It Depends What You Mean By “Religious”: Latest Poll Says More About Us Than Candidates

Students express their preference before Donald Trump's speech at Liberty University.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center tells us, predictably enough, that Americans generally like their presidents to be “religious,” and that about half (more Republicans than Democrats) want someone who shares their religious beliefs. Indeed, people who rated a candidate as “religious” were also likely to say that person would be a good president. Sounds clear enough—but is it?

The poll also confirmed that not believing in God is the single biggest liability a candidate might have. Just over half of those polled (51%) say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate if they knew the person to be a non-believer. That’s twice the negative impact of being gay or lesbian. This distrust of atheists is a long-standing and widely-supported research finding. On all sorts of measures of likeability, warmth, and trust, atheists come out at the bottom, although there are hints in the poll that as more Americans identify themselves as unaffiliated with any religious tradition, this non-belief liability may be declining, if only slightly.

Still, given that none of this year’s crop of candidates is identified as an atheist, one might think that the matter is settled. But as usual the devil is in the details.

This is a poll about perceptions, not facts. Pew’s survey respondents were asked to rate the candidates as “very,” “somewhat,” “not too” or “not at all” religious. In some cases, people might have known quite a bit about the religious life of the candidate in question, allowing them to make an accurate empirical judgement, but those cases were likely pretty rare.

People were very unlikely to be making judgements based on a thorough knowledge of the candidate’s beliefs, attendance at religious services, knowledge of religious texts, regular practices of prayer or scripture study, or adherence to ethical commands. Those are all ways we might assess the religiousness of people we know. They are also ways that researchers attempt to assess the religiosity of a person or group. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are lots of interesting questions to ask about how religion does and doesn’t play a role in the lives of these candidates.

But this poll was not about assessments of actual belief and piety.

There are lots of clues in this poll that “religiousness” lies squarely in the eye of the beholder. Consider the finding that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are judged to be less religious today than they were in 2007. Have they quit going to church or talking about their faith or praying? Hardly. What has happened is a political shift in perception, not a shift in religious behavior.

This is closely related to the finding that candidates in one’s own party are likely to be viewed as more religious than candidates in the opposing party. Whatever it is that people are saying when they describe a candidate as religious, they are also saying that this is a person whose values—as reflected in shared political positions—can be trusted.

The correlation between judging a candidate to be a great potential president and judging that person to be religious are two sides of the same political assessment that this candidate is “like me” and has my interests at heart.

As with everything about this election season, however, there are two significant outliers who don’t fit this picture—Trump and Sanders. Donald Trump gets by far the lowest “religiousness” ratings, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for him—even among evangelicals. Fewer than half (44%) of Republicans in the survey think he’s somewhat or very religious. For every other Republican candidate, people who think that don’t think that person would be a great president. But almost a third (30%) of Trump’s fans think he is not religious and like him nonetheless.

That may be in part because Trump’s supporters are themselves significantly less religiously-active than are other Republicans. The Wall Street Journal reports that only 38% of them attend services weekly or more, compared to 56% of the socially conservative wing of the party.

And then there is Bernie Sanders, a Jewish candidate whose religiousness may be ambiguous for many American voters. Among Democrats, Sanders’ perceived religiousness makes no difference one way or another in whether people think he would be a good president. He is viewed as somewhat less religious than Hillary Clinton, but that factor is simply not weighed in the political assessment these survey respondents are making of him.

Both Sanders and Trump are as religiously unconventional as they are unconventional by other political standards.

We will certainly not cease hearing about religion in this election season, but as we do, it’s important to know what the polls are actually measuring. When we hear about the “religiousness” of a candidate, we are probably learning as much about the speaker as about the candidate. As with being honest, trustworthy, and brave, being religious is in the catalogue of character traits we are looking for, but it’s as likely to be appended to our preferred candidate as to be the reason we like that candidate in the first place.