Religion in public life: another political divide that's growing

Americans increasingly believe the influence of religion in public life is waning, a Pew poll finds. In a likely consequence, the portion of Americans who want religious leaders to speak out on politics is growing. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
Demonstrator react to hearing the Supreme Court's decision on the Hobby Lobby case outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 30, 2014. The Supreme Court says corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women.

American politics is filled with divisions, dysfunction, and growing polarization. One area where that is increasingly evident is over the role of religion in public life.

Almost three-quarters of Americans – 72 percent – believe the influence of religion is waning in the public square, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s up 5 percentage points from 2010, and the highest level in Pew polling over the past 10 years. Most people who say religion is declining in influence see that as a negative.

At the same time, a growing segment of the US population wants religious figures to speak out on political and social issues – now 49 percent, up from 43 percent in 2010. The portion of the American public that sees too little public expression of faith from political leaders has risen from 37 percent to 41 percent. In addition, nearly one-third (32 percent) of Americans now want houses of worship to endorse candidates for office.

“The findings reflect a widening divide between religiously affiliated Americans and the rising share of the population that is not affiliated with any religion,” the Pew report says. “The public’s appetite for religious influence in politics is increasing in part because those who continue to identify with a religion (e.g., Protestants, Catholics and others) have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion.”

Those unaffiliated with religion are “much more likely to oppose the intermingling of religion and politics,” Pew says.

Not surprisingly, the poll shows that Republicans are much more supportive of a larger role for religion in public life than Democrats. A significant element of the Republican “base” are people of faith who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, and support prayer in public settings. The Pew Research Center surveyed 2,002 American adults between Sept. 2 and 9.

Among Republicans, 59 percent say houses of worship should express political views, up from 48 percent in 2010. Among Democrats, 42 percent support religious leaders’ expression of views, up from 40 percent in 2010.

In other findings from the Pew survey:

  • Support for gay marriage has declined. The latest poll found 49 percent favor same-sex marriage, a decline of five points since February and roughly equal to the level found in 2013. Pew says it’s too soon to know if the latest poll is an anomaly or whether it reflects a leveling off of attitudes toward same-sex marriage.
  • Fifty percent of US adults believe homosexuality is a sin, up from 45 percent a year ago. Almost half of Americans believe service providers such as florists and caterers should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples because of religious beliefs.
  • Americans believe gays and lesbians face more discrimination than a host of religious, racial, and ethnic groups. Pew found that 65 percent of Americans think homosexuals face “a lot” of discrimination in the US, more than do Hispanics (50 percent), African Americans (54 percent), and Muslims (59 percent). Americans perceive less discrimination toward other groups. Thirty-two percent of Americans think Jews face a lot of discrimination, 31 percent feel that way about evangelical Christians, 27 percent about atheists, and 19 percent about Catholics.
  • Republicans aren’t very happy with their party. At least half say their party does not adequately represent their views on government spending, illegal immigration, and same-sex marriage. Republicans are divided on how their party handles the issue of same-sex marriage. Democrats are happier with their party on these issues.
  • Only 30 percent of Americans say the Obama administration is “friendly” toward religion, down 7 points since 2009.

That final point should hardly come as a surprise, in the wake of the Hobby Lobby case. Under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration required religious business owners to provide birth control in their health plans, despite religious objections. Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations should be exempt from that requirement. if the owners object based on their religious beliefs. 

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