For the first time in at least a decade, a majority of Americans believe churches should keep out of politics as opposed to expressing their views on social and political concerns.
The biggest shift occurred for Republicans, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Four years ago 58 percent of Republicans said churches should express their views on political issues. Today 48 percent say so, a 10 percent change.
A majority of Republicans today (51 percent) say churches should keep out of politics. That compares to 37 percent of Republicans who said so in 2004. One percent say they don’t know, compared to 5 percent who were undecided four years ago.
Part of the reason for the shift appears to be frustration and disillusionment among social conservatives, a voting bloc rallied by the Religious Right during the last quarter century around issues of abortion and homosexual rights.
Four years ago just 25 percent of people saying gay marriage is very important and 33 percent of those who rated abortion as very important said churches should stay out of politics. Those numbers have grown to 50 percent of those who strongly oppose gay marriage and 49 percent of abortion opponents who now say politics should be kept out of church.
Reported just before conventions by both major political parties, the shift in thinking about religion and politics comes amid aggressive outreach by the Democratic Party toward people of faith.
While the Republican Party has in recent years positioned itself as the party friendly toward religion, the Democrats have made gains in this area. Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) say the Democratic Party is generally friendly toward religion. That compares to just 26 percent two years ago.
At the same time 48 percent say religious conservatives exert too much control in the Republican Party, an increase of five percentage points in just a year. The shift is most pronounced among evangelicals–36 percent believe religion plays too great a role in the GOP, up eight points from a year ago.
Two thirds of the public (66 percent) say that churches and other houses of worship should not endorse one candidate over another. While that overall number hasn’t changed much since 2004, Republicans have become significantly more opposed to churches endorsing candidates–64 percent today compared to 53 percent in 2004. The trend is especially pronounced among white evangelical Republicans. Today 59 percent are opposed to church endorsements, compared to 40 percent four years ago.
Half of Americans say it does not bother them when politicians talk about how religious they are, but the number expressing discomfort has edged upward. Today, 46 percent say they are uncomfortable when politicians talk about their faith, up from 40 percent in 2004.
Seven in 10 say it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs, but Americans are divided about whether there is too much religion talk in current politics. About 29 percent say political leaders express their religious beliefs too much, 36 percent too little and 28 percent the right amount.
The economy continues to dominate the concerns of voters. Nearly nine in 10 (87 percent) say the economy will be very important to their vote this fall, up from 78 percent in October 2004. Energy is a growing concern, viewed as very important by 77 percent of voters, compared to 54 percent during the last presidential campaign.
About three fourths of voters mentioned issues like health care, education, the war in Iraq and terrorism. Majorities also mentioned moral values (61 percent very important), the environment (59 percent) and immigration (52 percent).
Two linchpin issues for the Religious Right–abortion and gay marriage–rank at the bottom of the list of perceived importance to voters in general. Abortion was mentioned by 39 percent as very important, down eight points from October 2004, while 28 percent mentioned gay marriage, down from 32 percent four years ago.
Despite outreach efforts to people of faith, Democrats have made few inroads among white evangelicals. Thirty percent say they are Democrats or leaning toward the Democratic Party. That’s up two points from four years ago, but Republicans continue to outnumber them by more than 2-1. Today 62 percent of white evangelicals identify with the Republican Party, compared to 66 percent four years ago.
Roughly two thirds of Americans (66 percent) now disapprove of the job George W. Bush is doing as president, while 28 percent approve of his performance. White evangelical Protestants remain his strongest supporters, but even among them fewer than half (47 percent) approve of Bush’s performance, while 48 percent disapprove.
Nearly six in 10 Americans (58 percent) disapprove of the job Democratic leaders in Congress are doing. That is the highest proportion giving a negative assessment since the question was first asked in June 2001.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics
Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.