Religious belief plays an important role in shaping public attitudes on several policy issues, from the dispute in the Middle East to the question of whether gays and lesbians should be permitted to marry. In particular, there is no doubt that belief in the biblical importance of Israel has a major impact on public opinion toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Overall, a plurality of Americans (44%) believe God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people, while 36% say this is not literally true. Fewer people believe that the state of Israel fulfills a biblical prophesy about Jesus’ second coming; 36% say this, while 46% disagree.

White evangelical Protestants are by far the most likely to believe that Israel was given to the Jews by God and that it fulfills a biblical prophesy of the second coming. Fully seven-in-ten white evangelicals (72%) say Israel was given to the Jews by God, a figure that rises to 77% among those evangelicals with a high degree of religious commitment. Fewer than half as many white Catholics (33%) and mainline Protestants (31%) agree.

The differences are equally stark when it comes to views of Israel as a fulfillment of the Bible’s prophesy of Jesus’ second coming. Three times as many white evangelicals as white mainline Protestants believe this is the case (63% vs. 21%). Just a quarter of white Catholics say Israel fulfills the biblical prophesy about the second coming. Interestingly, white Catholics who are the most religiously committed are far less likely than less-religious Catholics to say that Israel represents fulfillment of a biblical prophesy regarding the second coming (16% vs. 30%).

Race is also a factor in beliefs about Israel and the Bible, though it is not as significant as religion. Roughly half of blacks (51%) believe that Israel is a fulfillment of a biblical prophesy about Jesus’ second coming, compared with 41% of Hispanics and barely a third of all whites (34%). This is consistent with African-Americans’ broader views of biblical literalism. Blacks are twice as likely as whites (62% vs. 31%) to say that the Bible is the actu
al word of God and is to be taken literally, and this is significantly higher than among Hispanics (38%) and other non-whites (32%) as well.

Mideast Sympathies Stable

Americans continue to side with Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians. Currently, 41% say they sympathize more with Israel, while 13% sympathize more with the Palestinians, a margin that has remained relatively stable in recent years; 8% volunteer feelings of sympathy for both sides of the conflict, and 18% for neither. Religion continues to play an important factor in shaping these attitudes, with evangelical Christians far more likely than members of other religious groups to express sympathy for Israel. More than half of white evangelicals (55%) sympathize with Israel, compared with 41% of black Protestants, 39% of white Catholics, and 34% of white mainline Protestants. Seculars are split on this issue, with fewer than a quarter (24%) sympathizing with Israel over the Palestinians, and nearly as many (20%) siding with the Palestinians.

There is no doubt that Americans’ religious beliefs about biblical prophesy play a role in shaping views on the Mideast situation. Among the 36% of Americans who see Israel as a fulfilment of prophesy about the second coming of Jesus, the vast majority sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians (by a 57% to 9% margin). Sympathy for the Palestinians is twice as high (18%) among the 46% who do not believe Israel fulfills a biblical prophesy, and far fewer side with Israel (34%). The relevance of biblical prophesy is powerful even within religious denominations. For example, nearly two-thirds (64%) of white evangelical Protestants who believe Israel fulfills a biblical prophesy say they sympathize with Israel, compared with 47% of white evangelicals who do not hold this belief.

A third of Americans say media coverage of the Middle East has had the biggest influence on their thinking about the issue, followed by education (21%) and religious beliefs (20%). Religion’s role in shaping views on this issue is far more significant among supporters of Israel than among those who sympathize more with the Palestinians. Overall, 26% of those who sympathize more with Israel cite religion as having the biggest influence on their views. Among those who side with the Palestinians, just 11% say religion shaped their views, while 30% cite education as the biggest factor.

As might be expected given their views about Israel’s biblical importance, white evangelicals ­ especially those who are highly committed ­ are far more likely than members of most other religious groups to cite their religious belief as the biggest factor shaping their opinions on the Mideast conflict. Nearly four-in-ten white evangelicals (39%) cite their religious beliefs as the biggest influence on their thinking about the Middle East, compared with only about one-in-ten white mainline Protestants (10%) and Catholics (9%). Highly committed white evangelicals are even more likely to cite their religious beliefs as the biggest factor in their thinking about the Middle East conflict (46%).

Less Opposition to Gay Marriage

The issue of gay marriage recently returned to the public’s agenda after the Supreme Court overturned a Texas anti-sodomy law and enunciated what many observers believe is a broad prohibition against government regulation of private sexual behavior. While a majority of the public continues to oppose gay marriage, support has been gradually building over the past few years and the intensity of the opposition has been declining. Overall, 53% say they oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, while 38% favor the idea. But support is up from 27% in 1996, and strong opposition now stands at 30%, down from 41% in 1996.

There is a growing gap of opinion on this issue along racial and religious lines. Opposition to gay marriage is widespread among white evangelical Protestants and blacks, and opinion within these groups has changed little over the past seven years. White evangelicals remain the most firmly opposed on this issue: 84% opposed it in 1996, 83% do so now. And opposition among African-Americans is also unchanged (65% opposed gay marriage in 1996, 64% today).

By comparison, seculars, white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and Hispanics have become increasingly open to the idea of legalized gay and lesbian marriage. Opposition to gay marriage among white mainline Protestants dropped from 63% seven years ago to 44% today. White Catholic opposition also dropped 19 points (from 60% to 41%) over this same time period. Even among seculars, who were more supportive of gay marriage than most other groups in 1996, there is less opposition today: 46% opposed gay marriage in 1996, compared with only 30% who do so now. And while most Hispanics (54%) oppose gay marriage, this is somewhat lower than in 1996 (64%).

While most Americans remain opposed to gay marriage, fewer people now say they are strongly opposed. Strong opposition declined even among white evangelicals, from 64% in 1996 to 56% today, and it dropped even more among mainline Protestants, Catholics, and seculars.

This issue divides the public in many other ways as well. Young people are twice as likely as their elders to approve of gay marriage: 52% of those age 18-29 favor it, compared with only 22% among those 65 and older. Women are eight percentage points more supportive than are men (41% to 33%), and people living in the East (48%) and West (43%) are more supportive than Southerners (31%) and those in the Midwest (34%). Far more Democrats and independents (at 45% each) favor gay marriage than do Republicans (24%). Perhaps not surprisingly, people who have a gay friend, family member, or co-worker are more than twice as likely to favor gay marriage (55%) as those who do not (24%).

More Reservations About Death Penalty

A gradual shift in public opinion is also seen on the death penalty. While large majorities still favor the ultimate sanction for persons convicted of murder, support is slipping, especially strong support. Moreover, a small but growing religious divide has opened on this issue. The survey also finds an important qualification in people’s support for the death penalty; majorities oppose the execution of persons who committed murder when they were under the age of 18.

Just under two-thirds (64%) of the public now support the death penalty, compared with 78% in 1996. And 43% felt strongly about their support seven year ago, compared with just 28% today. While still a minority view, opposition to the death penalty over this period has grown from 18% to 30%.

In 1996 views on the death penalty were largely unrelated to religious differences. White evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and seculars held similar views. The views of white evangelicals have changed relatively little since that time ­ dropping from 82% support to 76% today ­ but members of other groups have moved further. Support for capital punishment among mainline Protestants has dropped from 85% to 70%, and among white Catholics it has declined from 79% to 69%. Seculars also are less supportive of the death penalty than they were in 1996 (78% then, 60% today).

Support for the death penalty among African-Americans, which has been consistently lower than among whites, also has declined. Seven years ago, a 54% majority of African-Americans favored the death penalty while 36% were opposed. Today, these figures are reversed, with just 39% in favor of capital punishment and 55% opposed. Hispanics, too, have become increasingly skeptical on this issue. Just half favor the death penalty today, compared with three-in-four in 1996.

While a majority favors capital punishment as a general policy, there is far less support for executing persons who committed murder when they were under the age of 18. Just 35% support such a policy, while 58% are opposed.(1) Only 11% strongly favor execution in this circumstance, compared with 20% who strongly oppose it. There is little religious division on this issue. Similar percentages of white mainline Protestants (43%), white evangelicals (42%), and seculars (41%) favor capital punishment for minors, compared with 31% of white Catholics. As with the death penalty in general, African-Americans are the most opposed to capital punishment for minors. Fully 80% oppose this, while just 16% favor it.

Physician-Assisted Suicide

Although not as prominent in recent news as gay marriage, the issue of physician-assisted suicide engenders religious divisions that are just as large. As with many issues, how the question is worded matters greatly. When respondents are asked about making it legal for doctors to “assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide,” 43% are in favor while 48% are opposed. But when the issue is described as making it legal for doctors to “give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives,” a majority of 54% gives its approval; 39% are opposed.

Regardless of how the question is phrased, large majorities of white evangelicals and black Protestants are opposed to physician-assisted suicide. When the word “suicide” is used, white evangelicals oppose the idea by two-to-one (61%-29%). White Catholics are divided (47% opposed, 45% in favor), while majorities of mainline Protestants (52%) and seculars (62%) approve. Support among these latter two groups rises to 70% and 75%, respectively, when “end their lives” is used instead of “suicide.” In this latter version, even a majority of Catholics approve (58% to 37%), while evangelical Protestants remain firmly opposed (58% oppose/38% favor).

Beyond religious affiliation, physician-assisted suicide is strongly related to a person’s own religiosity. Regardless of how the question is phrased, the policy is opposed by the majority of people who attend church regularly and say religion plays an important role in their lives, whereas the policy is supported by a majority of Americans who are not religious. For example, 72% of those with little religious commitment favor allowing doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives, while just 22% are opposed. By comparison, fewer than a third (32%) of those with a high level of religious commitment favor such a policy, while 61% are opposed.

Scrap Tax Cuts for Health Insurance

Fully 72% of Americans agree that the government should provide universal health care, even if it means repealing most tax cuts passed since Bush took office. Democrats overwhelmingly favor this proposal (86%-11%) and independents largely agree (78%-19%). Even a narrow majority of Republicans (51%) favor providing health insurance for all even if it means canceling the tax cuts, while 44% disagree.

In addition, most Americans ­ especially those who support repealing tax cuts to provide universal health coverage ­ see this as a moral issue as well as a political issue. Just a third believes this is strictly a political issue, while a narrow majority (52%) views it also as a moral question. A big majority of those who support this proposal ­ 61% ­ think of it as a moral as well as a political issue, while most opponents tend to see this in strictly political terms (58%).

Anti-SUV Campaign Gets Little Traction

The unusual advertising campaign invoking Jesus’ name to generate opposition to sports utility vehicles (SUVs) does not appear to be resonating with the public. Fewer than a third of Americans (31%) say they have heard about the campaign, whose theme is “What Would Jesus Drive?”

On that question itself, Americans have divided opinions. A third (33%) say Jesus would not drive an SUV, while 29% say he would, and 7% volunteered that Jesus would not drive any vehicle since he would walk. A large percentage (31%) offered no opinion. More SUV drivers (37%) than non-SUV drivers (29%) say they’ve heard about the campaign. And, not surprisingly, SUV drivers are more likely to say that Jesus would drive one (46% say he would, compared with only 25% among non-SUV drivers).

Religion’s Influence Seen As Waning

A solid majority of Americans (56%) believe that religion is losing its influence on American life, while just 30% think religion’s influence is increasing. That is in keeping with the trend on this measure dating back more than 30 years ­ with one major exception. In November 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the percentage of Americans who said religion’s influence was increasing rose sharply to 78%, from just 37% eight months earlier.

But in March 2002, the percentage saying that religion’s influence is gaining dropped back to its pre-Sept. 11 level of 37%. The current survey shows that number has fallen a bit further, to 30%. In addition, most Americans think that religion is losing, not increasing, its influence worldwide by 51% to 36%.