Pew Research Center in late October released a major new poll on Americans’ views on separation of church and state, finding that most Americans support that constitutional principle and reject key tenets of Christian nationalism. At the same time, Pew found that a significant minority of Americans back things like teacher-led prayer in public schools and the display of religious symbols at the seat of government.
A key finding from the poll is that many more Americans favor separation of church and state than oppose it. Pew reports that 55% of Americans are considered to be either “strong” or “moderate” supporters of church-state separation (28% strong, 27% moderate). 18% fall into a “mixed” category, meaning they sometimes back a church-state separation position but just as often do not, depending on the issue. Pew says that 14% of Americans are “integrationists” – a term Pew applies to people who favor little or no separation of church and state. (The remaining 12% had no opinion.)
Furthermore, 54% of Americans agree that the federal government should enforce separation of church and state, while 19% said the government should stop enforcing it. The rest, 27%, had no opinion.
But perhaps the best news of the poll is that Americans aren’t buying the line Christian nationalists are peddling about our nation’s alleged “divine” origins, and they appreciate the secular nature of the U.S. Constitution.
Americans reject the idea that the Constitution was inspired by God, a key tenet of Christian nationalism. 67% say the Constitution was written by humans and does not reflect God’s vision. 18% disagree, saying that the Constitution reflects God’s vision for America.
Asked if the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation, just 15% said it should. 69% said the federal government should never declare any religion as the official faith of the United States.
Pew also asked if the federal government should advocate Christian values. 13% said it should, but this is dwarfed by the 63% who backed the idea of the government promoting the moral values shared by people of many faiths.
Christian nationalists believe God loves America better than other countries. Americans soundly reject this view. Only 5% believe God favors the United States over other countries. 70% say God does not favor any one country over others.
(Figures don’t add up to 100% because some people said they had no opinion.)
On specific church-state issues, support for the pro-separation position remains healthy, but the percentage of people who express anti-separation views creeps up. For example, 39% of respondents said they believe cities and towns should be allowed to display religious symbols on public property, and 30% would allow public school teachers to lead students in Christian prayers – two generations after the Supreme Court decided that enforced prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.
The poll breaks down respondents by religious, racial and political categories. Support for church-state separation is generally healthy across categories but, not surprisingly, white evangelicals expressed the highest support for church-state integration (36%). Republicans are much more likely to support church-state integration than Democrats.
Black respondents favored teacher-led Christian prayer in public schools at a higher rate than whites (38% to 31%), but Latino support for official prayer was lower at 24%. Smaller numbers of Blacks and Latinos supported the idea that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God than whites, but both groups also showed higher numbers of respondents having no opinion.
Pew also reports, “Support for separation of church and state is slightly higher among men than women; women are more likely than men to be in the ‘no opinion’ category. College graduates are far more supportive of church-state separation than are those with lower levels of education. Similarly, young adults (ages 18 to 29) are more likely than their elders to consistently favor the separation of church and state. Support for separation of church and state is lower in the South than in other parts of the country. Still, even in the South, fewer than one-in-five people consistently express a desire for the integration of church and state.”
Support for church-state separation also correlates with political opinions on other issues.
Pew reported, “Most people who support separation of church and state are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, think Donald Trump was a ‘poor’ or ‘terrible’ president, say immigrants strengthen American society, and reject the notion that society is better off if people prioritize getting married and having children.”
Church-state separation advocates also agree that it is “a lot” more difficult “to be a Black person than a White person in the U.S., and that while the U.S. is one of the greatest countries in the world, there are other countries that are also great.”
Added Pew, “By comparison, people who favor church-state integration are mostly Republicans and Republican leaners, think Trump was a ‘good’ or ‘great’ president, say the growing numbers of immigrants in the U.S. threaten traditional American values, and feel that society would be better off if more people prioritized getting married and having children. Church-state integrationists are far more inclined than church-state separationists to say that it is ‘no more difficult’ to be Black than White in American society (42% vs. 13%), and that the U.S. ‘stands above’ all other countries (40% vs. 15%).”
The breakdown by religion follows an expected pattern: White evangelical Protestants show the highest support for church-state integration, at 36%. The next highest group is Latino Protestants, with 26% being sympathetic toward an integrationist position.
“By contrast,” Pew notes, “a desire for church-state integration is almost nonexistent among U.S. Jews (1%) and the religiously unaffiliated (2%), who consist of those describing their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’ Among self-identified atheists and agnostics, fully 96% fall into the church-state separationist category.”
One interesting (and perhaps unexpected) feature of the poll is that a significant number of people said they had no opinion on many of these issues. For example, on the question about teacher-led prayer in public schools, while 46% said teachers should not be allowed to lead students in any kind of prayer, 24% had no opinion. On the question dealing with the display of religious symbols by government on public property, the percentage who favor these displays (39%) was close to the number who oppose them (35%) – but 26% had no opinion. On the question of whether the United States should advocate Christian values, 63% said no, and only 13% said yes, while 24% had no opinion. Asked about their support for church-state separation generally, 12% said they had no opinion.
Church-state issues are often seen as highly contentious features of the “culture wars,” but these results indicate that for a minority of Americans they haven’t made much of an impact – or that perhaps more education about these issues is needed.
This survey, Americans United noted, presents a lot to unpack, but in general the results are positive and confirm what AU has long known: The extremists who oppose church-state separation make a lot of noise, but their views are way out of step with most Americans.