by John C. Green

The role of religious voters in the Republican Party has been highlighted by the sharp criticism of the Republican presidential front-runners – Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney – by conservative religious leaders.

Are religious Republicans abandoning President Bush and perhaps the GOP as well? The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted May 30-June 3, suggests that this conclusion is unlikely to be true. (In this analysis, “religious Republicans” are defined as registered voters who identified as Republicans or leaned Republican and reported attending worship services once a week or more.)

The data show that in June 2007, religious Republicans strongly approved of President Bush’s job performance (71%) and also strongly believed that using military force in Iraq was the right decision (80%). Bush’s approval among religious Republicans has declined significantly since July 2005 (down by 15 percentage points), but support for the Iraq War decision has diminished only slightly (down 3 points).

These figures are especially impressive when compared to the views held by other Americans. For example, religious Republicans are more supportive of President Bush and the Iraq War decision than other Republicans (by 10 and 8 points, respectively). And religious Republicans are far more supportive of Bush and the Iraq War than the public at large, among whom just 29% approve of Bush’s job performance and only 40% agree with the decision to use military force in Iraq.

These findings suggest that religious Republicans are still a firm part of the GOP base. Thus, the criticism of Giuliani, McCain and Romney by conservative religious leaders is unlikely to reflect abandonment of the president or of the GOP, but rather concern about departures from the Bush administration policies.

Therein lies a political dilemma: Republican presidential candidates may need to move away from Bush to win the White House in 2008, but they also may need strong backing from their religious supporters.