Religion in public life: Americans yearn for a middle way

Concerned about the moral state of their country, many Americans have long said they desire more religious influence in public life. They still feel that way, but they're also growing wary about the forms it is taking.

A national survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on Aug. 24 shows ambivalence about the relationship of religion to politics and social issues, and unhappiness with extreme positions. The public is not polarized into liberal and conservative camps, the poll suggests, but yearns to find middle ground on contentious social issues.

There is distress about both ends of the political spectrum: 49 percent of American adults say conservatives are too assertive about trying to impose their religious values on the nation, yet 69 percent say liberals go too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government.

"Americans value religion, and attempts to remove it generically from the public square bother a lot of people," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum, which cosponsored the survey with Pew Research Center on People & the Press, both in Washington, D.C. "But they start getting worried when religion becomes highly politicized," he says. "They don't want it to be too far to one side or the other, or too much in favor of one particular group."

Indeed, the poll shows that relatively few people say they belong to either extreme – the "religious right" or "religious left." Only 11 percent identify with the religious right, a slight drop from the 1990s, Dr. Green says, perhaps reflecting the decline of the Christian Coalition. The right includes about one-quarter of conservative Republicans and 20 percent of white Evangelicals.

Only 7 percent of Americans identify with the "religious left," yet that is an increase over previous years. Since the 2004 election, considerable foment has arisen within religious circles over the political agenda of the right, with new groups forming to present alternative views on values.

Perhaps surprisingly, the survey found stronger affiliation in these categories among African-Americans and younger adults. Fourteen percent of blacks identify with the religious left; 19 percent say they belong to the religious right. Among adults under 30, 14 percent choose the religious left, while 13 percent choose the right.

According to pollsters, the right remains a more potent political force because members agree on a cohesive list of key political issues, while those on the left hold a variety of views.

Indeed, the survey traces the spiritual roots of the right to white Evangelical Christians (about 24 percent of the US population), which the poll reveals as having views "distinctly different from those held by the rest of the public and even other religious groups."

When asked, for example, which should have more influence on US laws – the will of the American people or the Bible – 60 percent of white Evangelicals chose the Bible. Other Protestant, Catholic, and secular groups voted the opposite way by huge majorities.

Similarly, strong majorities of white Evangelicals believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people and that the state of Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, views not shared by majorities of the rest of the public. While 62 percent of white Evangelicals say the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, only 24 percent of Catholics, and 17 percent of mainline Protestants share that view (35 percent of the public as a whole).

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.

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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