religion’s influence crosses party lines. Large majorities of Republicans (87%), independents (65%) and Democrats (60%) decry efforts by liberals to limit religious influence in the public sphere, including 70% of conservative and moderate Democrats. But just 38% of liberal Democrats express this view.

Among major religious groups, white evangelicals are the most critical of liberals in this regard: 86% say liberals have gone too far in trying to exclude religion from schools and the government. Nearly eight-in-ten of all Protestants (78%) and two-thirds of Catholics (67%) share this view. Large majorities of those who attend church ­ including those who only occasionally attended services ­ are critical of liberals. But nearly half of those with no religious ties (45%) also think liberals have gone too far in attempting to keep religion out of schools and the government.

At the same time, about half the public (49%) says conservative Christians have gone too far “in trying to impose their religious values on the country,” a slight increase in the past year (from 45%). Majorities of Democrats (59%) and independents (56%) say Christian conservatives have gone too far in attempting to impose their values, a concern shared by nearly a third of Republicans (31%). Not surprisingly, liberal Democrats are particularly critical of conservative Christians in this regard: Eight-in-ten say they have gone too far in imposing their values.

Views about the influence of conservative Christians vary dramatically by religious affiliation. Only about a quarter of white evangelical Christians say that Christian conservatives have gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country, compared with about half of all white mainline Protestants and Catholics, and roughly three-quarters of seculars.

Favorable Views of Christian Conservatives

In general, the public remains somewhat more positive than negative about the Christian conservative movement, with 44% saying they have a favorable view of the movement and 36% saying their view is unfavorable. These views have changed relatively little over the past year.

White evangelical Protestants (at 71% favorable) and conservative Republicans (75% favorable) ­ two groups that overlap considerably ­ have by far the most positive views of the Christian conservative movement. By contrast, liberal Democrats (60% unfavorable) and seculars (68% unfavorable) ­ two groups that also overlap ­ are the most negative. Catholics are divided (39% favorable vs. 38% unfavorable), and white mainline Protestants fall at about the national average (44% favorable vs. 33% unfavorable).

  1. See "Religion a Strength and Weakness for Both Parties: Public Divided on Origins of Life," the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, August 30, 2005.