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Too much of a God thing

Should American politicians revisit their assumption that God is necessarily a vote-winner?

In 2001, a mere 12 per cent were turned off by politicians doing God. It's now 3
Too much of a God thing. Photo: Getty Images

After a political season dominated by questions of religion to an extent unusual even in the United States, it appears that Americans may finally have had enough. Polling data released yesterday by the Pew Foundation points to a huge increase in the number of US citizens who complain that their politicians are too eager to talk God.

In 2001, a mere 12 per cent were turned off by politicians doing God. It's now 38 per cent, and rising. As you might expect, the feeling is especially strong among Democrat voters. Fifty two per cent agreed with the statement that there are "too many" expressions of religious faith and prayer by political leaders. President Obama has, after all, been the target of much faith-based criticism from the leading Republican candidates, whether it's Mitt Romney damning his "secular agenda" or Rick Santorum muttering darkly about his "phony theology". But a significant minority of Republican sympathisers feel the same way -- 27 per cent. The feeling is stronger among Romney supporters, a third of whom would welcome less religious talk from politicians.

On the other hand, 40 per cent of Republicans apparently believe that politicians should talk even more about religion. It's hard to know what would satisfy them; unless, of course, they were just joining in with the Santorum line on Obama. A clear majority -- 55 per cent -- of his supporters are in the "too little" camp, as opposed to under a quarter of Romney-ites. This looks like further evidence that Santorum appeals to a very particular (and committed) subset of the electorate: enough to make him look a serious challenger to a Romney nomination but unlikely to be much help to him if he wants to win the all-important centre ground.

Among mainstream (as opposed to Evangelical) Protestants, white Catholics and (less surprisingly) the religiously unaffiliated, there has been a noticeable increase in the past year in the proportion saying that there has been too much discussion of religion by political leaders. This looks like a reaction to the way in which the campaign has played out so far.

An even more striking finding is that almost two-thirds of Democrat voters and almost half of Republicans (but including 57 per cent of Romney supporters) think that churches should as much as possible keep out of politics. The poll was carried out earlier this month, coinciding with the Catholic Church's campaign against the administration's proposed requirement for all insurance schemes to provide birth control.

The Church has sought to base its arguments on the constitutional principle of freedom of religion rather than on its longstanding opposition to contraception per se, a manoeuvre that has not convinced everybody. (Democrat Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi called it "an excuse".) Another recent poll, by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that most Americans did not believe that there was a threat to religious liberty in the country (although significant majorities of Evangelical Protestants and Tea Party members did). There continue to be majorities in favour of forcing religiously-affiliated hospitals and colleges to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees, including a majority of Catholics. The Church leadership's campaign may well have alienated as many people as it has won over.

Another interesting finding of the PRR poll is that a majority of Americans favour legalising same-sex marriage, including 59 per cent of Catholics (a higher proportion than in the population as a whole).

Taken together, these findings suggest that the picture of America that increasingly comes across on the campaign trail, as a devout nation ever-more demanding of public displays of religiosity from its political leaders, may be significantly wide of the mark. It may be a long time before an avowed atheist stands much chance of being elected President. But most Americans see the value of the constitutional separation of church and state, and any politician -- or, for that matter, church leader -- tramples on it at their peril.