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Election 2004: Religion & Politics

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; 11:00 AM

How much of an issue is a candidate's religion to the electorate? Where do swing voters come down on stem cell research? How do Republicans and Democrats differ on Gay Marriage?

Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center discussed their newest survey on religion and politics.

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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: Greetings... we are Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum and Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center. Yesterday we released a new study of Americans' attitudes about religion, politics, and the campaign. The results hold some good news for both the Democrats and the Republicans and we are looking forward to answering your questions today.


Wilmington, Del.: Did your research look into the acceptance (or lack thereof) of a non-religious candidate for public office? I ask because I am very interested in politics and the public service. However, as an agnostic, I have seen some frightening survey results in the past and fear that this dynamic has not changed recently. Thanks.

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: We didn't ask that question specifically this year, but one question in the poll speaks to it: 72% of our respondents agree that a president should have strong religious beliefs. That would suggest a reluctance to vote for someone who does not. Indeed, in our poll last summer found -- as polls for the past 40-50 years have shown -- that a significant number of people (50%) say that they would not vote for an atheist for president... more than say this about a Muslim or any other religious group.


Washington, D.C.: I heard something recently about a proposal that would somehow blur the line between church and state even further by allowing churches to participate more openly in elections. Do you know where this proposal stands?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: If we are thinking about the same proposal you are referring to, it has died. We do address the issue of churches endorsing candidates in this poll, and as in the past a strong majority is opposed -- 65% -- even as 51% in a different question say that it's okay for churches to express their views on day-to-day social and political questions. The public makes a clear distinction between more general political questions and getting directly involved in electoral politics. One of the clearest signs of this in the poll was the 69% majority who said it was improper for a party to ask for a church roster for the purpose of conducting a voter registration drive.


Wheaton, Md.: Why do you believe so many Jews are Democrats? It seems obvious that Republicans are strong supporters of the State of Israel, while Democrats have more of an appeasing, apoligetic attitude towards anti-Israeli terrorists.

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: It is true that evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Israel, as our poll last summer clearly indicated. But on broader social and economic issues, Jews have found the Democratic party more compatible with their own views... and on issues of the separation of church and state as well. Polling we have seen shows that John Kerry is doing as well among Jews right now as Democratic candidates traditionally do.


Crestwood, N.Y.: Has any effort been made to balance off these surveys, given the fact that many people pretend to be adherents of an organized religion because they are reluctant to tell interviewers that they are atheist or agnostic? And is there any evidence of a backlash against the fundamentalists in your survey?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: We do know that historically there may some exaggeration of the level of church attendance, but the very fact that people feel the need to exaggerate says something about the nature of American culture where religion is concerned. On the whole, measures of the importance of religion correlate strongly with voter preferences and this provides some validation of them. On your question about a backlash, we found that the number of people saying George W. Bush talks too much about his faith and prayer has increase by 10 percentage points in the last year, a number which is higher among Democrats and independents. Interestingly on that score, Kerry is tied with Bush on this measure.


New York, N.Y.: Polls consistently show African Americans as being the most alienated from the President and the most entrenched in support of one party (in greater numbers than the religious right). Since African Americans represent a large segment of America's religious populus, I wonder if you can provide some insight into their religious attitudes and what makes them more inclined to vote for Democratic leadership?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: This is a good question. It is an interesting feature of American politics that black Protestants and white evangelicals share many views on social issues... and on the appropriate role of religion in politics. And yet they starkly diverge on their voting patterns and we see no evidence that this year will be any different. It seems clear that when making a voting decision, blacks focus more on civil rights and economic issues -- and perhaps this year on the war in Iraq -- than they do on the hot-button cultural issues that drive a large number of the white evangelicals.


Lyme, Conn.: Where do people without strong religious ties fall within the political spectrum?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: People with relatively weak religious beliefs, or who don't regularly attend religious services, have tended to vote Democratic. And in our current survey, secular individuals are supporting John Kerry over President Bush by a 3-1 margin (67% Kerry, 23% Bush). This secular category constitutes about 1-in-10 voters.


Rockville, Md.: Do you think that Vice-President Cheney's newly announced position that the issue of gay marriages should be left to the states and that freedom means allowing people to live as they wish as far as sexual orientation, will chip away at all from Bush's strong support in the religious right?

washingtonpost.com: Cheney Sees Gay Marriage as State Issue (Post, Aug. 25)

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: We doubt that Mr. Cheney's statements yesterday will affect the level of support for the GOP ticket among highly committed white evangelicals, at least as long as they believe that the president is in line with their views on this issue. It's important to note, however, that this issue is very important to white evangelicals who attend church regularly. Our poll finds that more than two-thirds (67%) rank gay marriage as a very important issue in this election -- comparable to the percentage who say this about the economy and higher than the percentage who say this about Iraq. By contrast, gay marriage is a much lower priority issue for most other voters... including white evangelicals who are not regular churchgoers.


Chicago, Ill.: Your report states that 72 percent of those surveyed believe it is proper to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Did you inquire about whether other cherished and important religious artifacts that reflect the diversity of America's religions, such as the Torah, should be on display in public buildings?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: We didn't ask about other religious symbols and artifacts, but surveys have shown a high level of support for what some people (and the Supreme Court's decisions) have called "ceremonial Deism" -- e.g., the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, "in God we trust" on coins, and the like.


Boulder, Colo.: In Colorado, Pete Coors (Senate candidate and beer magnate) is one of the few candidates I've seen who is in line with the Catholic church on life and death issues (anti-abortion and anti-death penalty). Why hasn't the range of these issues been brought to the forefront and abortion alone used as the litmus test of candidates by the Catholic church? Does this inconsistency suggest that there is room for political diversity in the Catholic vote?

Of course, I don't understand how those twins fit into Catholic doctrine either......

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: If your statement is true, Pete Coors falls into the minority of American Catholics who follow church teaching on both questions. Our polls have found majorities of American Catholics at odds with church teachings on both of these issues (that is, majorities favor the death penalty and majorities favor abortion in at least some circumstances).

It is the case that in official church pronouncements, abortion is put into a unique category, having greater priority than other issues such as the death penalty. Our poll finds, however, that even on this issue, the public -- including Roman Catholics -- find that it is improper for bishops to deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.


Springfield, Va.: Has the conflict between some Catholic Bishops and Kerry affected his support anong Catholics?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: We don't think it has hurt him and one can make a case that it has actually helped him. Quite apart from a simple sympathy factor, see our previous answer regarding the abortion issue and Catholic politicians. It has provided Kerry with a golden opportunity to establish his religious credentials as a regular church-attending Roman Catholic. As we stated earlier, this is important because more than 7-in-10 voters want their president to have strong religious beliefs... but the public has shown no desire to require that those beliefs conform to any official church teaching.

And as a measure of how this issue may be playing, Kerry currently runs even with Bush among white Catholic voters (50% Kerry, 47% Bush). In 2000, Bush beat Gore among white Catholics.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you survey the relative weights of issues? For instance, how important are the economic and war issues compared to the social issues when people determine which candidates they will prefer?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: Yes... we asked about 11 different issues and how important each would be in the vote. The report (available on our web sites) goes into a lot of detail on this, but the bottom line is that several issues cluster at the top in terms of the percentage saying that they are very important in the vote: the economy (76%), terrorism (75%), health care (72%), Iraq and education (70% each).

But different issues matter to different voters. Religion-related issues such as moral values, abortion, and gay marriage also made the list but further down (though moral values was very important to 64%). But these issue were particularly important to Bush voters.


St. Paul, Minn.: There seems to be much more discussion about religious issues and issues that have religious overtones in this years' election. Do you think that is the case and if so, to what do you attribute it?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: Even though religion had a very visible role in the 2000 election as well, this year it has gained even more prominence. Undoubtedly much of this is driven by President Bush and his willingness to speak openly about his religious faith and its importance to him. But having the first Catholic since John F. Kennedy in the race -- one for whom his Catholicism has also become an issue -- has also contributed to the attention being paid to religion. But there is an underlying reason why, in presidential elections, religion plays a key role. That is because two constituencies critically important to their respective parties -- black Protestants and white evangelicals -- provide an incentive for candidates to appeal to them on the basis of religion. This is not only a matter of the message but also of the importance of churches in voter mobilization within these two constituencies.


Austin, Tex.: Is anti-Catholic bias in a presidential election (such as Kennedy had to deal with) now well and truly a thing of the past?

Luis Lugo & Scott Keeter: We are just about out of time but we can provide a brief answer to this excellent and brief question. We are in agreement that the answer is YES, anti-Catholic bias seems to be a thing of the past. Here the Kennedy-Kerry comparison is instructive. Kennedy had to defend his Catholicism to the broader public (remember the West Virginia primary and his Houston speech). Ironically, perhaps the only group Kerry has had to defend his Catholicism with are some of his own bishops.

We have greatly enjoyed the conversation and wish we could have gotten to more of your questions. To view the poll in its entirety (as well as other joint polls we've done on this topic), please take a look at our websites


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