This seems counterintuitive in an environment where many secularists believe that “separation of church and state” is a quote from the Constitution, but Pew’s results make sense when considering the broader context of American public life. In the same survey that found the general public split on whether businesses should be forced to participate in same-sex marriages, Pew also finds that Americans want more faith-based input on political matters:
Nearly three-quarters of the public (72%) now thinks religion is losing influence in American life, up 5 percentage points from 2010 to the highest level in Pew Research polling over the past decade. And most people who say religion’s influence is waning see this as a bad thing.
Perhaps as a consequence, a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in U.S. politics. The share of Americans who say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues is up 6 points since the 2010 midterm elections (from 43% to 49%). The share who say there has been “too little” expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders is up modestly over the same period (from 37% to 41%). And a growing minority of Americans (32%) think churches should endorse candidates for political office, though most continue to oppose such direct involvement by churches in electoral politics.
This is being driven by those of religious faith, of course:
The findings reflect a widening divide between religiously affiliated Americans and the rising share of the population that is not affiliated with any religion (sometimes called the “nones”). The public’s appetite for religious influence in politics is increasing in part because those who continue to identify with a religion (e.g., Protestants, Catholics and others) have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion. The “nones” are much more likely to oppose the intermingling of religion and politics.
Overall, though, Pew finds that 56% of Americans think the waning influence of religion on politics is a problem rather than a solution, with only 12% believing it to be a good development. That assessment hits above 60% in almost every demographic in the Pew data. The difference between voters of faith and the others is especially stark on this point. A narrow plurality of unaffiliated Americans (the “nones”) mildly endorse this trend, 34/30. No other demo in the poll has double digits in the “good thing” category. The weakest demo other than the nones is Hispanic Catholics, where it gets a 9/50. Nor is it limited to the traditional conservative demos, either. White evangelicals predictably give it a 2/77, but black Protestants massively disapprove of the trend too, 5/65.
It’s not just an argument for the legitimacy of religious values in public policy that has shifted, either, but also the legitimacy of religious organizations’ participation. In 2010, a majority of Americans wanted houses of worship to stay out of politics, 52/43, but that has flipped to 48/49 in the four years since. That has increased in every demographic except for the “nones”:
Even with this, though, Americans are leery of churches endorsing political candidates. That gets a 32/63 overall rating, up from 24/70 in 2010 but still clearly a minority position. Every single demo has a majority opposed to that idea, and the current tax regulations would also stymie that for any church wishing to retain its tax-exempt status.
This rising concern about the marginalization of religious values from the American public political square may be one of the issues dragging on Barack Obama’s poll numbers, too. Almost every demo has seen a double-digit increase in those who think Obama is hostile toward religion, and even a few black Protestants have now come to that conclusion:
Note also that no demo has increased in thinking Obama is friendly to religion, either, so this isn’t polarization. It’s a trend, and one that probably springs at least in part from the HHS contraception mandate and the administration’s attempt to force religious organizations to comply with it. (Look at the jump among Catholics.) Democrats looking at this data have to worry about its impact on the midterm elections, especially in states where faith tends to correlate with voter turnout.
Over the last decade or so, there has been plenty of cultural pressure to separate faith and its shared values from policy judgments. This poll suggests that Americans have rejected it and a backlash to it may be in motion. For those of us of faith, that’s a welcome development.