Summary of Findings
As the Republicans gather in New York to nominate George W. Bush for a second term, more Americans see the Republican Party than the Democratic Party as friendly toward religion. And most express comfort with President Bush’s reliance on his religious beliefs in making policy decisions. On the issue of gay marriage, Bush and his party benefit from the strong support of religious conservatives and division among Democrats.
But a second policy debate with a strong religious linkage embryonic stem cell research is emerging as an issue that may help the Democrats. The stem cell controversy is growing in visibility, and a majority of the public (52%) now feels that the potential benefits of such research are more important than preserving the embryos that would be destroyed up from 43% in March 2002. Significantly, swing voters are much closer to John Kerry’s voters than to Bush’s supporters on this issue.
The nationwide survey of 1,512 adults, conducted August 5-10 by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, shows that in a campaign dominated by the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy, moral issues could have a significant impact.
Fully 64% of voters say the issue of “moral values” will be very important to their vote. Kerry and Bush run about even among voters on the question of which candidate could do the best job in improving the nation’s moral climate (45% Kerry vs. 41% Bush).
At the same time, the public expresses ambivalence on general questions concerning the appropriate role for churches and other houses of worship in politics, and outright skepticism on specific issues relating to religion that have arisen during the current campaign. By nearly three-to-one (64%-22%), Americans say it is improper for Catholic church leaders to deny communion to Catholic politicians whose views on abortion and other “life” issues go against church teachings.
This opinion is widely shared across the religious and political spectrum, and those who place great personal importance on religion and Catholics themselves decisively reject the idea of Catholic church leaders withholding communion from politicians whose views defy church teachings on abortion and related issues.
There also is widespread opposition, again among people of different denominations and varying levels of religious commitment, to political parties asking church members for lists of congregants so the parties can encourage them to register and vote. In a similar vein, Americans continue to oppose the idea of churches and other houses of worship endorsing political candidates. Nearly two-thirds (65%) say churches should not do this, while just 25% find it acceptable.
The poll paints a portrait of a public comfortable with politicians who talk about their religious beliefs and who rely on religion in making decisions. Roughly seven-in-ten voters (72%) continue to say it is important to them that a president have strong religious beliefs. Majorities feel both Bush and Kerry mention their faith the right amount.
The percentage of Americans who criticize the president for discussing his religious faith too much has grown from a year ago, but this remains a minority viewpoint. In July 2003, just 14% said the president mentioned his faith and prayer too much today nearly a quarter (24%) says he does, and the increase has come equally from both Democrats and independents.
But overall, most Americans are not critical of the way Bush and Kerry cite their religious faith and prayer. Bush receives more criticism than does Kerry on this front about a third of Democrats (35%) and independents (32%) say Bush discusses his faith too much.
And on another church-state issue that has generated considerable controversy the failed effort by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to display a monument to the Ten Commandments in the State Supreme Court building a sizable majority of the public (72%) believes that it is proper to display the commandments in public buildings; just 23% say this is improper. More Republicans (86%) than Democrats (64%) say it is proper to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings. Among certain Kerry voters a majority (57%) agree. Seculars are evenly divided on the question (45% say it is proper, 48% improper).
GOP Seen as More Friendly to Religion
While neither political party is seen as particularly unfriendly toward religion, somewhat more say the Republican Party is friendly toward religion (52%) than the Democratic Party (40%). There is a much bigger gap in views of whether conservatives and liberals have a favorable attitude toward religion. By roughly five-to-one (49% to 9%), more say conservatives are friendly than unfriendly toward religion. Public opinion is split over liberals; 21% say liberals are friendly toward religion, 23% unfriendly.
Partisans on both sides see their party as the more friendly toward religion, but the divide is particularly stark on the right. Seven-in-ten Republicans say the GOP is friendly toward religion and just 27% say the same about the Democratic Party. Among Democrats, half see their own party as friendly toward religion, but 45% also say the same about the Republican Party. African-Americans, who are largely Democratic in partisan affiliation, diverge somewhat from this pattern. While about half of blacks (51%) see the Democratic Party as friendly toward religion, just 28% say the Republican Party is friendly. Three-in-ten African Americans see the GOP as unfriendly toward religion.
The Issues: Stem Cell Research
Public awareness of the debate over stem cell research has increased markedly over the past two years. In March 2002, only about a quarter of Americans (27%) said they had heard a lot about this issue. Today, 42% of Americans say they have heard a lot about the stem cell debate.
Nearly all demographic groups express more familiarity with this issue than two years ago, but the shift has been particularly striking among Americans in their 50s and early 60s. Today, more than half of those age 50-64 (54%) say they have heard a lot about the stem cell debate, far more than any other group and nearly double the number in March 2002 (29%). Twice as many college graduates as high school graduates say they have heard a lot about the debate over stem cell research (62%-31%). There are no major political or religious differences in attention to the issue, however.
People who have heard a lot about the stem cell debate are much more supportive of research in this area than are those who have heard little or nothing. By more than two-to-one (63%-28%), those who have heard a great deal about the issue believe it is more important to conduct stem cell research that may result in medical cures than to not destroy the potential life of human embryos.
Shifting Sentiment on Stem Cells
Overall, a narrow majority of Americans (52%) now say it is more important to conduct stem cell research than to not destroy embryos, up from 43% who expressed this view in March 2002. The shift on this issue has been broad-based, but has been particularly notable among African Americans (16 points), high school graduates (15 points) and those with a moderate level of religious commitment (15 points).
Education is clearly associated with opinions on stem cell research, as well as attention to the issue. However, while 61% of college graduates say it is more important to conduct such research than to n
ot destroy embryos more than any other education category — there has been a bigger shift on this issue among high school graduates. In March 2002, only about a third of high school graduates (34%) said it was more important to pursue stem cell research than to not destroy embryos. In the current survey, nearly half (49%) express that view.
Among religious groups, nearly two-thirds of white non-evangelical Christians (65%) now place greater importance on conducting stem cell research than on not destroying embryos; only about half in this group (51%) held that opinion in March 2002. White Catholics also have become much more supportive of stem cell research (55% now, 43% March 2002).
Majorities of white evangelical Protestants (53%) and members of all religious denominations who have a high level of religious commitment (52%) continue to say it is more important not to destroy embryos than to conduct stem cell research. However, there has been some movement among these groups to the view that it is more important to engage in stem cell research (seven points among white evangelical Protestants and 13 points among people with a high degree of religious commitment).
Catholic Leaders and Communion
Catholics are even more opposed than other Americans to the idea of Catholic church leaders denying communion to politicians whose views on abortion and related issues contradict church teachings. But white evangelical Protestants are more comfortable with this practice.
Fully seven-in-ten Catholics (72%) say it is improper for Catholic Church leaders to deny communion to politicians who defy church teachings on abortion and related issues.
Opposition to this idea is widespread among various subgroups of Catholics, although male Catholics; Catholics who identify with the GOP; and those who attend church at least weekly are somewhat more supportive of Catholic leaders withholding communion from such politicians.
White evangelical Protestants also believe it is improper for Catholic leaders to deny communion to politicians who go against church teachings on life issues, but by a much smaller margin than Catholics. A plurality of white evangelical Protestants (47%) say this is improper, while 35% find it acceptable.
The public takes a dim view of partisan efforts to recruit church members to assist in voter registration drives.
Just 26% in the poll believe it is proper for political parties to ask church members for church rosters for the purpose of encouraging parishioners to register and vote; 69% say it is improper.
Opposition to the practice is as great among Republicans as among Democrats and independents. Although slightly more white evangelicals approve of the practice (33%), six-in-ten do not. Only among black Protestants do as many say the practice is proper as say it is improper (45% vs. 44%, respectively).
Religion and Politics
Although the public is comfortable with political leaders who talk about their religion and use their religious beliefs to guide policymaking, they are much less comfortable when churches and other houses of worship get involved in partisan politics. A bare majority approves of churches and other houses of worship expressing their views on day-to-day social and political questions (51%, versus 44% who think they should not). There is much less support for churches and other houses of worship endorsing political candidates; nearly two-thirds (65%) oppose this idea.
Views about the appropriateness of churches expressing views on political questions have been relatively stable the past eight years, varying by only a few percentage points since 1996. And since last year, there has been little change in the opinion that churches should not endorse political candidates.
White evangelicals and black Protestants are much more apt than members of other religious groups to feel that churches should express their views on politics. Fully 71% of evangelicals and 80% among those who attend church weekly say this is appropriate, as do 64% of black Protestants. Most white Catholics (60%) and white mainline Protestants 51% think churches should stay out of politics. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) secular individuals agree.
But even among high-attendance white evangelicals, fewer than a majority (42%) support the idea of churches endorsing candidates; just 32% of black Protestants agree. Only 15% of white Catholics and 20% of white mainline Protestants think this is appropriate.
Most Want a President with Faith
By three-to-one (72% to 24%) most registered voters say it is important to them that the president have strong religious beliefs. This is virtually unchanged from four years ago, when 70% said it was important, and 27% said it was not. Roughly three-in-ten voters (31%) say they “completely agree” that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs, and these voters favor George W. Bush over John Kerry by nearly two-to-one (60% vs. 34%).
Kerry holds a slight 52% to 40% edge among the plurality of voters who “mostly agree” that religiosity is an important quality in a president, and Kerry’s lead among those who say this is not important is a sizeable 67% to 24%.
In this regard, while most Americans say George W. Bush relies on his own religious beliefs in making policy decisions either a great deal (26%) or a fair amount (38%), most feel that the influence of religion on his policymaking is appropriate. Just 15% of Americans believe Bush relies on his religious beliefs too much in making policy slightly more (21%) would prefer he rely on religion more often. The majority (53%) says Bush relies on religion about the right amount.
In fact, the only respondents who are highly critical of the president’s reliance on religion are those who think the president’s decisions are currently not affected by his faith. Of the 28% who say the president does not rely on his own religious beliefs when making policy decisions, most (53%) would like to see him do so more. Among those who say the president relies on religion a great deal or a fair amount, sizable majorities say it is appropriate.
By comparison, John Kerry is seen as a less religiously oriented candidate. Only one-in-ten believe Kerry, if he is elected president, will rely on his own religious beliefs a great deal in making policy decisions. Nearly half (46%) say Kerry’s faith will not influence him much at all.
Mentions of Faith Too Much or Not Enough?
Generally, most Americans are critical of the amount of expressions of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, but criticism is divided evenly between those who say there is too little reference to religion in political rhetoric (31%) and those who say there is too much (27%). This marks a clear shift from a year ago when, by a margin of two-to-one (41% to 21%), more said politicians discussed their religious faith too little, not too much.
Across virtually all groups, fewer today say that there is too little discussion of faith by politicians, but the shift is most notable among white Catholics. A year ago, 37% of Catholics said there was too little discussion of personal faith by politicians, today just 16% feel this way, while the proportion saying faith and prayer are mentioned too often has risen from 20% to 30%.
Blacks have long expressed a preference for more discussion of faith and prayer by political leaders, but the percentage backing expressing this view has declined from 62% to 43% over the past year.
The electoral implications of these attitudes are stark. By more than two-to-one (61% to 29%), people who wish t
here was more discussion of faith by political leaders back Bush over Kerry in the 2004 election, and by a similar margin (63% to 32%) people who think there is too much of it favor Kerry over Bush. And those who think there is the right amount of religious rhetoric today are divided evenly (50% favor Bush, 46% Kerry).
Gay Marriage a Low Priority
The economy, terrorism, health care, Iraq, and education are the issues that voters say are most important to them this year. In contrast, gay marriage ranks as among the least important issues tested in the new survey. Roughly a third (34%) say gay marriage will be a very important factor in their choice about as many (30%) say it will not be a factor at all. By comparison, twice as many voters see the economy, terrorism and Iraq as well as health care and education as very important to them.
But the general issue of morality may play central role in this year’s election. Nearly two-thirds of voters (64%) say that the issue of “moral values” will be very important in their decision about who to vote for. And while much of the campaign news focuses on the issues of the economy, terrorism and Iraq, voters rate the issues of health care and education just as high.
Swing voters divide over the issue of gay marriage much the way Americans do overall 57% oppose legalizing gay marriage, while 32% are in favor. But there is little to suggest that the issue will affect the swing vote in a substantial way. Just 26% of swing voters say the issue of gay marriage will be a very important factor for them, placing it far below any other issue included in the survey. But the issue is clearly of greater relevance to opponents than proponents, even when the analysis is limited to swing voters. Just 15% of swing voters who are in favor of legalizing gay marriage say it is very important to them, compared with 36% of swing voters who oppose legalization.
The economy, health care, terrorism and education top the list of concerns among swing voters, with two-thirds or more ranking each as a very important issue. Another 57% of swing voters say that “moral values” is very important in their thinking about the 2004 election about the same number of committed Kerry supporters (55%) say the same. By comparison, committed Bush supporters rank moral values at the very top of their list of important campaign issues fully 78% rank both it and the issue of terrorism as very important concerns.
White Evangelicals Care Most
The issue of gay marriage is of significant importance only to white evangelical Protestants, and even within this group, only those who are the most religiously active place great priority on this issue. Among white evangelicals who attend church weekly, fully two-thirds (67%) rank gay marriage as a very important issue in this election. To put this in context, gay marriage ranks as high as the economy, higher than Iraq and just a step below terrorism in the minds of these voters, who make up 17% of registered voters. By comparison, less than half as many white evangelicals who attend church less frequently say gay marriage will be very important in their voting decision (28%).
This latter view prevails among all other ethnic and religious groups. Barely a quarter of white mainline Protestants (26%) rate gay marriage as a very important issue, as do only 22% of white Catholics. Among blacks, gay marriage is particularly unimportant fully 43% say it is not important at all in their thinking about the election.
Not surprisingly, gay marriage remains far more influential for those who oppose it than for those who support it. Only 20% of gay marriage proponents say it will be a very important issue in casting their vote, while 35% say they will not consider it at all. Twice as many opponents (44%) say it will be very important in casting their vote, while just 26% say it will not matter at all.