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More Americans Question Religion's Role in Politics

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Some Americans are having a change of heart about mixing religion
and politics. A new survey finds a narrow majority of the public saying
that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political
matters and not express their views on day-to-day social and political
matters. For a decade, majorities of Americans had voiced support for
religious institutions speaking out on such issues.

The new national survey by the Pew Research Center reveals that most
of the reconsideration of the desirability of religious involvement in
politics has occurred among conservatives. Four years ago, just 30% of
conservatives believed that churches and other houses of worship should
stay out of politics. Today, 50% of conservatives express this view.

a result, conservatives' views on this issue are much more in line with
the views of moderates and liberals than was previously the case.
Similarly, the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats that
previously existed on this issue have disappeared.

There are other signs in the new poll about a potential change in
the climate of opinion about mixing religion and politics. First, the
survey finds a small but significant increase since 2004 in the
percentage of respondents saying that they are uncomfortable when they
hear politicians talk about how religious they are - from 40% to 46%.
Again, the increase in negative sentiment about religion and politics
is much more apparent among Republicans than among Democrats.

Second, while the Republican Party is most often seen as the party
friendly toward religion, the Democratic Party has made gains in this
area. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) now say the Democratic Party is
generally friendly toward religion, up from just 26% two years ago.
Nevertheless, considerably more people (52%) continue to view the GOP
as friendly toward religion.

The poll by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and
the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds increasing numbers of
Americans believing that religiously defined ideological groups have
too much control over the parties themselves. Nearly half (48%) say
religious conservatives have too much influence over the Republican
Party, up from 43% in August 2007. At the same time, more people say
that liberals who are not religious have too much sway over the
Democrats than did so last year (43% today vs. 37% then).

Social Conservatives' Discontents

addition to somewhat greater worries about the way religious and
non-religious groups are influencing the parties, the survey suggests
that frustration and disillusionment among social conservatives may be
a part of the reason why a greater number now think that religious
institutions should keep out of politics. However, there is little to
suggest that social conservatives want religion to be a less important
element in American politics.

The greatest increases since 2004 in the view that churches and
other houses of worship should not express themselves on political
matters have occurred among less-educated Republicans and people who
say that social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage will be
important to their vote. For example, among people who rate gay
marriage as a top voting issue, the percentage saying that churches
should stay out of politics soared from 25% in 2004 to 50% currently;
there was little change over this period on this question among people
who do not view same-sex marriage as a very important issue.

More from the Pew Forum

Survey: The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

Religion & Politics '08

Event: Religious Voters in the 2008 Election

Report: Media Coverage of Religion in the '08 Campaign

More: Research, news, blogs

Another indication that disillusionment may be in play in increased
opposition to the mixing of religion and politics is seen in the fact
that this sentiment has increased most among people who rate the major
parties as unfriendly toward religion. The views of citizens who see
the parties as neutral or friendly toward religion have been more
stable on the question of whether churches and other houses of worship
should speak out on political issues.

In short, the change of mind about the role of religious
institutions in politics is most apparent among people who are most
concerned about the very issues that churches and other houses of
worship have focused on, and among those who fault the parties for
their friendliness toward religion.

Changes in views about the role of churches in politics
notwithstanding, many of the contours of American public opinion
relating to broad questions of religion and politics remain largely
unchanged. Two-thirds of the public (66%) say that churches and other
houses of worship should not endorse one candidate over another, which
is unchanged since 2004 (65%). And while most say it is important for
presidents to have strong religious beliefs, they are divided about
whether there currently is too much, or too little, in the way of
expressions of faith by contemporary political leaders. Roughly
comparable numbers say political leaders express their religious
beliefs too much (29%), too little (36%) or the right amount (28%).

Despite their increased reluctance to see religious institutions
speaking out on politics, conservatives and Republicans continue to
express very strong support for a religious president and relatively
high levels of support for expressions of religious faith and prayer by
political leaders.

To read the full report, click here.

Click here to see our debate about faith in politics.



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