Americans Want More Religion in Public Life, Says New Pew Poll

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HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 6:  Gary Don Holley stands and prays amidst the crowd of participants during the non-denominational prayer and fasting event, entitled "The Response" at Reliant Stadium August 6, 2011 in Houston, Texas. Thousands attended the event organized by Gov. Rick Perry in order to pray for God to help save "a nation in crisis" referring to America.  (Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images)
Photo: Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images

The Pew Research Center released its latest survey numbers yesterday, and the biggest takeaway is that there appears to be a “growing appetite for religion in politics,” as the organization puts it. But this probably has more to do with folks who were already religious responding to the last few years than with previously secular Americans suddenly seeing the light.

The one area in which there’s agreement is that religion is losing its influence in public life: The percentage of respondents who think so has steadily risen from 52 percent in 2002 (as far back as Pew goes on that question in this report) to 72 percent in the latest poll. Even during the Bush administration, when the then-president received a lot of flak for fusing religion and politics, this number inched consistently upward. 

Elsewhere, though, the story is a bit more complicated, and there are some potentially noteworthy recent changes:

Growing Support for Religion in Politics

What to make of this? It’s key to remember that people respond to polls and form other on-the-spot political opinions in part by reacting to whatever cues are most salient. Sure, some people have strong, solidly held beliefs about the role of religion in public life, but others are more sway-able on the basis of whatever has been going on recently.

What’s gone on recently? High-profile fights about abortion and birth control, two of the most hot-button issues for conservative religious folks. So, could it be that Americans, on the whole, aren’t getting more jazzed about the idea of a Bush-esque approach to religion and politics, but rather that religious voters (and hardly anyone else) are looking around, seeing things getting more secular, and wanting more religion?

Here’s a breakdown that will help answer that question:

Increasing Appetite for Religion in Public Life Among Republicans, Religiously Affiliated

So, to oversimplify slightly, people with strong religious views have started wanting significantly more religion with their politics in recent years, while most other people’s views on the subject are holding steady. Certainly looks good for the theory. And that’s Pew’s (partial) interpretation as well:

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.

It would appear that the centuries-old debate about the role of religion in civic life in the U.S. is not going away anytime soon.