The Role Of Religion In The Voting Booth For many voters, religion and politics are deeply intertwined. John Green of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life and Robert Putnam, author of American Grace, talk about how politics may be changing religion, and which issues voters decide on based on faith.

The Role Of Religion In The Voting Booth

The Role Of Religion In The Voting Booth

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

For many voters, religion and politics are deeply intertwined. John Green of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life and Robert Putnam, author of American Grace, talk about how politics may be changing religion, and which issues voters decide on based on faith.

American Grace
By Robert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell, Shaylyn Romney Garrett

Buy Featured Book

American Grace
Robert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell, Shaylyn Romney Garrett

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For many of us, religion and politics are deeply and personally intertwined, yet we view some issues through the lens of our faith but not others.

A recent Pew survey finds that religion plays a key role in views of abortion and same-sex marriage but very little on some other hot-button issues like immigration and the environment.

Why the divide? And what's the effect when churches become more overtly political? Later in the program, what could be a looming crisis over China's claim to all of the South China Sea, but first what political issues do you see through the lens of your faith, and on what issues do your political views and religious convictions diverge?

Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

In a few moments, Robert Putnam, the co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," joins us, and he says more Americans are adjusting their religious views to fit their politics.

But first, John Green, he's a research advisor to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a professor of political science at the University of Akron in Ohio, with us now from his office there. John Green, nice of you to be with us today.

Professor JOHN GREEN (Political Science, University of Akron): Oh, it's good to be with you.

CONAN: And you helped design the Pew survey. I'd like to talk in a moment about the survey itself and what you asked people, but let's start with that finding we mentioned at the top: Religion plays a role in how people view some political issues, primarily social ones, but not others. Do you have a sense of what's driving that divide?

Prof. GREEN: Well, it's really pretty interesting because I think most people would not be surprised that religious beliefs would influence opinions on abortion or same-sex marriage really either way, conservative or liberal direction.

But given the amount of activism we've seen recently on issues like immigration and the environment on the part of religious organizations and clergy, it was to some people a little bit surprising that those issues seemed to have very little impact on the attitudes that people had.

CONAN: It's important to point out this was not specifically a survey about religion.

Prof. GREEN: No, it (Technical difficulties) about politics, really, and we were (technical difficulties) various things that might influence people's opinions on a variety of issues.

And the way the question was asked was to ask people what the most important influence on their opinion was. So this isn't a comprehensive measure, but it does tell us where people think their religion or their education or their personal experience were the most important impact on their opinion.

CONAN: So if you go to the findings, religion ranked as the most important influence on several hot-button issues. You mentioned abortion and same-sex marriage. Those might be issues that people say, wait a minute, these are overtly religious. They're spoken about in the Bible.

Prof. GREEN: (Technical difficulties), of course one could also argue that charity towards the poor or being good stewards of the environment are also spoken about in scripture, the Bible or other religious scriptures, as well. So I think what may be going on here is not just what happens to be within a religious tradition but also how those connections happen to be emphasized.

We've been talking a lot about abortion and other social issues for about 40 years now. Much of that discussion has been in the context of faith, really on both sides of those arguments. But some of the newer issues, such as immigration, really have not been discussed for very long in a faith-based context.

CONAN: And in a faith-based context, most or many religious leaders would argue against the current trend of American public opinion.

Prof. GREEN: Yes, indeed, and so it is interesting. I think part of this may just be history. There's another factor here that I think is important: Some issues are easier to connect with religious values, and some are more difficult.

And because of the traditional emphasis in many religious institutions on sexual morality, perhaps it is easier for some people to draw a straight-line connection between beliefs and views on sexual matters, such as abortion or homosexuality.

It may be when we come to other public policy issues like the environment or welfare payments or immigration that there's not quite as easy a path between religious beliefs and political attitudes.

CONAN: Well, is it also possible that people hold a certain set of beliefs, and they're the ones we see reflected in the opinion polls, and when they're in church, they accept the church's teaching on those they agree with the church on, whatever church or synagogue or mosque that may be, and when they - when the teachings of their religious leaders diverge from their opinions, they stick to their opinions?

Prof. GREEN: You know, that's entirely possible. Many of us have selective perception of arguments, not just in a religious context but in other contexts, as well. And, you know, it may very well be that people tune out teachings that they really don't want to hear.

CONAN: For example, why would they not hear something about charity or, you know, welcoming a poor neighbor?

Prof. GREEN: Exactly. It may very well be that there are teachings, and the same survey had some reports on what people were hearing in their congregations, and people were hearing about some of these issues where they didn't report much of a religious connection with their attitudes.

So it may be partly people screen out the things that they don't want to hear, but it also could be that they have other opinions. For instance on the issue of immigration, religious values might be one factor in opinion, but issues of national security might be another factor.

Or in the case of welfare payments, it may be that arguments for charity are one kind of basis for an opinion, but economic interests might be another argument.

And in fact, if we could ask people a lot more questions, we might find that on some of these issues, religion is an influence. It's just the fourth or fifth influence and not the first influence on their opinion.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation: Robert Putnam, the author of many books, including "Bowling Alone." His latest, co-authored with David Campbell, is "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." He's also a professor of public policy at Harvard and joins us today from member station WBUR in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor ROBERT PUTNAM (Public Policy, Harvard University): Good to be back, Neal, and good to be on this show with John Green, who is one of the gurus of religious studies in America.

CONAN: Well, I wonder what you make of his latest survey.

Prof. PUTNAM: Well, I think it's a really interesting study, and it rhymes with much of the things that we investigated in the course of our research.

The one additional point I'd make about it is that it's possible that what people hear, or think they're going to hear, opinions in church, that they personally disagree with, they don't change their opinions, and they don't just tune out, but they actually stop going to church.

That is in some sense, it's possible, at least, that people's views on many of these issues, especially the issues of sexuality and family values that John has been talking about, their values are actually most fundamental, and if they come to think that religion is wrong on those issues or that religious preachers or that organized religion is wrong on those issues, they vote with their feet and leave.

And indeed, I think one of the things that we've discovered in our work, which this is a - the book "American Grace," that David Campbell and I have written, is a big book, and it covers a lot of topics, but one of the topics that we talk about is the so-called rise of the young nones, that is young people over the last - that's N-O-N-E-S, not N-U-N.

CONAN: I was going to say, not Catholic sisters.

Prof. PUTNAM: No but the rise of the people who say, when you ask them what religion they have, they say I don't have any religion, I'm just not religious at all.

Historically, that figure in America was roughly five percent of Americans said they had no religion, and 95 percent said they had some religion. But among young people, since 1990, among the people who were basically 20-somethings across the country, that figure has now skyrocketed from about five percent to about 25 or 30 percent, a huge increase in detachment from organized religion among America's young people.

And that has a number of causes, but we think we have evidence that the most important factor is that for those young people, people who are coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, for them, looking around, religion seemed to be mostly about sexual morality and, as they would have seen it, intolerance and homophobia and so on, and they had a very -much more tolerant view, especially about homosexuality. And so many of them said, well, if religion is just about being a conservative Republican, that's not for me, and they stopped thinking of themselves as religious at all.

CONAN: They may not have been around in church to hear those other messages about charity and immigration. But John Green, I wonder how you - would that comport with some of the things that you're finding, not necessarily in this survey but in others?

Prof. GREEN: Oh, I think so. And by the way, it's a great pleasure to be on this program with Bob Putnam, who is really very insightful on these issues.

Religion influences politics, but politics can also influence religion. And over time, we may see people sorting themselves into environments where they hear the kinds of messages they find congenial, and they may be absencing themselves entirely.

And Neal, your point, which is a useful one, if young people were leaving traditional churches because they were hearing what they regarded as messages of intolerance, they might not be around to hear the messages about charity and being good stewards of the environment. And so in some sense, they are out of the mix, and that may help explain some of our finding.

CONAN: Well, let's get a caller in on the conversation. Josh(ph) is calling from Charlotte.

JOSH (Caller): Hey, how are you guys doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JOSH: So actually, it's a good place for me to jump right in here. You know, I was just - my thoughts listening to all this, well, first of all, I'm 24 years old, a graduate from Liberty University's Helms School of Government, and I used to work for Congressman Joe Wilson. And I am also a former missionary kid. I spent most of my childhood overseas. So I am both very religious and very political.

And the thing I think you're going to find, and I think that might have something to do with some of your findings, is that I find that a lot of people my age, well, in general, are people who are sincerely religious, and that is to say they're using, you know, it influences their whole lives, including their politics, tend to take most of their opinions and most of their voting and whatnot to the - at the local level, at the state level, where their influence is more directly felt.

I feel like a lot of people, at least people who I talk to that share some of my same beliefs, you know, tend to find that because we respect the separation of church and state, and we find the national stage is not really the place to discuss - what's the word I'm looking - it's not really the place to discuss the - we're not going to force our opinions on the whole nation.

However, in my community of people who believe like me, we're going to do the best we can to, you know, to have our communities and whatnot represent us.

CONAN: And Josh...

JOSH: And so that's why I feel like you might not see a lot of that at the national level.

CONAN: Josh, do you also see evidence of what Robert Putnam was talking about, a lot of people being uncomfortable with some of the messages they hear in church and saying, well, might as well just check out?

JOSH: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, you see - I absolutely agree with what he's saying. You know, most people my age are absolutely disenfranchised with organized religion. And, you know, and I can understand why to a large degree. I mean, it represents the sort of, you know, archaic, you know, social lifestyle that, you know, a lot of people just don't - people my age just don't relate to.

You know, the mood, I mean, the word of the hour is tolerance and, you know - tolerance isn't really the right word. It's more of just socially liberal. You know, our society is socially liberal now, you know, and...

CONAN: Josh...

JOSH: And I think where really you're seeing the dichotomy with people my age is we're socially liberal, and yet we may be economically conservative, or we may be, because, you know, we're raised in those households seeing those same things that are...

CONAN: Josh, thanks very much. We appreciate the phone call.

JOSH: No problem.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. More after a short break. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Politics is having some surprising effect on religious views in the United States, and vice versa. As we've been listening, a recent Pew survey found religion plays an important role in how people feel about some political debates - mostly social issues like gay marriage - but not others.

At the same time, another study shows that many people now shift their religious views to fit their political beliefs. We're talking today about the intersection of faith and politics. Where do your politics and your faith intersect? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Robert Putnam, co-author of the book "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." There's an excerpt from that book at if you just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Still with us - just for a few more minutes, he's got another appointment - but John Green, the senior research advisor at the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

And John Green, while we've got you there, as you investigate this nexus between religion and politics in the Pew Survey and in other contexts, what is surprising you?

Prof. GREEN: Well, you know, what's really surprising me right at the moment is the religious aspects of the Tea Party movement, which we've been hearing an awful lot about.

In terms of the public statements of Tea Party activists and candidates, it seems to be mostly about economic issues - and I think for a good reason, given the state of the economy.

But what we find in our surveys is an awful lot of conservative religious people have also been mobilized by the Tea Party. So it's not surprising that some culturally conservative issues are part of the mix among those people.

CONAN: Let's go next to Bob, and Bob's with us from Cleveland.

BOB (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, Bob.

BOB: Yeah, I had a - I went through kind of an epiphany. I used to be a, you know, a conservative voter, Republican, and then I started to realize like issues on abortion, you know, we'd put Republicans in office like, you know, Ronald Reagan and then the first George Bush, expecting them to appoint justices that would, you know, be against abortion, as much as - but then I began to realize and I began to look at a lot of issues that the Republicans just kind of use these, play religious voters. I mean, if we - if Reagan and Bush and the Republican Party had really wanted to end abortion, they could have done it by now with the chance for appointments they have.

I've never seen a justice that a Democrat appoints, you know, change their opinion, you know, like if - and vote against abortion.

CONAN: So you feel manipulated. And so - is that an accurate...

BOB: Yeah, I felt manipulated, but I also felt they were - you know, they were kind of bending Christian values. Like, you know, you have conservatives referring to homeless as human debris, and that always bothered me as a Christian.

But I'd never heard anybody in the Republican say hey - Party, say to these, you know, these very powerful, let's say, political commentators that used words like that, they would never say to them: That's not very Christian.

Or at least David Frum did, in a way. But, you know, I found myself becoming much more of - I guess you would say - a Democratic voter now, and, you know, especially after the second Bush, where you had, you know, the debacle at Walter Reed Hospital, where our wounded veterans were, you know, being mistreated. And leading conservatives weren't -you know, just as a Christian thing, you would expect them to say, hey, this is wrong. But it didn't - it, you know, it just seemed like a number of issues, Republicans only seem to talk Christian values. You know, it's just talk. It doesn't really mean anything.

So I guess I - it caused me to, you know, kind of change and look for candidates who are really, you know, doing the things they are saying and not just, you know, reciting words that I want to hear.

CONAN: Good luck with that, Bob.

BOB: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye. Appreciate the phone call. Searching for people - you know, I think, Robert Putnam, what Bob was talking about was searching for people who are authentic, who say what they mean.

Prof. PUTNAM: Yeah. There was another point that Bob was making that I thought was quite important. You know, the background - we are now all accustomed to thinking of a natural correlation between religion and politics that Republicans are drawn from the more religious end of the spectrum and Democrats from the more secular end. But that's a very recent phenomenon.

As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, there were lots of progressive Democrats in the pews and lots of unchurched conservatives. And - but since the 1980s, the period that Bob was talking about - Reagan and the first Bush and then, of course, the second Bush - those two categories have become rarer and rarer. That is, there are fewer and fewer progressives in the pews, and fewer and fewer unchurched conservatives. And people are sort of sorting themselves out religiously, as much as politically, into two groups, the more - the people who share the same religious values and political values at one end, and then people who share the same, more secular values and, you know, liberal or progressive political values.

CONAN: And are you...

Prof. PUTNAM: That's a new development, and it's not necessarily good for our politics.

CONAN: Well, are you talking primarily about Protestant organizations? Because there are some very progressive sects.

Prof. PUTNAM: I'm not talking about the organizations at all, Neal. I'm talking about people in the - ordinary people.

CONAN: In the pews. In the pews.

Prof. PUTNAM: And there are, of course, some progressive religious organizations, some very valiant ones. But they don't, sadly, don't have a lot of followers in the pews.

CONAN: John Green, we know we've got to let you go to go off to the rest of your work. Where are your priorities?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But anyway, again does your research substantiate what Robert Putnam's talking about?

Prof. GREEN: Yes, it certainly does. And I think part of the frustration that our previous caller felt was that this transition has been going on for a while. Back when Ronald Reagan was president and articulated a pro-life position, there were still lots and lots of pro-choice Republicans - and there, in fact, still are some.

So once he got into office - and I don't mean to pick on President Reagan, it occurs with lots of public officials - it became very difficult to have a pure, unambiguous pro-life position. So I think that fits very much with a kind of polarization that Bob Putnam was talking about.

CONAN: It was interesting: President Reagan used to attend, I think, all of those rallies by phone from across the street in the White House. He didn't attend in person. And, of course, he was a president who did not attend church regularly, either. So, interesting.

Anyway, John Green, thank you for your time today. We appreciate it.

Prof. GREEN: You're very welcome.

CONAN: John Green is senior research advisor at the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, joined us by phone from his office in Akron, Ohio, where he's a political science professor at the University of Akron.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Malki(ph), Malki's with us from Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

MALKI (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.

MALKI: Thank you very much. Thank you for taking the call. (unintelligible). You know, it's - from a spectrum of Islam, you know, religion is often mixed with politics due to the fact that religion tends to influence the lives of the people so much.

However, the same political dilemma tends to appear, namely the state using the religion as a tool of subjugation or as a tool of convincing the people that they're from God. And then the same problems appear.

So what I did, actually, as a personal endeavor is to separate faith from religion. Religion is a matter of institution, a setting, a location, while faith in God is something that could be very generic.

I mean, you could be a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew or a Hindu, and then you are - you're having a similar faith, because faith is about God, about, you know, from where did I come, where I'm going, and where I'm going is a basic question that the state has nothing to do with.

So I am with the idea of separation of the state and religion, because I've seen across history there is a dilemma.

CONAN: And that's an interesting point of view in a country that is -not only has a state religion but, well, cares deeply about its state religion.

MALKI: Well, yes. But if you look at Islam, per se, the Quran keeps on emphasizing the fact that there is no compulsion in religion and that the Prophet himself have no right to compel people to believe or not to believe.

So I think that the role of the state in taking over the religion is basically a political development that not necessarily reflects Islam.

CONAN: Malki, thank you very much. We appreciate the phone call.

MALKI: Thank you. Thank you for the idea of the program. God bless. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Robert Putnam, it's interesting - again coming from a theocracy like Saudi Arabia, but nevertheless - well, not quite a theocracy, but the king is the protector of the two holy places. It's certainly deeply intertwined in the religious and political structures there.

But that divide he was making between religion and faith strikes me that that is the same divide that some of the nones you are talking about -the N-O-N-E-S - the younger people who are rejecting organized religion, they may be making that same distinction.

Prof. PUTNAM: Yes, I was thinking the same thing, Neal. There's - you know, there's - Malki's contribution to the conversation opens up another line of conversation, and that is, in some respects, America is quite unusual. It's partly because of the separation of church and state that goes back to the Constitution. But Americans are, compared to other peoples in the world, other - certainly other advanced -economically advanced countries - way very, very religious. We are - the average American, in terms of attendance at church or saying that important - religion is important to them, and so on, the average American is as religious - a little religious than the average Iranian. So Americans are very religious.

We are also very diverse in our religions. Not only between Catholics and Protestants, which was historically the big difference, but now increasingly other religions, too. In most parts of the world, places that are deeply devout and diverse religiously have a high index of mayhem - that is, there's a - taken in high doses, religion is generally toxic to civic health.

But America, despite what we've been saying about the polarization - and that's, of course, true over the last generation - Americans actually, including religion - religious people of all sorts, are surprisingly tolerant of other people. And so - and certainly way more tolerant than you'd expect given the fact that we're very religious and diverse in our religiosity.

So part of the puzzle and part of what's happened over the last 50 years, as we describe in - as David Campbell and I described in our book, "American Grace," is not just that America is becoming more polarized in religious and political terms - that's true - but also that we've become, in some sense, at the grassroots, much more connected with one another across religious barriers.

CONAN: Why do you say that?

Prof. PUTNAM: Well, for example, the rate of intermarriage across religious lines has risen sharply and steadily over the last half century, so that now more than half of all the marriages in America today are - just like Chelsea Clinton's marriage - across religious lines. A generation or two ago, the idea of a Methodist marrying a Jew would've been really, really astonishing, but now it's completely normal, and nobody thinks anything about it.

About a third of all Americans are no longer in the same religion they were raised in. So that means that they're worshipping in some faith other than their parents' faith, or other than their kids' faith. Half of all of our most intimate, personal friends are people from other faith traditions. So we're - we, the average American - in fact, almost all Americans know someone personally, really well, love someone who is in a different religious faith than they are.

And it's hard to demonize people who are - you know, nominally, you'd say, well, of course, you know, poor Aunt Sally. She's not going to make it to heaven because she prays to the wrong God. But, I mean, come on. Aunt Sally is Aunt Sally. She, for sure, is going to heaven. So all of us have an Aunt Sally in our family or in our circle of friends. And for that reason, it's become increasingly hard for Americans in their own personal lives to demonize people of other faiths. And, in fact, we find, and other - John Green's research at Pew also finds that there's a surprisingly high level of personal tolerance across these divides.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Putnam, co-author most recently of "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And now let's get David on the line, David calling us from Tulsa.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. Yeah. Greetings from an extremely red state. I find myself in kind of an odd, almost a hybrid-type situation, being a social conservative with regards to gay marriage and the abortion issue, and yet very progressive on other issues, on social justice issues. And so I'm really encouraged to hear this kind of a conversation coming out.

And one of the comments I wanted to make was, you know, when Barack Obama was elected and Rick Warren from Saddleback Church was being interviewed on "60 Minutes" because he had prayed at the inaugural ceremony, and they said, well, what about the Democrats' view on abortion? And he said, look, there's been four Republican presidents and - since Roe versus Wade, and nothing's really been done. Why do people raise such an issue every time a Democrat's elected? Why don't they take care of it when there's a Republican in office? And so I just wanted to make that comment about that.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, David, though, in - are you - are all your positions on those issues - abortion, immigration, the environment, gay marriage - are they influenced by your religion?

DAVID: Absolutely. Absolutely. When it comes to immigration, I think about what Christ said about, you know, who is our neighbor (technical difficulty) teaching of the Good Samaritan, you know, that our neighbor doesn't - isn't necessarily defined by borders. And so that's an extremely important issue. And then when he teaches about doing to the least of these, he's talking (technical difficulty) sick, the homeless, those without clothing, those without food, and those (technical difficulty) those in prison. So, yeah, there's plenty of biblical references to back up a social justice, despite what Glenn Beck says about social justice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right, David. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. Let's go to Keith, and Keith's with us from Anchorage. We're going from Mecca to Anchorage on this program.

KEITH (Caller): Yeah. I think the guy who just - who has left, he - what he was saying was very profound in the factor that, you know, we are Americans here generally, and Christianity being our highest religion, you know, following. And in the Bible, we really speak only about the, you know, man created - or God created woman - Adam and Eve, you know?

CONAN: Right.

KEITH: There's no - there's not much talk about Adam and the hermaphrodite or anything in between.

CONAN: Ah. So you're bringing up...

KEITH: also just as true. So, you know, as a democracy gets to be more and more - like, you know, blacks can vote and everybody has a chance, has a say - that your actual true identity becomes apparent. And that it becomes apparent with, I think, any particular...

CONAN: Keith...

KEITH: or passion.

CONAN: I just want to get a quick comment on that from Robert Putnam, because it was - on that one issue that you found young people having difficulty with - their organized - with their religion.

Prof. PUTNAM: Yeah. It's - I certainly have to recognize that there are some young people who share Keith's views that there's a strong connection that homosexuality is wrong, maybe a sin, and that their faith calls them to oppose it. And there are young people like that. But we know very well and it's - again, this is not just from our work, but from John Green's and others - that most young people have moved very, very sharply in the direction of being more accepting of homosexuality. And that puts them more out of touch with the traditional religious organizations on this issue.

CONAN: Robert Putnam, thanks very much, and look forward to reading your book.

Prof. PUTNAM: Thanks very much. Good to be with you.

CONAN: Robert Putnam's new book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." There's an excerpt at

Coming up next, the South China Sea and the looming crisis. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.