Sunday, April 12, 2009

How We View Religion And Politics

A question that occurred to me during the most recent Blog Against Theocracy was, I'm sad to admit, just how popular is the idea that church and state should be separated. There have been a few polls related to that subject in the last few years. The most recent and thorough one that I'm aware of is the Pew Foundation's 2008 poll on the relationship between religion and politics in America. I haven't encountered any other poll organization that does as thorough a job of examining this subject, so new results are always interesting. Here's what the Wall Street Journal had to say:

For the first time in more than a decade, a narrow majority of Americans say churches should stay out of politics, according to a poll released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

PewThe results suggest a potentially significant shift among conservative voters in particular. In 2004, 30% of conservatives said the church should stay out of politics while today 50% of conservatives today express that view.

Conservatives are now more in line with moderates and liberals when it comes to their views on mixing religion and politics. “Similarly, the sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats that previously existed on this issue have disappeared,” Pew reports.

Pew Survey: More Americans Want Religion Out of Politics

This is certainly true. Here's a table from that poll that illustrates the point:

The 2008 Presidential election saw our attitudes about religion in politics played out both in the news and in the positions and strategies of the candidates. Many openly wondered if Mitt Romney could be elected despite being a Mormon. Barack Obama, the son of two non-believers who became a Christian, was labeled as a Muslim by some of his opposition. In this country, as we'll soon see, being a Muslim is a political handicap in America, and being a non-believer is a political death sentence. The only debate of the general election that was not moderated by journalists was hosted and moderated by a televangelist.

The Pew poll stated that among Republicans and independents there's been a change in attitudes recently about how strongly religion should influence politics. You'd think that with the way religion has influenced politics recently, there'd be such a change. Let's look at some of the poll numbers in detail.

Issue: Presidents should have strong religious beliefs
Poll Date Agree Disagree
Sept. 2008 72% 25%
Sept. 2007 69% 27%
Sept. 2004 70% 26%

Statistically, there's no change. The other topic relevant to "faith" belonging in politics is this one:

Issue: Expression of religious faith and prayer by politicians
Poll DateToo Much Right AmountToo Little
Sept. 200829% 28% 36%
Sept. 2007 27% 26% 38%
July 2005 26% 27% 39%
Sept. 2004 27% 32% 31%

If there's a change in all that I'm not seeing it.

There is increasing skepticism about the wisdom of mixing chuches and politics in most of America. The one exception, if I'm reading between the lines of that poll correctly, is among black Americans. Democrats have shown a slight increase in the number of people who think religion and politics are OK. It's nowhere near the change in Republicans' and independents' thinking on the matter, though.

Now, let's look at how those attitudes play out when people select candidates. Here's a graphic from a 2007 USA Today poll conducted by Gallup:

Being Catholic used to be a handicap in America if you were running for office. John Kennedy helped change that. At one time, being Jewish was, as well. Similarly, if you're black, a woman, or hispanic, you're much better running these days than a few decades ago. There is still a small minority of bigots who won't vote for you despite your qualifications, but most people will consider you.

Not so, if you're in the other categories. Of those categories, one could be considered a health issue (being 72 or older), one is about gender preference, and the remaining three have something to do with religion. To be sure, the "married three times" category could also be about character, but there are religious issues related to remarrying, particularly among Catholics. As I wrote earlier, being an atheist is a political death sentence. Don't bother filing for candidacy unless you just want to make a point.

Which brings us back to the story of Barack Obama and his belief in Christianity. It's possible that this belief is perfectly genuine, yet it strikes many of us non-believers, including me, that this is just a bit too convenient. That people won't vote for atheists and non-believers isn't a revelation. All one has to do is look at the composition of the U.S. Congress. As the Pew Foundation notes:

The [Religious Affiliations of Members of Congress] study finds that there is at least one major difference between Congress and the nation as a whole: Members of Congress are much more likely than the public overall to say they are affiliated with a particular religion. Only five members of the new Congress (about 1%) did not specify a religious affiliation, according to information gathered by Congressional Quarterly and the Pew Forum, and no members specifically said they were unaffiliated. By contrast, the [religious] Landscape Survey found that individuals who are not affiliated with a particular faith make up about one-sixth (16.1%) of the adult population, making this one of the largest "religious" groups in the U.S.

Faith on the Hill: The Religious Affiliations of Members of Congress

[link and emphasis added]

That 16.1% includes atheists, who make up 1.6% of the population, agnostics (2.4%), and unaffiliated (12.1%), according to the Landscape Survey. I'd classify this group as non-believers, since nearly all would qualify in one way or another. Many unaffiliateds would almost certainly believe in some form of god or gods, but I think it's fair to say that their god(s) is (are) not personified, or concerned with human affairs in particular, or they do not believe in formal religions. This is the definition of non-believers that I'm used to, and for the purposes of attitudes of the voting public, there seems to be little difference between these different philosophies, anyway.

A 2003 Pew Research poll also found that people are unlikely to vote for an atheist:

Atheism is a particular concern for white evangelical Protestants and African-Americans ­ majorities of each say there are reasons why they might not vote for an atheist if one received their party's presidential nomination.

Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus (Part II)

This is an attitude that, if you're a non-believer, you don't need a poll to tell you. That Barack Obama was unaware of this attitude is unlikely in the extreme. Anyone with ambitions for national office had better belong to a formal religion of some sort, and preferably not a Muslim or Mormon one.

While separation of church and state is an idea that is enshrined in our Constitution and in our early political heritage, it isn't particularly popular with the public at large. I'm certainly familiar with the idea that much of our electorate is either too lazy or uninterested, or too ignorant to make decisions on more rational grounds. Nevertheless, I'd want to ask these people, if I ever talked to them, just how strong their prejudices are. I'd love, for instance, to ask that majority of black people who don't think atheists are qualified for office, if they would vote for a Christian white supremacist over an atheist. I'd ask them a variation of the question Daniel Dennett asked: Is your religion more important than electing the most qualified people to run your country?

Relying on a candidate's religious views as a determining factor in who you should vote for is an open invitation for the sort of religious hypocrisy and inattention to policy that is rampant in our government. It seems to me that we have more than enough hypocrisy and fecklessness already for more secular reasons. In my opinion, there's no sense adding to it.

UPDATE: Removed the "or moral" from what was formerly the phrase "religious or moral views" in the last paragraph. I don't why i put that bit in there. Perhaps I was still thinking about the way religion is often presumed to be the only source of moral guidance. In any case, it's right now.

I also added a link for the USA Today/Gallup poll on Presidential candidates.

UPDATE 2: While trying to locate the USA Today/Gallup poll, I ran across this oped by Nica Lalli at the USA Today online edition:

According to the recently released 2008 American Religious Identification Survey by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., the percentage of people who identified themselves as having no religion has almost doubled since 1990, from 8.2% of the population then to 15% today, the largest gain in any group. And that number may be low because some Americans still prefer to give no answer, and others identify with a religion, even if they no longer really believe in it. That "no answer" number grew as well, from 2.3% to 5.2%, meaning that just over 20% of the population has no overt religious identity. Simply put, that means more people are willing to identify themselves as being outside of religion or without belief in a supernatural being. If this trend continues, expect even more atheists to come out of the closet in the years ahead.

This isn't to say we're taking over the nation, and that God-fearing Americans now have something else to fear. On the contrary, atheists like me are just content to be able to be religion-free without the social stigma that has been attached to "my kind" the irreligious minority in this country. Of course, the simple math shows that 80% of you do believe in God or some greater being, so the numbers still run heavily in the faithful's favor.

My great hope, though, is that the 80% will have a greater understanding of the 20% of which I am a part. I am hoping that this new survey will help bring much-needed changes in the relations between the faithful and those who are outside of the established faiths.

No religion? No problem

All of this is good news for non-believers, I think. It should, as the author of this oped implies, be good for the rest of the country as well. Religious belief, or lack of it, shouldn't be a bar to public office.

While much of what I discussed in this article is about discrimination against non-believers, I am just as wary of prejudice against particular religious minorities like Islam or Mormonism. The latter prejudice, as the studies show, just isn't as widely shared.

UPDATE 3: Now that this article is officially part of the Blog Against Theocracy, I've added a BAT logo. Clicking on it will take you to the 2009 BAT.

UPDATE 4 (Apr. 14): I corrected the statement about what debates were moderated by someone other than journalists. Originally, it had just said there was only one such debate in the "season". Actually, there was at least one other such debate during the Democratic primary. Thanks to commenter RedSeven at OneGoodMove for pointing this out.

1 comment:

Dana Hunter said...

Nice to see so many Cons finally joining the crowd that realizes that separation of church and state isn't just a founding American ideal, but a vital necessity.

Sad to see so many others just aren't understanding that. Looks like the Blog Against Theocracy will be necessary for many more years to come.