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Latest Partisan Divide: Religion and Politics Should Mix

Catholicism is the plurality religion of the 113th Congress. A new Pew poll shows that 3 out of 5 people surveyed want lawmakers to have strong religious beliefs. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“Never discuss politics or religion in polite company” is one of those rules to live by that family elders have been passing on for generations.  

Now comes word that half the country has reached a different conclusion: Politics should play a bigger role in our religious discourse.  

At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence to support the grandparental view that talking openly about religion and politics will only lead to discord. As with so much, Republicans and Democrats sharply disagree about how and when the two should mix.  

Those are the central takeaways from the latest Pew Research Center survey of attitudes and trends shaping public life, released Tuesday. The new numbers add yet another layer to the rich portrait of an electorate that’s divided and conflicted about more or less everything.  

Perhaps the most dramatic finding is how the public has rapidly become evenly split when asked if churches and other houses of worship should regularly express their views on social and political issues: 49 percent now say yes, 48 percent say no. It’s a marked reversal from the steady decline in support for church intervention in such matters during the previous decade. Just one campaign season ago, those who wanted churches to stay out of public policy debates outnumbered those who advocated such participation by 14 percentage points.  

In addition, 32 percent now say religious leaders should make candidate endorsements — an 8-point jump since the last midterms, in 2010, when the conservative tea party wave delivered the House to the GOP.  

Preachers, rabbis, imams and the like have a First Amendment right to explain their views of economic, social or foreign policy to their congregations, and they may engage more directly in campaigns by participating in outside organizations or political action committees. But the IRS has told religious leaders they endanger their faith community’s tax-exempt status whenever they urge a vote for or against a particular candidate from the pulpit. A growing number of preachers, at both ends of the ideological spectrum, have talked about testing the constitutionality of those restrictions.  

The survey revealed a deepening partisan split about the role of religion in politics. Two in five Democrats currently think churches should be more vocal about their views, the same as in 2010. But among Republicans the number has surged from half in 2010 to three-fifths today — and to fully two-thirds among white evangelical Protestants. And while 28 percent in the Democratic Party favor churches making candidate endorsements, the same is true for 38 percent in the GOP. The poll was released six weeks before voters decide whether to retain a divided Congress or give control entirely to the Republicans, and after a campaign that has been shaped at the margins by several tensions between church and state. Conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics have had their antipathy to President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies stoked, for example, by the mandate under the 2010 health care law that employee insurance plans cover contraception. At the same time, liberal mainline Christian congregations have been galvanized by the view that putting illegal immigrants on a pathway to citizenship is what their commitment to social justice requires.  

Pew’s numbers about the growing appetite for religion in politics suggest Republicans are more comfortable than Democrats with the alignment of their religious and political views.  

But other survey results reveal it’s more complicated, especially on the GOP side. On government spending, gay marriage and immigration, majorities of white evangelical, mainline Protestant and Catholic Republicans all say the party is not doing a good job representing their views. On abortion, opinion is even. Each of those groups is conflicted on whether their party should be moving to the left or right on all four issues. But on all of those topics the majority of evangelicals — a crucial element of the party’s high-turnout base — was unambiguous in saying the GOP remained insufficiently conservative.  

On those same four issues, meanwhile, there were more religious Democrats who approved than didn’t approve of the way the party is representing their views.  

None of those findings has led to any marked shift in the voting preferences of religious groups: 72 percent of evangelicals plan to vote Republican for Congress in November, while 86 percent of African-American Protestants and 59 percent of the religiously unaffiliated are ready to vote Democratic. Catholics and white mainline Protestants, meanwhile, are up for grabs.  

That may be, at least in part, because the poll revealed that the economy, health care and terrorism are rated by all the major religious blocs as clearly the most important issues facing the country. (The religiously unaffiliated, 20 percent of those polled, put the environment in the top three instead of terrorism.)  

Pew’s poll, of 2,002 adults in the first week of September revealed another way the public views the parties differently: 47 percent perceive the GOP as “friendly toward religion,” while only 29 percent see the Democrats that way.  

There is one important way in which Americans’ views about the intersection of church and state hasn’t changed. Three out of five want members of Congress to “have strong religious beliefs,” a percentage that hasn’t changed since Pew last asked that question four years ago. But even on that front there was a crisp partisan divide: 72 percent of Republicans but only 50 percent of Democrats find it desirable for their lawmakers to have religious convictions.  

According to CQ research, only two senators and nine House members, all of them Democrats, currently decline to publicly identify themselves with any organized religion. That’s just 2 percent of all lawmakers, a figure essentially unchanged in the past decade. Catholicism remains the plurality religion of the 113th Congress, at 31 percent. The other leading religions among members are Baptist (15 percent), unspecified Protestant (12 percent), Presbyterian and Methodist (8 percent each), Episcopalian (7 percent) and Jewish (6 percent).  

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