Mixing God and politics: Where do Americans really stand?

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Caught in the crossfire of culture-war battles over religion and politics, most Americans may be ready to say “a plague on both your houses.”

At least that’s one way to read a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and released Aug. 24.

According to the survey, nearly half of Americans (49%) believe conservative Christians have gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country. At the same time, 69% think liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government.

Though most Americans are religious (and most think religious influence on our society is a good thing), few identify with religious political movements on the left or right. Only 7% call themselves members of the “religious left,” and only 11% say they belong to the “religious right.”

Politicians and religious leaders who use “Christian nation” rhetoric will be pleased to learn that 67% of Americans see the United States as a Christian nation. But it isn’t clear what people mean by that description — or even whether they think it is a good or bad thing. Is America “Christian” because of demographics or cultural influences or history or all of the above? The survey doesn’t say.

But the poll does reveal that most Americans reject the views of Religious Right leaders such as Roy Moore (former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court) who argue that biblical law must be the supreme law of the land.

Americans were asked “which should be the more important influence on the laws of the United States? Should it be the Bible or should it be the will of the American people, even when it conflicts with the Bible?” A large majority, 63%, said the will of the people should prevail.

Christian Americans, like Americans in general, are a diverse group with a broad range of views about both religion and politics. About a third of all Christians (32%) describe themselves as “liberal” or “progressive” Christians. And 38% identify themselves as “born again” or evangelical Christians. But contrary to media stereotypes, these labels overlap for many Americans. More than a third of evangelicals (36%), for example, also describe themselves as liberal or progressive Christians.

Moreover, people who call themselves “liberal or progressive Christians” are not necessarily politically liberal. In fact, 26% say they are politically conservative, while 27% are politically liberal and 45% characterize themselves as moderates.

Both major political parties will look closely at the survey to see how they are faring with their respective campaigns to appear the most “religion friendly.” Republicans (who count evangelicals as a core constituency) have lost ground, with 47% of Americans now saying that the GOP is friendly to religion as contrasted with 55% last year. Even more ominous for Republicans, the decline is steepest among white evangelicals, falling from 63% in 2005 to the current 49%.

Democrats don’t have much to cheer about either. Only 26% of Americans say the Democratic Party is friendly to religion; just three years ago, 42% saw Democrats that way — that's a precipitous slide. Meanwhile, 42% say the Democratic Party is neutral toward religion and 20% say unfriendly.

As we head into the midterm elections, politicians take note. The majority of Americans see a role for religion in public life — but they don’t want religion imposed on anyone, especially by the state. Moderation won’t stir the culture warriors, but it might win elections.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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