New Poll Finds “Growing Appetite” for Mixing Religion and Politics

A new poll out today from the Pew Research Center finds an increasing number of Americans in favor of injecting religion into electoral politics, a growing perception that the Obama administration is “unfriendly” to religion, and discontent among white evangelicals with how the Republican Party represents their interests.

Heading into the mid-term elections, and looking ahead to the 2016 presidential campaign, these results should prove unsettling for advocates of untangling religion from electoral politics, as they could signal to candidates that a growing number of voters are interested in hearing them talk about their faith. While the number of Americans who believe it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs has remained steady since 2010—about 6-in-10, with even more significant majorities among Protestants and Catholics—this poll shows a growing number of Americans who want to hear candidates talk about their religion.

On the Republican side, candidates could view this finding, along with the dissatisfaction among white evangelicals with the GOP’s advocacy on same-sex marriage and other issues as demanding even more religious fervor to win over crucial primary voters. That process, unsurprisingly, is already in motion. The GOP’s Director of Faith Engagement, Chad Connelly, told CBN’s David Brody last month, “The Republican Party is the natural home for people of faith.” 

On the Democratic side, a growing number, concentrated among white, conservative religious voters, say they see the Democrats as “unfriendly” to religion. In the past two presidential election cycles, Democrats have sought to win over more religious voters with heightened religious outreach, although this appears to have had little impact on the perceptions of conservatives.

Whether these findings prompt candidates to talk more about their religion remains to be seen. But these results are likely to provoke more discussion of the propriety of a candidate showcasing his or her religious beliefs on the campaign trail and in policy debates.

The poll, conducted earlier this month, found nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents believe the influence of religion in American society is waning—but that most view that decline as a negative development. “Perhaps as a consequence,” the Pew researchers conclude, “a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in U.S. politics.” Those affiliated with a religion, particularly evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics, “have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion.”

Among those who “see religion’s role in society as positive,” the report found, support for churches endorsing candidates jumped 10 points, from 27% in 2010 to 37% this year. While the results generally found a “widening” divide between the religious affiliated and non-affiliated (or “nones”), one data point was particularly striking: even among the nones, support for churches endorsing candidates rose eight points, from 15 in 2010 to 23% now, among that group. By contrast, 26% of the religiously affiliated supported church endorsements in 2010, rising to 35% in 2014.

While those supporting church endorsements of candidates are still a minority, even among every religious group, other findings in this poll could provide an opening for candidates looking to talk more about religion on the campaign trail, or elected officials aiming to mix religion into policy debates.

A majority of those who see religion’s influence as positive, and a majority of Republicans and voters who lean Republican, believe there has been “too little” religious talk from politicians. Those figures are up five points from 2010 among the religion-is-positive respondents, and up nine points among the Republicans and Republican leaners. Sixty-eight percent of white evangelicals believe there has been too little religious talk from politicians, by far the largest percentage of any religious group.

By contrast, though, only 32% of Democrats and Democratic-leaners believed there was “too little” religious talk, a figure that has held steady since 2010.

Twenty five percent of respondents deemed the Democratic Party “unfriendly” to religion. But the religious breakdown of this response is worth noting: it’s most prevalent, by wide margins, among white evangelicals over other religious groups. Forty-seven percent of white evangelicals deem Democrats “unfriendly” to religion, while other are less sure: only 27% of mainline Protestants, 10% of black Protestants, and 24% of Catholics view the Democratic Party as “unfriendly” to religion. Notably, most Catholics—whose leadership expended much energy decrying and contesting the contraception coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act—do not view the Democratic Party as “unfriendly” to religion.

Still, though, there has been an uptick in whether the public sees the Obama administration as “unfriendly” to religion, up 12 points since 2009, to 29%. But again, the negative views are concentrated in certain religious groups: 57% of white evangelicals see Obama as “unfriendly,” up 19 points since 2009. Among white Catholics, the percentage jumped from 17% in 2009 to 36% in 2014. But only 16% of Hispanic Catholics see the Obama administration as “unfriendly” to religion. In other words, the discontent is concentrated among white conservative religious voters.

Seventy-two percent of white evangelicals identify with the Republican Party. In the poll, they expressed dissatisfaction with the way the party is representing their interests, with a majority saying it failed to represent their interests on government spending, same-sex marriage, and immigration—because the party has been too liberal on those issues.

The growth of the nones has lead to many premature conclusions about the decline of religion in politics. This poll, of course, is just one poll, and no one can predict how these findings could manifest themselves in 2014 and 2016. But we could be seeing more religious talk in politics, not less.