A poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press offers the latest glimpse into the intersection in American life between religion and politics. The poll got headlines for its finding that fewer people than before feel the Republican Party is “friendly to religion.”
Among the findings cited in the Pew poll:
The Democratic Party continues to face a serious "God problem," with just 26% saying the party is friendly to religion. However, the proportion of Americans who say the Republican Party is friendly to religion, while much larger, has fallen from 55% to 47% in the past year, with a particularly sharp decline coming among white evangelical Protestants (14 percentage points).
As I read the explanations behind the numbers, I kept hearing echoes of the people I’d talked with along US Route 50 last year, when I spent 50 days on the road trying to find out what Americans thought about politics.
In my poll, nearly six in 10 of the respondents said religion is “very important” to them. Just under one in four said it was “fairly important,” 12% said it was “not important,” and six percent volunteered that they were spiritual, but not religious. Religion was most important to Republicans, and less so to Democrats and Independents.
Overall, one person in four that I talked with considered themselves to be born-again Christians. Among Republicans, half said they were.
Probably the most revealing answers I got were on the question of the separation between church and state. Overall, seven people in 10 said they think the separation of church and state is a good thing. Eleven percent said it’s not, and 18% said their opinion on the subject is mixed. (Many of the people with mixed opinions thought the drive to rid God from the classroom and courts had gone too far.)
But there were very strong differences between the answers given by Democrats and Republicans. While Democrats overwhelmingly supported the separation of church and state – see the charts below – Republicans were much more divided on the issue.
I need to point out that these numbers came not from a scientific poll, but rather from my walking up to people who live along US Route 50, and asking them what they think. (The sample was evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans.)
Clearly though, Republicans are much more comfortable with religion in public life than Democrats are. Likewise, while most Democrats – and even some Republicans – were troubled by the rising influence of the Christian right, many said they thought it was about time we were getting some religious values in the halls of government.
But the feeling was not universal, even among Republicans, as I found out in suburban Kansas City when I talked with Richard G. Warner, a retired businessman and lifelong Republican, who has lately become disenchanted with his party:
I think the framers of the constitution had it dead right when they said religion and politics should be separate. But we’ve gotten to where we’re voting religion, not politics any more. The Democrats are voting free choice, and the Republicans are voting right to life. I mean, it’s gotten to where that’s 90% of what people vote. They don’t vote quality of opinion. They don’t vote on quality of the man they’re voting on. All they vote is those two things. It’s terrible.
Another Republican, Helen Trahern of Cimarron, Kansas gave a cogent summary of the alternate view:
That’s what our country was founded on, freedom of religion. But yet we don’t have freedom of religion, they’ve turned it around … We can’t have Christ in Christmas. We can’t have Easter parties any more in our schools. When they have their Christmas programs, they can’t sing the Christmas carols, nothing about Christ. I think that the religious views need to be heard. The moral character of our country needs to be heard…. It just seems to me like anything goes but the Christian viewpoint. It’s turned completely around.
The one thing I’d add to this never-ending debate is an observation about why things get so messy so quickly when religion and politics mix. Politics is all about compromise. Religion is all about knowing what you believe, and sticking with it no matter what.
In that light it’s not surprising to find, from the Pew survey, that some evangelicals have lately begun to view the Republican Party as less "friendly to religion" than it used to be.