Americans seem rather confused when it comes to the issue of religion and politics.
At least that appears to be the case from survey results on the role of religion in the 2010 election. The good news is, most Americans didn’t vote based on their religious views. The bad news is, many Americans are strangely preoccupied with President Barack Obama’s faith and that plays a role in whether they like him or not.
The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, released the survey findings yesterday afternoon and held a panel discussion here in Washington about them.
Fewer than 10 percent of Americans said their religious beliefs were the biggest influence on their vote this year (although that number jumped to 20 percent among evangelical Christians). Seventy-three percent said common sense and personal experience affected their votes most. That’s good news; the last thing we need is a nation divided into religiously based voting blocs.
But when asked about Obama’s religious views, most Americans (51 percent) indicated that they felt their own religious beliefs were “somewhat different” or “very different” from the president’s. That’s somewhat odd, since Obama is a Christian and so are the majority of Americans.
But even more troubling, Americans’ views about this Obama’s religion correlated to how they felt about him. Of those who said they felt their beliefs were “very different” from his, 78 percent had an unfavorable view of the president.
This is disconcerting. It’s not just that a minority of Americans are wrongly convinced that Obama is Muslim, Americans as a whole seem to be judging the president based on his religious beliefs – something that is contrary to the spirit of our Constitution.
Our Founding Fathers made it clear in the Constitution that there will be no religious test to hold office, and Americans would be wise to remember that guiding principle when evaluating our leaders, especially in a country as religiously diverse as ours.
Some other interesting highlights from the survey include:
• A majority of Americans see religion as the solution for social problems. Fifty-six percent mostly or completely agreed with the statement, “If enough people had a personal relationship with God, social problems would take care of themselves.”
• A majority of Americans (58 percent) believe God has granted America a special role in human history.
• Most Americans (63 percent) said they are worried that the government is getting too involved in the issue of morality. (When George W. Bush was president, support for government action on moral issues was seven points higher.)
• Twenty percent of Americans say they “completely agree” that Islamic values and American values are at odds, while 22 percent “completely” disagree. Panelist William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said this indicates that most Americans are unclear what to think about Islam, but if it remains a politically charged question, there is a “serious threat of further national division.”
I know that poll results depend on a lot of factors. How the questions are phrased makes a difference. So does the way in which respondents perceive the questions being asked.
To me, this poll shows that we Americans still haven’t fully thought through issues of religion and politics, democracy and diversity. It’s time we started doing so.