Poll Shows Americans Split Over Role Of Religion In Politics

Americans are divided about the role religion should play in politics, but most believe U.S. law should be based on the will of the people, not scripture, a new poll says.

The survey, released in August by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, quizzed 2,000 adults on a variety of issues dealing with religion and government.

In one of the most interesting findings, the poll showed that 63 percent of Americans believe that the will of the people, not the Bible, should have more influence over the law of the country. Thirty-two percent thought the Bible should prevail.

White evangelicals were the least likely to agree that the people’s will should guide the law, with only 34 percent backing that stand. College graduates and those who identified themselves as secularists were the most likely to back laws that respect the people’s will instead of scripture.

The poll also showed Americans are split on whether religious leaders should express political and social views from the pulpit. Roughly half (51 percent) say they should, while 46 percent say they should keep out of politics all together. However, pollsters did not ask respondents if they think pastors should endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit. Previous polls have shown strong opposition to that practice.

Claims by the Religious Right that tax law muzzles pastors were handily debunked in this survey. In fact, the poll proves that most members of the clergy have no fear of speaking out on the issues of the day. Most respondents said they have heard their religious leaders address political issues. Fifty-nine percent said their pastors have addressed abortion. Fifty-three percent have heard sermons about the Iraq war. Fifty-two percent said pastors have addressed gay rights, and a whopping 92 percent have heard sermons on hunger and poverty.

Another set of questions dealt specifically with the Religious Right and its influence on American government. Although this section features some vague questions, the results show the majority of Americans realize the religio-political movement is gaining power in Washington, D.C. Forty-nine percent believe “conservative Christians have gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country.”

Eleven percent of respondents consider themselves a part of the Religious Right. And, in one of the most widely reported features of the poll, Americans increasingly believe that both major political parties are becoming less friendly to religion. Forty-seven percent of self-identified evangelicals believe the Republican Party is not “friendly” to religion, a drop of eight points over 2005. (Only 26 percent of respondents consider the Democrats friendly to religion.)

Perhaps the most alarming finding of the poll is that 69 percent of respondents believe “liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of the schools and the government.” This finding suggests that the Religious Right’s campaign to claim widespread hostility toward religious expression in public is getting some traction.

The poll also asked questions about evolution. A bare majority of 51 percent said they accept that life evolved over time. Forty-two percent say they believe humans and other living things have always existed in their present forms. Of those who accept evolution, 21 percent say they believe it was guided by God.

Roman Catholics, secularists and mainline Christians were much less likely to believe that living things have always existed in their present forms. That belief was much more common among evangelicals, being endorsed by 65 percent of them.

Finally, the poll found a drop in the number of people who say the Bible is the literal word of God. Thirty-five percent endorsed this view, down from previous years. Forty-three percent believe the Bible is God’s word but does not have to be read literally. Eighteen percent said the Bible is not God’s word at all.