New politics of religion pivots on Islam, Obama

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Two insightful observers of the intersection of religion and politics in America, E.J. Dionne and Bill Galston, believe a “new politics of religion” emerged in the 2010 elections, the hallmarks of which are two forms of deep public ambivalence – about Islam, and about the religious beliefs of President Barack Obama.

According to a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute,which forms the basis of the Dionne/Galston analysis, 45 percent of Americans agree that Islamic teachings and values are at odds with the American way of life.

Meanwhile, 51 percent regard Obama’s religious outlook as different from their own, while only 40 percent say the president's beliefs are similar to theirs. (Dionne and Galston said they deliberately wanted to go deeper than the stale question of how many Americans still believe, inaccurately, that Obama is a Muslim.)

Those findings were presented in a new Brookings Institution report authored by Dionne and Galston, which was released today. I was part of a group of journalists that got a sneak peek on Monday in Miami Beach, and there’s also much of interest in the report from a Catholic point of view.

Both Dionne and Galston took pains to stress that the economy, not religion or anything else, was the dominant issue in the 2010 midterms. Further, they say, the 2010 results haven’t overturned the conventional wisdom about correlations between religion and voting patterns. White Evangelicals, to take one example, remain a reliable conservative constituency.

Nonetheless, both also see the PRRI poll as a harbinger of things to come, in the sense that both Islam and Obama’s profile on religion could form important new fault lines in American political life.

One other headline from the poll: the idea of “American exceptionalism,” meaning that God has granted the United States a special role in history, is “amazingly pervasive” among the electorate. Overall almost sixty percent of Americans agree, including 86 percent of Christian conservatives and 83 percent of white Evangelicals.

Even among minority groups, who might be expected to feel more ambivalent on the subject, support for American exceptionalism is strikingly robust: 64 percent of Hispanics agree, as do 60 percent of African Americans. Most counter-intuitively, 32 percent of the religiously unaffiliated agreed, a category which presumably includes a fair number of atheists and agnostics.

Among the Catholic findings of interest:

  • Among all religiously defined subgroups, Catholics have the lowest level of support for American exceptionalism at 49 percent. (Black Protestants come in at 58 percent and white mainline Protestants at 53). When I asked Galston and Dionne to explain that, both said that the universal and global nature of the Catholic church probably has some effecting on dampening nationalism.

  • White Catholics seem less hawkish than white Evangelicals on foreign policy. Asked to choose between two propositions – “in foreign policy the best way to ensure peace is through military strength” versus “good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace” – 53 percent of the Evangelicals chose the former, while 58 percent of white Catholics went with diplomacy.

  • Dionne said that studying Catholic voting behavior, one can affirm a seeming contradiction: “There isn’t any Catholic vote, and it’s important.” By that, Dionne meant that Catholics show a fairly reliable 40/40/20 split – 40 percent will always go Democratic, 40 percent Republican, and that 20 percent in the middle can tilt an election one way or the other.

  • Sixty-five percent of Catholics said they heard their clergy speak out on abortion before the election, compared to only seven percent who said they heard clergy address the role and size of government, and 13 percent who said they heard preaching about health care. During Monday’s session with reporters, Dionne said those findings suggest that “the Catholic social justice tradition is less talked about than the pro-life issue.”

On the question of Obama’s religious beliefs, several participants in the Miami Beach gathering seemed to agree that candidate Obama handled the “God issue” much better during the campaign than President Obama has in the White House. Dionne said he recently asked one prominent Democrat and Obama supporter how the president could do a better job of reaching out to religious voters, and the reply was: “For one thing, he could go to church again!”

The overall consensus seemed to be that heading into 2012, the “religion gap” is something for Obama to ponder.

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