Some Americans are having a change of heart about mixing religion and politics. A new national survey finds a narrow majority of the public saying that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters and not express their views on day-to-day social and political matters. For a decade, majorities of Americans had voiced support for religious institutions speaking out on such issues.
The latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted from July 31-Aug. 10 among 2,905 adults, reveals that most of the reconsideration of the desirability of religious involvement in politics has occurred among conservatives. Four years ago, just 30% of conservatives believed that churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics. Today, 50% of conservatives express this view.
The new survey finds that conservatives' views on this issue are much more in line with the views of moderates and liberals than was previously the case. Similarly, the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats that previously existed on this issue have disappeared.
There are other signs in the new poll about a potential change in the climate of opinion about mixing religion and politics. First, the survey finds a small but significant increase since 2004 in the percentage of respondents saying that they are uncomfortable when they hear politicians talk about how religious they are -- from 40% to 46%.
While the Republican Party is most often seen as the party friendly toward religion, the Democratic Party has made gains in this area. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) now say the Democratic Party is generally friendly toward religion, up from just 26% two years ago. Nevertheless, considerably more people (52%) continue to view the GOP as friendly toward religion.
Similarly, the survey finds increasing numbers of Americans believing that religiously defined ideological groups have too much control over the parties themselves. Nearly half (48%) say religious conservatives have too much influence over the Republican Party, up from 43% in August 2007. At the same time, more people say that liberals who are not religious have too much sway over the Democrats than did so last year (43% today vs. 37% then).
Changes in views about the role of churches in politics notwithstanding, many of the contours of American public opinion relating to broad questions of religion and politics remain largely unchanged. Two-thirds of the public (66%) say that churches and other houses of worship should not endorse one candidate over another, which is unchanged since 2004 (65%). And while most say it is important for presidents to have strong religious beliefs, they are divided about whether there currently is too much, or too little, in the way of expressions of faith by contemporary political leaders. Roughly comparable numbers say political leaders express their religious beliefs too much (29%), too little (36%) or the right amount (28%).
– While some social conservatives are expressing changed views about religion and politics, there is little indication that they are changing their voting preferences: John McCain has about as large a lead over Barack Obama among conservatives and white evangelicals as George W. Bush did at this stage in the campaign four years ago.
– Just 28% of white evangelical Protestants say they are strong backers of McCain. Four years ago, 57% of white evangelicals described themselves as strong backers of President Bush.
– As was the case in previous presidential elections, the voting inclinations of Catholic voters -- especially white non-Hispanic Catholics -- remain fluid. Four years ago at this time John Kerry held a slight edge over Bush among white non-Hispanic Catholics; but he lost that lead by the election. In the current poll, this group, which accounts for 18% of the electorate, is divided almost evenly: 45% support McCain, while 44% favor Obama.
– For the most part, the issues that are important to the public as a whole are also important to particular religious groups. However, social issues, especially gay marriage, continue to be more important for white evangelicals than for other registered voters. Currently, 46% of white evangelicals say gay marriage will be a very important voting issue, compared with 28% of all voters. That is only somewhat less than the percentage of white evangelical voters who viewed gay marriage as very important in October 2004 (49%).
Read the complete survey More Americans Question Religion's Role in Politics on the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Web site.
This survey is a joint effort of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Both organizations are sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and are projects of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.