More Religion in Politics? New Poll’s Findings May Be Overhyped

A day after headlines heralding Americans’ desire for more religion in politics and public life, the citizenry’s wish has been granted. A quick scan of national newspapers shows many religious and moral concerns in today’s news mix: declining marriage rates, civil disobedience, climate change, racial justice in Ferguson and stopping ISIS at the border—just to name a few.

But since most of these issues were also in the news the day before the new Pew survey (and the day before that and the day before that too) it’s hard to see the 300+ articles—proclaiming everything from “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more” to “More Americans want religion in the politics”—as anything more than sociological clickbait.

News outlets are playing the culture war card because the fight over religion’s role in politics is second only to naked nubile actresses in arousing public attention.

Do more Americans want religion in politics and public life? A careful look at the survey shows yes, some do—mainly religious people, and the more religious, the greater desire for public engagement with religion. Of course we then have to ask: whose religion? According to another Pew poll on the popularity of different faiths, Americans had warmest feelings for Jews. With the Day of Atonement in less than two weeks, Americans could proactively start repenting on any number of fronts. That would lead to lots more religion in public life and probably an uptick in its political guises, too.

But seriously, even though many news outlets used the Pew numbers more for titillation than information, there were some intriguing, if underreported, findings in and implied by the survey.

First is the deep division among Republicans about whether their party is too religious or not religious enough. That split is echoed in the split between the Tea Party and less sectarian GOP’ers. If that chasm isn’t healed, Republicans midterm electoral chances could be hindered.

The second takeaway is Americans’ media illiteracy—or maybe just their short attention span. Just three months ago, the US Supreme Court extended first amendment protection for the free exercise of religion to privately held corporations. The Hobby Lobby decision exemplifies the active role of religion in American public life as well as its intermingling—insofar as it challenged the president’s Affordable Care Act—in politics.

Bottom line? Even with the country’s tilt to a younger, more racially diverse, less religiously affiliated populace, there’s no reason to think that religiously conservative old white guys and their issues are endangered.

Note: Listen to Diane Winston’s radio interview on this topic on L.A.’s KPCC. —Eds.