POSTED: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 10:32pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 10:44pm
Religion and politics have always been interconnected in the U.S., but more Americans are starting to think they are too closely connected.
In a new report from Pew Research Center, 38 percent of Americans say they think that there’s too much expression of religious faith and prayers in politics. This is an all-time high since Pew started the survey in 2001, shortly after 9/11. This year is also the first time more people think there’s too much talk of politics than too little (30 percent).
In Pew’s first survey in 2001, only 12 percent thought there was too much talk of politics. Since then, the percentage has increased, although very slowly from 2004 to 2010. However, in the last two years it has taken a leap from 29 to 38 percent.
John Green, professor of political science at the University of Akron, said that latest increase might be a reaction to the combination of this year’s GOP primary combined with several other ongoing controversies in the public debate.
“It could be a result of people feeling that the volume of religious discourse has gone up,” he said. “And I think that for 2012, that is probably accurate.”
Thanks to Rick Santorum and his social conservatism, religion has been an integral part of this year’s presidential nomination race. But he has had help creating debate on religious terms in the media. The new law in Virginia requiring women to have ultrasound before they get an abortion got a lot of attention. The same is true for the debate about same sex marriage laws in several states, and of course the contraception debate connected to ObamaCare. The last one culminated a couple of weeks ago when the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called a young, female student a slut after she testified in Congress about contraception.
The Pew report also finds that the unease over the mix of religion and politics is higher among Democrats (46 percent think it’s too much religious talk) and independents (42 percent) than among Republicans (24 percent). Not very surprising, most of the Rick Santorum fans actually think it’s too little religious expression in politics (55 percent).
But at the same time, Green points out that this year’s events can’t explain the long term results of the survey, showing that more and more people have reacted negatively to the mix of religion and politics since 2001.
“That suggests that it’s a broader activity that leads to this, and that it’s not about particular candidates or campaigns,” he said. “In part it might be a reaction to religious expression becoming more common. Bush talked a lot about politics, Obama does the same.”
The Pew report also include a question about whether churches should keep out of political matters. 54 percent said yes, also an increasing number compared to earlier results, but not increasing as fast as the one about religious talk.
“From 1996 to the present, the number of people who say that churches should stay out of politics has gone up,” Green said. “But over last couple of years, this has moved ever so slightly. Therefore it might be possible that one of the questions — level of talk — has been more influenced of what has happened recently.”
Greg Smith, senior researcher on religion and public life at Pew Forums, wants to let the numbers speak for themselves.
“But it is the first time we have asked these questions at the height of a GOP nomination campaign,” he pointed out.