The 2010 elections changed a lot about the makeup of Congress, but did they change much about American secularism? A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and accompanying report from Brookings have some answers. Report authors E.J. Dionne and Bill Galston point out, “The election has not fundamentally altered the cultural and religious contours of American public life.” That is true in terms of partisan voting patterns, but it sells their own data short in some ways. The data, even in cross-tab form, provides provocative progress in understanding contentious areas of the religious-electoral relationship both in the U.S. and beyond.
First, the pulpit generally remains free of explicitly partisan politics. Only 9 percent of all respondents, and 4 percent of white evangelicals, heard a partisan endorsement from the pulpit. On the one hand, pastors both left and right know the dangers such endorsements pose to their tax exemptions. At the same time, I think many also know that religious politics just don’t always play well from the pulpit. Polling I’ve analyzed from the Philippines indicates that it’s the most religious Filipinos who want religious leaders to play the smallest role in elections. It jumped out to me in PRRI’s report that a plurality of white evangelicals actually think the GOP is too close to religious leaders.
If there’s little action in explicit endorsements, PRRI’s data make it pretty clear that issue-based politics are alive and well in religious services. Robby Jones and Dan Cox, PRRI’s pollsters, point out that across the board, people of faith heard more about abortion than health care in worship services. The gap was particularly large among Catholics, where a majority heard about abortion, while just over one in ten heard about health care. Dionne and Galston dryly observe that this gap is “notable.” I haven’t come across similar data on what count as “religious issues” abroad, but my sense is that the dominance of beginning of life politics is particularly acute in the American context. The constitutional restrictions on abortion in Ireland and the Philippines likely have something to do with this, to say the least.
A final, and disturbing, section of the report focuses on the role of Islam in the U.S. electorate. Overall, 45 percent agree that Islam is at odds with American values. I couldn’t help but wonder what a similar poll would have found regarding Catholics after Al Smith’s national defeat less than a century ago. More troubling, the partisan gap on this question seems an invitation to campaign-season mischief. There is an almost 40-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on the question, and while Sen. McCain admirably resisted the temptation to politicize religion on the campaign trail, there’s clearly no guarantee that a future GOP nominee would show similar restraint.