The Pew Research Center released the results of its annual “Religion and Politics” survey Wednesday (27). The research polled 2,009 U.S. adults. While American politics has long been under the Evangelical thumb with most Americans saying strong religious beliefs are important for a candidate, the religious base is shifting from the right toward the center – to a higher state of tolerance that opens the door for less religious definition among Presidential candidates.
A century ago in American politics, the non-religious could not have been elected President of the United States. Past Pew surveys found that strong religious beliefs were an important vote earner for 7 of 10 Americans. This might have spelled trouble for Democratic contender, Senator Bernie Sanders, who is “proudly irreligious;” and for Republican front runner, Donald Trump, who is “nominally” Presbyterian.
It might have, if the religious views of faithful America were not gradually shifting toward a higher tolerance of non-Evangelical religions. According to the 2014 Pew Report (video), America’s population is increasingly filled with “millennials,” who are reportedly less religious. This does not explicitly exempt a belief in God. It may be that those polled are unorthodox in their fellowship, practicing for example a spirituality that does not depend on formal church attendance.
In the current Pew report, the share of Americans with reservations about voting for an non-religious, or atheist presidential candidate has also been declining over time.
Currently, both Clinton and Sanders have their greatest support among the two reliably Democratic and religious constituencies: 1.) “nones” – people who do not report any specific religious affiliation; and 2.) Black Protestants (Sanders: 51 percent of “nones” and 36 percent of black Protestants. Clinton: 42 percent of “nones” and 62 percent of black Protestants).
The grass roots shift trickled down from the high profile support of Gov. Mitt Romney despite his Mormon faith (which initially caused concern), after he received the RNC Nomination in his 2008 bid for President, before losing to President Barack Obama, a mainline Protestant.
Democratic Front-runner, Hillary Clinton had the opportunity to openly profess her faith on Monday in Knoxville, Iowa. A town-hall style event in a gymnasium heard the question of “how Mrs. Clinton aligned her politics and her faith, in a context where Democrats and Republicans both say their politics is grounded in their Christian faith.” Clinton’s entire response was transcribed in the New York Times. Below is the start of her comment:
“… I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instructions and support I received starting in my family but through my church, and I think that any of us who are Christian have a constantly, constant, conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how we are asked to do it, and I think it is absolutely appropriate for people to have very strong convictions and also, though, to discuss those with other people of faith. Because different experiences can lead to different conclusions about what is consonant with our faith and how best to exercise it.
My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do, and there is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up, to find faith themselves that I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith. But I do believe that in many areas judgment should be left to God, that being more open, tolerant and respectful is part of what makes me humble about my faith, and I am in awe of people who truly turn the other cheek all the time, who can go that extra mile that we are called to go, who keep finding ways to forgive and move on. Those are really hard things for human beings to do, and there is a lot, certainly in the New Testament, that calls us to do that…”
The 2016 Pew survey asked, “How important is it to you to have a president who shares your religious beliefs?” It was very or somewhat important for 64 percent of Republicans but for only 41 percent of Democrats.
Said Greg Smith, Associate Director of Research and an author of the Pew report, “… religion or religiosity matters [are] only one consideration that people take with them into the caucus room or the voting booth. There are other things they care about more.” This is a shift from previous decades when the coveted Evangelical vote represented a higher rate of conservatism.
Apparently, religious voters now care less about a candidate’s “theological sophistication” and even less about one’s religious affiliation. Neither was Trump rejected for saying, “Two Corinthians” instead of Second Corinthians’ nor was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz condemned for failing to tithe, or give 10 percent to charity –“like a proper Southern Baptist.”
A high stake of GOP voters do not see Trump as religious. His campaign is the most indicative of changing Evangelical views. It represents the first time a perceived non-religious candidate has been rated as having “good potential” for managing the highest office in the land. “It is a different pattern than you see for any other candidate,” Smith said.
The largest single bloc of GOP voters are White Evangelicals. Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, were each considered by “virtually all” Republicans to be at least somewhat religious – and that was thought to make them successful candidates.
Only 44 percent of GOP voters said Rubio, a Catholic who recently released an ad touting his Christian faith and promoting salvation through Christ, was religious.
If it seems like Trump is pulling the wool over the eyes of the religious right, consider that the Pew report also indicates considerable wariness about Trump among Evangelicals: of whom 29 percent agreed that Trump would be a “poor” or “terrible” president (twice the percentage of voters who consider Cruz or Carson poor choices).
When asked about their view of religion’s influence in American society, the survey finds that the large majority of U.S. adults continue to believe that religion is losing influence. And most who hold this view – about half of all U.S. adults – say they think religion’s declining influence is a bad thing for American society.
Half of polled Americans (51%) believe that religious conservatives have too much control over the GOP. More than 44% think that secular liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democratic Party.
The Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, is a “nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions.” Current tables and charts can be viewed here.