Religion and Politics: The Ambivalent Majority

Americans embrace a role for religion in the nation’s political life, but they are conflicted over the extent and contours of that involvement. Compared to a generation ago, more people are comfortable with churches expressing opinions on social and political matters, yet a solid majority of voters say they are uneasy with members of the clergy espousing their political views from the pulpit. While seven-in-ten voters believe it is important for the president to have religious faith, there is widespread discomfort over politicians who speak publicly about how religious they are.

Churches, synagogues and other religious institutions are overwhelmingly seen as positive forces in addressing society’s problems. Yet the public’s ambivalence over religion and politics is also reflected in divisions over “charitable choice” — an initiative, approved as part of the 1996 welfare reform bill, which permits faith-based organizations to participate in government-funded social service programs. A narrow majority (54%) supports funding religious organizations so they can run such government programs as job training or drug treatment services. There is considerably more backing (67%) when the issue is recast as allowing such groups to apply for government funding, along with other organizations, for these purposes.

At a time when Joe Lieberman’s appointment as the first Jew on a major party’s presidential ticket has cast a spotlight on religion and politics, the latest Pew Research Center survey shows that 77% have favorable attitudes toward Jews. That rating has slipped somewhat from 84% in 1997, but the current favorability mark for Jews is virtually the same as for Catholics (78%). There actually has been no increase in the number of voters who hold unfavorable impressions of Jews; rather, slightly more voters say they are unable to give an opinion of Jews compared with three years ago.

The image of evangelical Christians has improved markedly in recent years — as the political visibility, if not the influence, of Christian conservatives has waned. Overall, some 63% of voters rate evangelical Christians favorably, compared with just 41% in 1996. Some of the biggest gains have come among Democrats and senior citizens, which are groups that tend to express the most concern about overt expressions of religious beliefs in politics. Six-in-ten Democrats now have favorable impressions of evangelicals, compared with 27% four years ago.

More Americans regard the Republican Party as the protector of religious values compared with the Democrats (39% to 30%, respectively). But the GOP’s advantage on this issue has declined over the past four years; in 1996, 47% saw the Republicans as protectors of religious values while just 32% named the Democrats. In a more positive trend for the GOP, fewer voters now see the party as too closely tied to religious leaders (13% vs. 20% in 1996).

This survey of nearly 2,000 registered voters, conducted Aug. 24-Sept. 10, is a collaborative project of The Pew Research Center and The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Forum is a new organization dedicated to research, discussion and debate on the role of religion in civic engagement, politics and public policy.

The Observant Majority

A solid majority of voters (61%) say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month — and 45% go at least once a week. This is little changed from recent years: in 1997, 59% of the electorate said they frequently attended services (at least once a month), and virtually the same percentage (60%) reported frequent attendance in 1996. And nearly six-in-ten (59%) of those who attend services on a regular or even infrequent basis (at least a few times a year) say they are involved in church activities.

With the high level of religious participation, it is probably not surprising that most Americans see churches, synagogues and other religious organizations as contributing meaningfully to society. Fully 72% say these organizations help solve important social problems (28% say a great deal, while 44% say some). Just one-in-four believe religious groups do little or nothing to alleviate the nation’s problems.

Republicans are somewhat more likely to see religious groups playing a positive role. Fully one-third of rank-and-file Republicans (34%) say churches, synagogues and other religious organizations contribute a great deal, compared with just 24% of Democrats and independents.

Democrats Favor Charitable Choice

A majority of voters also support funding religious organizations so they can provide social services, although 44% are opposed. Given that George W. Bush has made charitable choice a centerpiece of his presidential campaign (although it has also been endorsed by Al Gore), the partisan divisions on this question — and the related issue of merely permitting religious groups to apply for government funding — are somewhat surprising.

Fully 61% of Democrats favor funding religious institutions for these purposes, compared with 46% of Republicans and 52% of independents. Support for charitable choice among Democrats is partially driven by strong backing among African-Americans: 74% of blacks endorse direct funding for these programs (compared with 51% of whites), while 87% of blacks favor permitting the churches and other faith-based institutions to apply for government grants (compared with 64% of whites).

The Center’s voter typology highlights these unusual political and ideological disparities. For instance, among Democrat-oriented groups, 74% of the Partisan Poor — which has a large percentage of minorities and low-income voters — favor the direct funding proposal, compared with 61% of New Democrats, 56% of Social Conservatives and just 42% of Liberals. Among GOP-oriented groups, majorities of Moderate Republicans and Populist Republicans (55% and 54%, respectively) support funding religious institutions so they can provide social services, compared with 41% of Staunch Conservatives.1

While more women than men are more supportive of both charitable choice alternatives, there also is strong backing for these proposals among those under age 30, who tend to support secular positions on many questions. Nearly seven-in-ten of those under age 30 (68%) favor direct government funding for faith-based groups; just 46% of those over age 50 agree.

College graduates are among the most likely to oppose charitable choice when the question is posed as direct government help to religious institutions (just 44% support this alternative). But when the issue is presented as a question of religious institutions applying for government grants, along with other organizations, support rises to 63%.

Interestingly, there are not large differences between those who attend religious services often and those who seldom attend on the question of providing direct government funding for church-based institutions. While 59% of those who attend services more than once a week support that proposal, 52% of those who seldom attend (less than a few times a year) agree.

Politicians and Religion

Most voters (70%) want the president to be a person of faith. But half of the electorate expresses unease with politicians, presidential contenders and others, who talk too much about their religious beliefs.

Overall, women are somewhat more likely than men to want a president with strong religious beliefs (74% vs. 65%). At the same time, women are slightly less likely than men to feel uncomfortable when politicians talk about their faith (46% vs. 54%). By contrast, young people and particularly young men, are less concerned about the religious beliefs of the president. Less than half of men under age 30 (47%) say it is important that he or she have religious beliefs.

While the Republican-oriented typology groups are fairly unified in saying it is important for the president to have strong religious beliefs, there are divisions among Democrats. Fully 84% of the Partisan Poor identify this as an important characteristic for the president, and 82% of Social Conservatives agree. That number falls to 67% among New Democrats and just 34% among Liberals.

Clearly, the distinction between being religious and talking about religion is more important to some groups than others. For instance, nearly eight-in-ten senior citizens (78%) say it’s crucial for the president to have strong religious beliefs, but more than half (56%) also say they are uneasy over excessive public expressions of faith by politicians. Similarly, by a lopsided margin of 79%-18%, African-Americans say it is important for the president to be religious; by a narrower margin (48%-43%) blacks also express discomfort over politicians who talk publicly about their faith.

Drawing the Line at the Pulpit

Just as Americans are split over questions relating to religion’s influence on politics, so too they are divided over whether churches and other religious institutions are appropriate forums for political discussions. Support for religious institutions and clergy expressing their views on politics is higher now than in the mid-1960s — although a substantial number of voters still have reservations.

A slim majority of voters (51%) say it is appropriate for churches and other religious organizations to make their views known on political and social topics, while 45% believe these institutions should stay out of politics. In 1968, a majority of the public (53%) said churches should remain on the sidelines in political debates, while just 40% supported a political role for religious groups, according to a Gallup poll from that year.

But a solid majority (64%) believes it is wrong for members of the clergy to discuss political matters from the pulpit, while just one-in-three voters (32%) find that acceptable. There has been some movement on this question as well, in support of greater political involvement by the clergy. A 1965 Gallup survey found that 68% opposed religious leaders expressing their political views, while just 22% favored such expressions.

African-Americans, white evangelical Protestants and voters under the age of 50 are among the most likely to favor including political discussions as part of church activities. Fully 61% of blacks support this, compared with just half of whites. Nearly six-in-ten of all voters under 50 (58%) agree that such political discussions are appropriate.

But a strong majority of those 65 and over (57%) believe that churches and other religious organizations should steer clear of political discussions; just 36% of senior citizens are comfortable with such discussions. And while 63% of white evangelicals say churches should express their political views, 50% of white Catholics and 41% of white mainline Protestants agree. Partisan differences over this issue are relatively small: 53% of Republicans, 48% of Democrats and 52% of independents say it is acceptable for churches to weigh in on political and social issues.

Many of those who are otherwise comfortable with churches and other religious institutions expressing political opinions draw the line at having members of the clergy discussing politics from the pulpit. Majorities in every major demographic group — including African-Americans and white evangelicals — find this unacceptable. But again, senior citizens are among the most reluctant to cross the lines between religion and politics: fully 73% of senior citizens reject this idea while just 23% favor clergymen airing their political views from the pulpit.

More Support for Evangelicals

While nearly eight-in-ten voters have positive impressions of Catholics and Jews, and six-in-ten feel the same about evangelicals, just half of voters see Muslim-Americans in a favorable light. Nonetheless, voters have a far more favorable impression of every religion tested than they do of atheists. Just 32% hold a favorable opinion of atheists.

While, on balance, those in every major demographic group hold a negative view of atheists, they are viewed favorably by Liberal Democrats, a group that is the least religious of all typology groups. Fully 65% of Liberals have a positive impression of atheists, far more than other groups in Pew’s voter typology.

Evangelical Christians are now viewed much more favorably by many groups than they were four years ago. While the percentage of Democrats holding positive impressions of evangelicals has more than doubled (from 27% to 60%), more Republicans and independents also have favorable opinions of evangelicals. In addition, support for evangelicals has increased across every age group.

Democrats Close the Gap

The Republican Party is less identified with protecting religious values than it was four years ago, and this has narrowed the gap between the two parties on this issue (from 15 points to nine points). Today, 39% of voters say the GOP is most concerned with protecting religious values, compared with 30% who name the Democrats.

Much of the shift on this question has come among independents. In 1996, 45% of independents saw the GOP as most concerned with protecting religious values, while 26% cited the Democrats. Now, independents are more closely divided, with 33% citing the Republicans and 28% pointing to the Democrats.

The two parties attract similar levels of support when it comes to protecting religious freedom. Some 35% of voters name the Democrats as most concerned with protecting religious liberty, while 32% name the GOP. By large margins, Democratic and Republican partisans see their party as most concerned with religious freedom, while independents are split (30% cite Republicans and 29% choose Democrats).

Most Americans do not see either party as too closely linked with religious leaders. Still, while only 13% see the Republican Party in that way (down from 20% four years ago), sizable minorities in key demographic groups believe the GOP is too closely linked with religious leaders. For instance, one-in five college graduates (21%) identify the Republicans in this way, compared with just 5% who cite the Democrats. In addition, upper-income voters are more likely to say that the GOP is tied too closely with religious leaders.