For people who've tuned into this year's presidential debates, it's clear the candidates aren't hesitant to talk religion. Apparently, that makes a lot of sense.
Most Americans (almost 70 percent) say they want a president with strong religious beliefs, and they are comfortable with the discussion of faith in the election campaign. In fact, 38 percent say there's "too little" discussion of religion, according to the latest Pew poll on religion and politics, released Sept. 6.
"It's an interesting election cycle in that we have this high level of discussion on faith and values in both political parties ... [and] 38 percent still want more," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington.
The role religion will play in voters' political choices, however, remains far from clear. Paradoxically, the front-runners in both parties – Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton – are currently perceived as the least religious among the candidates.
Hot-button social issues of concern to religious activists are taking a back seat to Iraq and domestic issues, even among Evangelicals. Seventy-eight percent of Americans cite domestic issues (such as the economy, healthcare, and the environment) and 72 percent cite Iraq as very important in their decisions, while 38 percent cite social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Among Evangelicals, 72 percent highlight domestic issues; 66 percent, Iraq; and 56 percent, social issues.
For Evangelicals – especially the younger generation – the agenda is changing, and in ways that are likely to affect politics, according to the Rev. Jim Wallis, who heads Sojourners, a progressive evangelical ministry. Reverend Wallis, the author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," says he's spending lots of time on Christian college campuses, where he's debating the "moral issues of 2008" with leaders of the religious right.
"Evangelicals still care about the sanctity of human life, but they also care deeply about poverty, climate change, HIV/AIDS, Darfur, the war in Iraq," he says. "Whoever addresses those issues from a moral perspective will be attractive to Evangelicals. Their votes are really in play."
Candidates in both parties are making a pitch on faith and values, but particularly Democrats. Since 2004, they've been working to erase an image of being inhospitable to religion with an outreach effort by state parties and on the campaign trail. Barack Obama, for instance, who captured national attention a year ago with a speech on religion in politics, is holding "faith forums" in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"This time the top three Democrats happen to be articulate about their faith," Wallis says. "And they're connecting values with policies."
Democrats show more of their faith
The Pew poll suggests they've made modest gains so far. The percentage of Americans who see the Democratic party as friendly to religion has risen by 4 percent over the past year, and the percentage who see nonreligious liberals as having too much power in the party dropped from 44 to 37 percent since 2005.
"These are modest but significant indications that the effort by Democratic leaders to change their image is bearing some fruit," says Dr. Green, an expert on US politics and religion.
"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.
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.