Voters favor equal treatment for religious charities addressing social needs

Sunday, September 24, 2000

Religion is the hot topic of campaign 2000. There's plenty of God-talk
on the campaign trail, especially from the first Jewish candidate on a major
party ticket.

And both Al Gore and George Bush are pushing for more cooperation
between government and religious communities in efforts to address drug abuse,
poverty and other social ills.

What do the voters think about this? A poll released this week by the
Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life provides some
insights that politicians might find instructive.

According to this survey, 70% of Americans think that it's important
for a president to have strong religious beliefs. But that doesn't mean people
want to hear a lot about them. A surprising 50% say that they are uncomfortable
when politicians discuss how religious they are.

Americans also are ambivalent about the involvement of religious
institutions in politics. A bare majority, 51%, thinks that churches should
express views on political issues. But 64% don't want clergy discussing
political issues from the pulpit.

Senator Lieberman's candidacy has provoked a new round of discussion
about how Americans view various religious groups. The Pew survey reports that
Jews are viewed favorably by 77% of the population, about the same percentage
as see Catholics favorably (78%). Evangelical Christians have a 63%
favorability rating, up from 41% in 1996.

Two other groups don't fare as well. Only 50% view Muslim Americans
favorably, while 21% see Muslims unfavorably. (Twenty-nine percent say they
can't give an opinion.) The favorability rating for atheists is a mere 32%.
Fully 52% of Americans view atheists unfavorably.

What about partnerships between government and religious groups? Both
Republicans and Democrats support expanding “charitable choice,”
legislation that allows religious organizations to apply for government funds
to provide social services. How do voters feel about this? It depends on how
the question is phrased.

When asked if they favor “giving government funding to religious
organizations so they can provide social services,” only 54% say yes. But
if the question is recast as “allowing religious organizations to apply,
along with other organizations, for government funding to provide social
services,” those in favor go up to 67%.

Political parties take note: It matters how you frame the issue. Many
Americans seem to be uncertain about the wisdom of government money going
directly to religious organizations. But a strong majority appears to support
equal treatment of all charitable groups — religious and non-religious
— in the process of applying for government funds to offer job training,
drug treatment and similar programs.

Support for charitable choice is hardly surprising, given the number
of Americans involved in religious communities. Sixty-one percent attend
worship services at least once or twice a month, and 45% go at least once a
week. A large majority of Americans (72%) believe that religious institutions
help solve social problems.

These statistics suggest that the United States remains a religious
nation, particularly when compared to comparably developed countries in Europe
and elsewhere. That surely explains why so many Americans have a generally
positive view of the role of religion in public life.

At the same time, however, most voters don't want to hear partisan
politics from the pulpit. And they're fairly evenly divided about whether or
not religious institutions should take a stand on political questions.

Apparently voters want political leaders to be religious but not to
talk about their faith too much. And they want their religious institutions and
leaders to address social problems but not to embrace partisan politics.

All of which is to say that politicians and clergy find themselves in
a balancing act as the debate continues over the appropriate role for religion
in the political life of the nation.