Ask an American where they stand on abortion, gun control and global warming, and it’s likely their answers will all fall on or near the same spot on the left-right spectrum. Now a new culture war issue is emerging: religion’s role in public life.
Two new major polls out this week show Americans divided down the middle on questions such as whether they want clergy to speak more on public issues of the day. I wrote about this Monday after the release of a poll by the Pew Research Center. But a subsequent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute released on Tuesday revealed an even starker divide on the issue.
The question: Are you more concerned with the government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion, or with religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others? The answer: 46 percent on one side, 46 percent on the other.
The groupings may seem somewhat predictable: White evangelicals, Republicans, tea partiers and older Americans are more concerned about freedom to practice their faith, while the unaffiliated, Democrats and people under age 30 are more concerned about others’ beliefs being legally forced upon them.
What’s interesting about this split, however, is that it wasn’t always so, says Robert P. Jones, chief executive of PRRI, the polling institute.
“The twin principles of the separation of church and state and religious liberty have been pillars of American identity since the Bill of Rights,” Jones says, “And that reflected a compromise. This hasn’t had a left-right tilt to it historically.”
In fact, Jones notes that when PRRI asks about the two values separately, “you see fairly high support for both.” Two-thirds of Americans agree that there must be a strict separation of church and state, and about the same amount say they are concerned about protecting religious liberty. “The left-right divisions aren’t really there, except when you put those two things head to head.”
This is clearly a product of many months of news about the White House mandate requiring employers to cover contraception and about the expanding rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans (and concerns that the rights of opponents of gay equality are shrinking).
As a concept, Jones says, religious liberty was “designed to protect religious minorities. But as conservative religious groups realized they were becoming a minority voice on things like gay marriage, it became a rallying cry. Religious liberty becomes a useful principle to reach for when you’re on the minority side of the culture.”
The Pew poll released Monday looked at the huge uptick in the number of Americans who see religion losing its place in public life, a jump mostly led by Republicans becoming more concerned about what they see as the absence of faith leaders in the public sphere.
What’s the impact of this? Jones says this split between what you might call the religious liberty vs. church-state separation crowds could become another dog whistle for politicians.
“If these trends continue, we may be looking at this being part of that standard package of what it means to be a Republican or Democrat. It will be red meat politicians throw to their base,” he says. “And I think historically this is not one of those you’d put on a list of things you could easily predict.”