Faith, Politics And The 2010 Election

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to E.J. Dionne and William Galston of the Brookings Institution about a new study on the role faith and politics played in the 2010 election. The new study, conducted in collaboration with the Public Religion Research Institute, is called "The Old and New Politics of Faith: Religion and the 2010 Election."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

What, if anything, did the 2010 election tell us about religion in our country? Obviously, the economy trumped other concerns on November 2nd. With unemployment high, and so many homes underwater, this was not an election given over to the cultural issues.

But the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute have gone through Election Day exit polls, plus a survey of their own, to try to detect what is happening on the faith and politics front.

And we're joined by two Brookings senior fellows who worked on a new study, published today: William Galston - and a very familiar voice - E.J. Dionne, Welcome to both of you.

Dr. WILLIAM GALSTON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Thank you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And, first E.J., is the most dramatic change here that Republicans not only won white Protestants by a landslide, but also white Catholics by a large, if not quite so large margin?

Mr. DIONNE: You know, there is no Catholic vote and it's important, which is to say that usually each party can manage about 40 percent of the Catholic vote. But you have a very large swing in the middle. And what you saw is a swing in the Democrats' direction and 2008, and a swing back to toward the Republicans here.

One of the fascinating things we've found is that we ask the respondents if they heard preaching or talk in their houses of worship about particular issues. And what was really striking among Catholics is that 65 percent of them reported hearing talk about abortion but very small numbers heard talk about either health care or the world of government. And in light of Catholic social teaching, that was a fascinating finding. But I think that Catholics are still going to be up for grabs when the next election rolls around.

SIEGEL: And, Bill Galston, evangelical Protestants stand out as a group still more Republican than Protestants at large.

Dr. GALSTON: Absolutely. In that respect this election changed nothing at all. What we found in the survey is that the old religious alignments that have been established over the past 25 or 30 years are intact; that the more you believe the more you belong, the more you observe the more likely you are to tilt towards Republicans - and conversely for Democrats.

What we did find at the same time - and this surprise that intrigued us - was the overlay of what seems to be a new religious politics that is developing, in response to the lingering effects of 9/11 and enduring controversies about the role of Islam in world politics and in American life.

SIEGEL: Yeah, you put a couple of questions to test American voters' attitudes toward Islam and also toward President Obama and religion. First, I want you to describe the questions that you asked.

Dr. GALSTON: Well, we asked a question whether people completely or partly agreed with a proposition that, I quote, "The values of Islam, the Muslim religion, are at odds with American values and way of life " What we found is a total splits in the country: 45 percent agreed that they were at odds, 49 percent disagree.

Now, what's important here is there are a lot of people in the middle; only 20 percent completely agreed, only 22 percent completely disagree. That suggests there's a lot of room for movement here in the future. I think this helps explain why stories like the controversy over the Islamic cultural center near 9/11, or even a vote in Oklahoma on not imposing Sharia law, why these issues arise.

And one of the observations I make is especially at the beginning of the Bush administration, President Bush was very forceful in defending American Muslims. And I think this voice on the conservative side is largely missing right now.

SIEGEL: Now, you also asked a question about President Obama - it's not the question, do you think he's a Muslim or do you think he's a Christian? But sort of, do you think his view of religion is like yours? And there, I guess most people in the sample said no.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, 51 percent thought that President Obama's religious views were either somewhat different from or very different from their own. Only 40 percent were able to discern some or a lot of similarity.

But all in all, it did strike us that although candidate Obama talked about religion a lot, he's talked about religion a lot less as president. And as a result, a lot of people, I think, are puzzled. And when they're puzzled, I think the likely default position that they arrive at is, well, gosh, maybe he's not all that much like us. And this is a problem.

SIEGEL: The bottom line here of the Brookings Report seems to that, well, as you've said, no huge changes here. Do you see seeds of potentially big changes in the way religion figures in our politics? Bill Galston?

Mr. GALSTON: With regard to the significance of Islam, its relationship between Islam and American values, the relationship of that entire ensemble of issues to American exceptionalism, which our survey found is alive and well, I think that that is new and different and potentially disruptive and disturbing.

On the other hand, we found evidence of a kind of instability and dissatisfaction in the electorate directed to both political parties. The electorate, by roughly 2-to-1, doesn't think the Democrats pay enough attention to religion. By roughly the same 2-to-1, they think that Republicans are too close to religious leaders. And so there's a vast middle of the electorate that is looking for a point of equipoise in our political system, and they're not finding it.

SIEGEL: But when you speak of American exceptionalism in these terms, what are you speaking of?

Mr. GALSTON: Well, the idea that America is a chosen nation that has been singled out by God for a distinctive mission in the world, we put a very strong version of that proposition on the table in this survey and 6 in 10 Americans affirmed it. Indeed, 30 percent of people who probably don't believe in God at all affirmed it. So, this is a remarkably persistent part of America's cultural and political DNA that I think our political leaders ignore at their peril.

SIEGEL: William Galston and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

Mr. GALSTON: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The Brookings Institution study is titled "The Old and New Politics of Faith: Religion and the 2010 Election."

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