The Pew Survey on Religion in Politics

by Michael Sean Winters

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The recent Pew survey on Americans’ attitudes towards the role of religion in politics could well be described as hash. NCR has run two news stories on the survey, linked here and here, and you find the survey itself here. Let’s look at some of the salient information and, critically, the limits of that information.

The most interesting result to me was the finding that 49% of Americans want churches and other religious congregations to “express their views on day-to-day social and political issues.” That number is up from just 43% in 2010. But, of course, that 49% includes those who want the churches engaging issues of social justice as well as those who want their churches more focused on issues like same sex marriage or abortion. Few are the people who would like to see the churches more active on both sets of issues, although I am happy to count myself among them.

What we do not know from the survey is how the respondents think the churches should be involved. Do the people in the pews just want to hear sermons that correspond with their own, already arrived at, political conclusions? We all like affirmation of our prejudices. And, although the question sounds abstract in the poll, it is not. Christianity, especially, has acquired a definite, public face throughout history. In the 1950s Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham and Cardinal Spellman were the public face of Christianity. In the 1960s. In the 1980s, it was Rev. Falwell. Today, there are many public faces of Christianity in the U.S. but the lion’s share of attention is almost always focused on those ministers and prelates who speak out forcefully on the more hot button issues. The great exception to that rule: Pope Francis who has quickly become a very different face of Christianity in the public square then, say, Jerry Falwell. So, when the respondents were asked about the role of religion and politics, and whether they want more or less of it, we do not know which face they want more of.

The fact that more Americans want more religion in public life may be the most interesting finding in the survey again, with the caveat that we are not sure what kind of religion they want. But, I think that this desire for more religion in public life shows the discontent many people feel towards politics, a sense that it is unmoored from any grander vision and unresponsive to their daily concerns. And, if, as I suspect, people want a more profound political life for the nation, where else would they turn for such profundity? Not to the NFL. Not to the Kardashians. People in their heart of hearts know that religion can be and should be a positive force in the life of any peoples. They know that ISIS does not represent the faith of millions of Muslims and that most pro-lifers are not like Randall Terry, and that the pope is not a Marxist just because he cares about the poor.

The survey showed that U.S. Catholics are more likely to support same sex marriage than most voters and – although I would want to check the numbers and the questions – that Catholics are not more resoundingly in favor pro-immigrant policies, despite the prominence this issue has acquired from our bishops over the past couple of years. Given the fact that so many Catholics now seek out churches that are convenient to their ideological and liturgical tastes, rather than convenient to the neighborhood, does this dissonance between the teachings of the Church and the attitudes of average Catholics reflect the fact that liberal Catholics are going to churches with liberal pastors and conservative Catholics are going to churches with conservative pastors? Does it mean that these Catholics are among those who want less involvement by the churches in the political life of the nation. One of the frustrating things to me about survey data is that it always leaves me with more questions than when I started.  

Look at this paragraph from my colleague Dawn Cherie Araujo’s story on the Pew findings:

For the first time, Pew Research asked respondents whether vendors providing wedding-related services should be required to offer services to same-sex couples. While 49 percent of all respondents said they should be required to do so, 57 percent of Catholics said it should be required. When asked if homosexual behavior was sinful, 49 percent of Catholics said no while 44 percent said yes. Conversely, among white evangelicals, the pillar of the American conservatism, 82 percent said homosexual behavior was sinful.

Think of all the additional questions this one paragraph yields. Wouldn’t you want to drill down on the word “required”? If offered the choice “Do you think vendors should offer same sex couples the full range of wedding services?” and the question “Do you think the government should force all vendors to offer a full range of services to same sex couples?” I am not sure how people would react, but I suspect the reactions would be different. Those differences reflect the fact that we human beings, including believers, are complicated beings with multiple desires. I do not think a vendor should discriminate, and I do not have any objection to the government requiring it, but I can sympathize with someone who thinks vendors should not discriminate but doesn’t think the government should get involved. And on whether or not respondents believe homosexual behavior is sinful, wouldn’t you have wanted a follow up question on whether the government should be in the business of policing sinful behavior and, if so, in what instances? We all think murder is sinful, and I suppose we all want it criminalized. But, what about consensual sexual relations in the privacy of one’s own home?

I am not suggesting that surveys such as this are not important. They are. But, the information they yield tends to be crimped even though it is often taken as gospel. To be clear, whether the Church’s involvement on any given political issue is efficacious or not, I believe that the leaders of our Church, and the rest of us too, should engage those issues in the public square. Anything that involves the human person involves the Church. The manner of that public engagement is the real difficulty. That is where we see the differences between culture warriors on the right, progressives who claim the mantle of “prophetic witness” and churchmen. The bishops of the Church need to think, and think deeply, about the manner of their public witness and how it can be more coherent, more effective, and more clearly rooted in the Gospel. They need look no further than to the example of the Bishop of Rome.  








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