A great deal has been written about how Democrats are making for of a play for the religious vote. Last Thursday, the PewResearch Center issued a study that showed that religion may actually be playing much less of a role in this election than in he past. The two candidates viewed as least religious by the public are leading the race for the nomination:
So far religion is not proving to be a clear-cut positive in the 2008 presidential campaign. The candidates viewed by voters as the least religious among the leading contenders are the current frontrunners for the Democratic and Republican nominations -- Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, respectively. On the other hand, the candidate seen as far and away the most religious -- Mitt Romney -- is handicapped by this perception because of voter concerns about Mormonism.
As in the past, most Americans continue to say that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. And voters who see presidential candidates as religious express more favorable views toward those candidates than do voters who view them as not religious. But the latest Pew survey finds that candidates for the White House need not be seen as very religious to be broadly acceptable to the voting public.
Among people who offer an opinion of the religiosity of leading Democrats, more say that John Edwards (28%) and Barack Obama (24%) are very religious than say the same about Hillary Clinton (16%). Yet wide majorities see all three as at least somewhat religious, and those who do view the candidates in overwhelmingly favorable terms.
Similarly, just 14% who offer an opinion see Rudy Giuliani as very religious, but another 63% see him as somewhat religious, and both groups offer comparably favorable assessments of the former New York City mayor. Mitt Romney stands apart from the other candidates tested – nearly half (46%) of those who express an opinion say Romney is very religious; that is roughly the same number saying that George W. Bush is very religious (43%), though many more people express an opinion about Bush's religiosity than Romney's. However, a quarter of Americans – Democrat, independent and Republican alike – say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is Mormon. And those who say this have substantially less favorable impressions of Mitt Romney.
A few other observations worth making. First, with the exception of Mitt Romney, the public views the Democrats as more religious than the Republicans.
Second, perhaps one reason that a perception of faith is playing less of a role is that voters are far more interested in issues like the Iraq War and the economy than social issues:
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted Aug. 1-18 among 3,002 adults, finds that social issues such as abortion and gay marriage continue to be greatly overshadowed in the presidential campaign by both domestic issues and the war in Iraq. This is consistent with a Pew Research Center survey in June in which abortion was rated as the least important issue of the nine tested in the survey.
More than three-quarters of Americans (78%) say domestic issues such as the economy, health care and the environment will be very important in their decisions about whom to support for president; 72% say the same about the war in Iraq. By comparison, just 38% say that social issues like abortion and gay marriage will be very important in their voting decisions.
Finally, Democrats still have some work to do if they want to be seen as "faith-friendly", but they are making inroads:
The survey finds that the Republican Party continues to hold a substantial advantage over the Democratic Party in terms of being seen as more friendly to religion. Half of Americans say the GOP is friendly to religion, compared with just 30% who see the Democratic Party as friendly toward religion. A plurality (37%) says the Democratic Party is neutral to religion, while 15% see it as unfriendly to religion. The proportion saying the Democratic Party is unfriendly to religion has declined slightly since July 2006 (20%).
In addition, nearly half of Americans (47%) now disagree with the idea that "liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democratic Party," and 37% agree with this statement. In July 2005, the public was evenly split as to whether secular liberals exert too much influence over the Democratic Party.
To me the number to watch is the percentage who view Democrats as hostile to religion--when this number goes down, this is a good thing. On the other hand,for those of us who are concerned with preserving a healthy separation of religion and politics, if the percentage of Americans who view Deomocrats as friendly goes up significantly, there should be cause for concern that we have gone to far.
Read a summary of the results here.
Read the full report here.