Thirty-eight percent of respondents said political leaders are putting too much of a focus on religious issues, reports the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the highest amount the organization has tracked since it began asking the question more than a decade ago. While the percentage of respondents expressing this view has increased across party lines, it remains far more prevalent among self-identified Democrats than Republicans.
Fifty-four percent of respondents said churches and houses of worship should keep out of political matters, the third consecutive year a majority of survey participants have voiced that opinion, compared to the 40 percent who said religious institutions should be able to express their views on social and political matters on the national stage. By contrast, between 1996 and 2006 respondents generally tilted toward the opposite direction.
Partisan Divide On Religion Has Widened Significantly
Although Republicans were considerably more likely to say religious institutions should have say in political matters, Pew reports there was little partisan divide on this issue when it first posed the question in 1996. In fact, at that time 42 percent of Republicans and independents as well as 44 percent of Democrats said churches should not be involved in politics; while 44 percent of GOP-leaning respondents still expressed that view in the most recent poll, that number has increased considerably among independents (58 percent) and Democrats (60 percent).
There are also significant divisions on this subject among religious groups. White evangelical Protestants (60 percent) were the most likely to say religious groups should be involved in the political process, although only about half as many -- 35 percent -- of mainline Protestants shared that opinion. In fact, 60 percent of both white mainline Protestants and Catholics said those groups should keep out, more than any other religious groups, followed by Black Protestants (43 percent).
The survey did not include the views of Muslim or Jewish Americans.
As can probably be expected from the increasingly conservative religious rhetoric Republicans have been employing this election cycle, a majority of the public believes the GOP is friendlier to religion than Democrats. Pew reports the GOP has consistently been viewed as religious allies over the past decade. Even among Democrats, 48 percent said the viewed Republicans as friendly to religion, compared to 36 percent who expressed that belief in 2010. Only slightly more Democrats (57 percent) said their own Party was generally convivial to religious issues.
Majority Say Religious Conservatives Have Too Much Control of GOP
At the same time, more than a third of Republicans said religious conservatives have too much control over the GOP, a sentiment than about half (51 percent) of all respondents expressed. Meanwhile, 41 percent said non-religious liberals have too much control over the Democratic Party, although those opinions were sharply divided among political affiliations.
Even though Republicans were more likely to favor religious involvement in the political process, there is a sharp divide among supporters of GOP presidential front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
Sixty percent of Republican voters who support Santorum believe churches and other houses of worship should have a say in social and political issues, perhaps an unsurprising statistic considering Santorum has made his religious faith a central part of his campaign platform, with 55 percent saying there has been too little expression of religion and prayer by political leaders. In comparison, almost 60 percent of Romney supporters expressed the opposite opinion.
As for the Obama administration? Despite accusations from Republican leaders who claim the president has declared a de-facto war on religion by enforcing the contraception mandate of his healthc are overhaul law, a plurality of the public (39 percent) said the administration is actually friendly toward religion, while another 32 percent said it was neutral.
Although the number of people saying the Obama administration is welcoming toward religion has not shifted since he was inaugurated in 2009, there has been a small increase (17 percent to 23 percent) who say the president is unfriendly, a shift that can particularly be seen among Catholics. About a third of Catholic respondents now view the administration as unfriendly, a 14-point increase from 2009 that is likely the result of the fight church leaders have put up against the contraception mandate.
The Pew survey was conducted March 7-11 among 1,503 adults, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.