Faith's role on the rise in Campaign 08
A new Pew poll on religion and politics finds that 70 percent of Americans want a president with strong religious beliefs.
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"Many independents two years ago saw the Democrats as a party where secularists had too much influence," he adds. "The fact that perception is declining could make it easier for independents to vote for Democratic candidates.Skip to next paragraph
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Forty-three percent of Americans say that religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican party.
Interestingly, the survey reveals that even people who are not themselves observant see religious commitment as an asset in a candidate.
Of those surveyed, only 16 percent perceive Senator Clinton as "very religious," compared to 28 percent for John Edwards and 24 percent for Senator Obama. But large majorities see all three as "somewhat religious."
Mitt Romney far outpaced other Republicans, with 46 percent of Americans viewing him as "very religious." He even bested President Bush (43 percent). Yet Mr. Romney faces concerns about Mormonism. One-quarter of Americans say they are reluctant to vote for a Mormon.
Fourteen percent of those surveyed see Mayor Giuliani as "very religious," with Fred Thompson at 16 percent and John McCain at 19 percent. Large majorities see them as "somewhat religious."
The question is whether a GOP candidate can capture the imagination of conservative Evangelicals who have served as a strong base for the party in the past.
"At this point in the campaign season, religious talk is grabbing more attention than how those beliefs will intersect with their individual policy positions," says Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council in Washington. "Even in this poll, it's evident people haven't drilled down to that yet."
He points to the finding that just 22 percent of the public, and less than one-third of Republicans, are aware of front-runner Giuliani's abortion-rights position.
"As we get closer to the election, people will look to see if the religious talk matches with policy positions consistent with people of faith," he adds. "When the dust settles from the Republican primary, if you have someone who doesn't hold their view on abortion, then Christians won't get involved – they'll vote, but they won't be out there working or stirring up others to vote."
Church and state still a strong divide
Although the poll shows an ambiguous impact, Green suggests faith will continue to be a prominent element on the hustings.
"That religion is sometimes important, sometimes less so, helping some candidates and hurting others, is likely to reinforce the desire of the candidates and party leaders to make effective religious appeals," he says. "I think this will be a standard part of the campaign, certainly through the primaries and probably the election."
Despite the thumbs up Americans give to the faith-and-values discussion in Campaign 08, the survey highlights one taboo: Nearly two-thirds of Americans (including a majority of conservative Republicans) are opposed to houses of worship endorsing political candidates.
The nationwide survey of 3,002 adults was carried out in August by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.