Poll: Slim Backing For Keeping Politics, Religion Apart

A new poll from the Pew Research Center has found a slim majority that says religious institutions should not speak out on political and social issues. The data are a shift from polls conducted over the past decade. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, says all of the change has been among political conservatives.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Despite our constitutional separation of church and state, our politics and our religion have not always been all that separate. From the days of abolitionist ministers to Catholic Protestant differences over prohibition to abortion and now embryonic stem cell research, they've always been potent divisive issues with a strong religious dimension.

Well, do religious groups have too much influence on our politics? A new poll from the Pew Research Center has some surprising news about how Americans answer that question. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Center is here to talk about the poll. Welcome back.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): Happy to be here, Robert.

SIEGEL: And what did you find out about American views of the appropriateness of the influence of churches in our politics?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, we found a small 52 percent to 45 percent majority saying that religious institutions should not be speaking out on political questions and social issues. And this is completely contrary to what we've seen over the past dozen years with majority saying they favored religious institutions having a voice in these questions.

It's closer to what we saw back in the late 1960s when Gallup asked this question after the Kennedy era when religion and politics was sort of put away for…

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. KOHUT: …a while.

SIEGEL: Kennedy's famous argument was: My religion will have nothing to do with how I'm president.

Mr. KOHUT: And very convincing to American voters at that time.

SIEGEL: When you break that result down by party affiliation or political outlook, there's an interesting thing that you find.

Mr. KOHUT: Here's where it gets even more interesting and surprising. All of the change has come among political conservatives. The percentage of conservatives four years ago who said religious institutions should not speak out was only 30 percent. In this poll, it's 50 percent. Somewhat, we see the same pattern by party affiliation with Republicans, and to some extent, independents, expressing more reservations.

Democrats and liberals haven't changed much. They have been more reluctant to see this throughout the years. But it's conservatives and Republicans who have had somewhat of a change of heart. Now, not all of them, but a goodly number of them.

SIEGEL: It's interesting that we pay so much attention to Democratic politicians and their measuring their comfort level with talking about God and faith, Barack Obama or Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia. You're saying the real action has been over on the other side among the Republicans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: People are less comfortable with that sort of thing.

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I'm wondering whether it's comfort that we're - or lack of comfort for that we're getting or whether it's disillusionment.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOHUT: Because what we find is that the people who are more reluctant to say the church should speak out are the very people who are most concerned about abortion, most concerned about gay marriage. These are people who say they want to vote on these issues. They are the folks who've changed. We also see that the people who think that both parties are unfriendly to religion have changed more than people who think that the party is really neutral or friendly.

So, I think for the - for some of the social conservatives, it's not that they want less religiosity in politics, they're not happy with the way religious institutions have been involved lately.

SIEGEL: Is it possible that what we're seeing is, at a time of the economy dominating the issues, there just isn't a good sectarian take on how to best increase exploits or regulate, collateralize that obligation so religion is less humane at this point?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, that's certainly the case because the conservatives who are less inclined to see religion and politics mix are the less well educated ones, the blue collar ones. And they are the people who are more - much more concerned than they were four years ago about economic issues and pressing domestic issues.

Another element of this might be the Republican nominee. John McCain is getting reasonable levels of support from Christian conservatives. 68 percent say they're going to vote for him compared to 71 percent for Bush four years ago. But it's a very tepid support. Only 28 percent of the social conservatives say they support John McCain strongly. That was compared to 57 percent for Bush four years ago.

And we see that many of these people think that McCain is not nearly as socially conservative as they are. He doesn't have their moral values. So, I think it's a combination of things. Certainly, some kind of disillusionment on the part of conservatives where the religion and politics is brewing.

SIEGEL: Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. Thanks a lot of talking with us again.

Mr. KOHUT: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.