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Religion in public life: Americans yearn for a middle way

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Pollsters found that 32 percent of the public identify themselves as "progressive Christian," and they tend to be more moderate than left-of-center on political issues.

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Regarding the foment in religious circles, says Green, "some of it is liberal, but much of it may be moderate – people who take their faith seriously and believe it ought to impact their politics, but don't want to be with [the Christian conservatives]." Green directs the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, in Ohio.

Neither political party can take comfort from the poll: The Democrats still face a "God problem," while the Republicans are losing some appeal among their own base. Only 26 percent of Americans see the Democratic party as "friendly" toward religion (down from 29 percent last year), though 42 percent call it "neutral." Republicans face a more surprising decline, with 47 percent seeing them as "friendly" to religion (down from 55 percent). Yet they dropped 14 percentage points among Evangelicals. "Going into the fall campaign, a lot of religious voters are up for grabs," Green says.

Social and political issues are getting plenty of attention in houses of worship. Those who attend religious services at least monthly say their clergy are speaking out about hunger and poverty (92 percent), abortion (59 percent), Iraq (53 percent), and laws regarding homosexuality (52 percent). Other topics discussed from the pulpit include the environment, evolution and intelligent design, the death penalty, stem-cell research, and immigration.

When it comes to being active in politics, a bare majority (51 percent) of Americans supports the idea of houses of worship expressing their views, while 46 percent say they should stay out of politics.

Religious groups have been vocal on science-related issues such as stem-cell research and evolution. The survey shows that a majority of white Evangelicals (65 percent) reject evolution, while majorities of other groups accept it. Catholics and mainline Protestants who accept evolution are divided over whether it occurred through natural selection or was guided by a supreme being.

On the controversial issue of global warming, 79 percent of Americans now say solid evidence exists for it, with 50 percent saying it is due to human activity. Twenty-three percent say it's due to natural patterns. Sixty-one percent call for immediate government action, and 57 percent say stricter laws are worth the cost to the economy.

On the biggest hot-button social issues, the Pew report says, public opinion continues to be mixed, conservative on some issues, liberal on others – "reflecting a blend of pragmatism and principle."

In a part of the survey released earlier, 56 percent of Americans say stem-cell research should be pursued, while 32 percent want human embryos protected. For the first time, more white Evangelicals favor such research than oppose it (44 to 40 percent).

On questions of homosexuality, 56 percent oppose gay marriage, but 54 percent favor civil unions. Thirty percent back a constitutional ban on gay marriages.

While abortion continues to split the country, a large majority of Americans now express a desire to find "a middle ground."

The telephone interviews with a nationwide sample of 2,003 adults were conducted in July.

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