Introduction and Summary

As religion plays a more prominent role in public life, sharp divisions of opinion about the mixing of church and state are apparent. Most notably, while the public expresses strong support for the idea of faith-based groups receiving government funding to provide social services, in practice, it has many reservations. Most Americans would not extend that right to non-Judeo-Christian religious groups including: Muslim Americans, Buddhist Americans, Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology. Many also have reservations about allowing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons — to apply for federal funding to offer social services.

Beyond which religions are acceptable, strong concerns are expressed about what government might do to religion and what religious groups might do to the people they are trying to help. On the one hand, fully 68% worry that faith- based initiatives might lead to too much government involvement with religious organizations. On the other, six-in-ten express concerns that religious groups would proselytize among recipients of social services, and about the same percentage would prohibit groups that encourage religious conversion from receiving government funds. Americans have an even bigger problem with government-funded religious organizations hiring only those people who share their beliefs — 78% oppose that concept.

The survey also determined that attitudes toward faith-based funding have become more politicized. Since last year, Republicans have become more approving of faith-based initiatives, while Democrats have become somewhat less enthusiastic. In that same vein, a Pew survey taken in February found the public was divided over the creation of a White House office to enlarge the role that religious organizations play in providing social services, even though 64% of respondents in that same poll favored funding for faith-based organizations. ( See “Bush Approval on Par,” Feb. 22, 2001.)

While this issue has become more partisan, there also is considerable disagreement within the two political parties. On the Republican side, white evangelicals are more enthusiastic than other conservatives and moderate Republicans. Among Democrats, a bare majority of white liberals favor the idea, while black Democrats embrace it as strongly as Republican evangelicals.1

Still, many Americans find arguments in favor of faith-based funding to be compelling, and a strong majority acknowledges the contributions churches, synagogues and other religious groups make to society. Nearly three-quarters (72%) cite the care and compassion of religious workers as an important reason for supporting the concept of faith-based groups receiving government funding. This reflects a public recognition of the strong connection between religious practice and social service. Three-quarters think that churches and other houses of worship contribute significantly to solving America’s social problems. In fact, the survey shows that people with strong religious commitment are three times as likely as those with little or no belief to regularly volunteer to help needy people.2

Yet the public also makes clear distinctions as to the potential strengths and weaknesses of specific church-based social services. There is a general consensus that government agencies would be better than religious organizations and secular community groups at literacy training, providing health care and job training. By contrast, the public has more faith in religious organizations than other types of agencies to feed the homeless and counsel prisoners. The sharpest divides are over which groups could do a better job of mentoring young people, counseling teens about pregnancy, and treating drug addiction. White evangelicals and black Protestants tend to prefer religious groups for these purposes, while white mainline Protestants and Catholics think secular, community-based efforts would be more effective.

The nation’s divisions over religion and its role in contemporary life go deeper than disagreements over implementing faith-based plans. The public generally holds negative views of atheists and only lukewarm opinions of non-Judeo-Christian Americans. For the most part, these potential tensions remain below the surface as very few Americans say they are bothered by an increasing number of non-Christians and seculars in American society. The public is more openly frustrated with the news and entertainment industries. This is particularly true among highly religious Americans, majorities of whom believe that people of their faith are not treated fairly by the media and Hollywood.

At the same time, many Americans — especially the less religious — are often hesitant to see churches offer opinions on social and political matters, and nearly two-thirds express reservations about the clergy speaking out on partisan politics or issues.

The survey found a surprisingly sharp generational pattern in views about the role religion plays in politics and the possibility of a narrowing divide between church and state. Older people, especially those age 65 and above, are much more worried than younger people about the blurring of these lines. Most seniors do not think it is a good idea for churches to speak out on social and political questions, let alone for the clergy to engage in political advocacy from the pulpit. Older people are also far less enthusiastic than younger people about faith-based initiatives generally, as they worry more about threats to the separation between church and state.

For the most part, those with strong religious beliefs are politically conservative. Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one among white evangelical Protestants. While black evangelicals are overwhelmingly Democratic, they tend to hold conservative social attitudes. Americans point to their religious beliefs as a major influence in attitudes toward some of the most contentious social issues of the day. These beliefs generally shape a more conservative point of view — opposition to gay marriages, assisted suicides, and unrestricted research on human cloning. But, there are some liberal effects as well. Many of the growing number of opponents of the death penalty cite the influence of religion in determining their position on this issue.

These are among the most important findings of the joint study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press. It was conducted among 2,041 adults, including an oversample of African-Americans, March 5-18.

Other Findings

  • The Christian conservative movement and the entertainment industry — two groups often at odds with each other — earn relatively modest ratings from the public. Christian conservatives get a 58% favorable to 42% unfavorable rating, and the entertainment industry earns a 53% favorable to 47% unfavorable rating.
  • The public continues to overwhelmingly oppose unrestricted research into human cloning. Eight-in-ten oppose this research while just 13% support it. Religious beliefs are cited as a basis for this opinion most often.
  • About half of Americans at least sometimes watch religious television or listen to religious radio programming. Only a third (34%) say they never tune into such broadcasts.
  • Nearly four-in-ten Americans (37%) say they have not heard of Episcopalians or could not evaluate them — far more than the number who could not rate Methodists (19%), Presbyterians (24%) or Lutherans (25%).
  • When asked, people most often describe God in terms of “power and might” (38%), but as many as 25% point to what God does or provides for them.

This report is divided into five Sections. In Section I we look at opinions on the role religion plays in solving society’s problems and attitudes toward government funding for faith-based groups. Section II examines views on religious diversity and includes the public’s ratings of various religious groups. That is followed by an analysis, in Section III, of the influence of religious belief on attitudes toward policy issues. Sections IV and V cover the nation’s religious landscape, examining practices and beliefs, as well as impressions of God.