Gains for Obama among people of faith

He wins backing of 6 in 10 people who attend religious services once or twice a month, a gain for Democrats since 2004, new survey finds.

Nam Y. Huh/AP/File
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama prays during a services at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in this Oct. 31, 2004 file photo.

The Democratic Party’s outreach to young people and to people of faith seems to be paying off.

A new survey on faith and American politics shows Democratic nominee Barack Obama making inroads among some believers and moving ahead of Republican John McCain among Roman Catholics, largely because of young Catholics’ support.

In the biggest shift over the past four years, Senator Obama now wins the backing of 60 percent of voters who attend religious services once or twice a month, a jump from the 49 percent the Democratic nominee won in 2004.

Senator McCain holds the advantage only among the highly religious who attend once or more a week. Moreover, more Americans say Obama is more friendly to religion than is McCain (49 to 46 percent), an image booster for a party long seen as not particularly faith-friendly.

The survey titled “The Young and the Faithful” was released Wednesday by Faith in Public Life and was conducted by Public Religion Research (PRR). It involved interviews with a representative sample of 2,000 Americans and an oversample of 1,250 young people ages 18 to 34.

As the first close look at the political views of young people during the 2008 campaign, the survey confirms their focus on a broader agenda and reveals a generation gap on several issues.

“Younger Americans, including young Americans of faith, are not the culture-war generation,” says Robert Jones, president of PRR. “There is a kind of cosmopolitan worldview.”

For instance, young adults are more open to religious diversity and cooperation, they are less likely to say that one has to believe in God to be moral, and they believe good diplomacy rather than military strength is the best way to promote peace, says Dr. Jones.

The generation gap is striking in several areas. Young voters are much more inclined to support a larger government that provides more services (57 percent versus 45 percent of the overall population). That’s true within every faith tradition, but young Catholics stand out as the most pro-government constituency of all (67 percent favor more government services).

Young adults support government involvement most in regard to helping the poor and the environment. But Catholics and Evangelicals also favor a government role in “protecting morality.”

At the same time, young adults show greater support for keeping abortion legal than do Americans overall (58 to 50 percent). Catholics and white Evangelicals differ here, however, with 60 percent of young Catholics backing legal abortion and 67 percent of Evangelicals opposed. Yet two-thirds of young Evangelicals say they’d consider voting for a candidate who disagrees with them on abortion.

On the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage, the generation gap is great and growing. Forty-six percent of young people support the right of gays to marry, and an additional 22 percent back civil unions. Among the overall population the figures are 29 and 28 percent, respectively. Younger white Evangelicals are 2.5 times more likely to support same-sex marriage than are white evanglicals as a whole.

Overall, Americans young and old ranked abortion and same-sex marriage at the bottom of their list of issues most important to their vote, with the economy, energy, and healthcare at the top.

Given these perspectives, there is perhaps little surprise that Obama has a 24-percentage-point advantage among young adults, leading McCain by 59 to 35 percent. Among first-time voters, he holds a commanding lead of 71 percent to 23 percent.

“Younger believers – including Catholics and white evangelicals – are significantly more supportive of bigger government and expanding diplomatic efforts abroad,” says D. Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston. “It may very well be that in this election, the conventional wisdom about ‘values voters’ – who they are and what they want – gets turned on its head.”

Despite the young Evangelicals’ broader agenda and the fact that only 49 percent call themselves conservative, they remain the one group of young adults not showing strong support for Obama. In fact, McCain leads among young white Evangelicals 65 percent to 29 percent.

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