The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans show growing enthusiasm for tearing down the wall between church and state

Tear it down? (Via Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank">Shawn Carpenter</a> , used under a Creative Commons license)

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life just released its semiannual survey of American attitudes on the role of religion in politics. The survey finds a growing appetite for belief in the ballot box, and politics in the pulpit. These shifts are largely happening on the Republican side of the aisle. And among Republicans, the changes are driven by white evangelical concern that the country is becoming less favorable to religion and, inexplicably, more hostile toward white evangelicals.

Below, eight findings from the Pew study that illustrate these shifts.

1. Desire for churches to play an active role in politics is up sharply from 2010

"The share of Americans who say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues is up 6 points since the 2010 midterm elections (from 43% to 49%)," according to the Pew report. Fully two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants now hold this view, as do 48 percent of Catholics.

Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans are split on the question. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans want churches to speak out on political issues, compared to 42 percent of Democrats. This 17-point gap is more than double the 8-point partisan gap that existed just four years ago, and it's driven by a surge in Republican enthusiasm: Republicans are 11 percentage points more likely to call for politically active churches than they were in 2010. There's been virtually no change on this issue among Democrats.

The share of Americans saying churches should endorse political candidates is now the largest its been in more than 10 years.

2. A majority of Republicans say politicians aren't talking enough about faith.

Fifty-three percent of Republicans say that political leaders are talking too little about their faith, compared to less than a third of Democrats. Again, while Democrats have remained consistent on this measure since 2010, Republicans have shifted nearly 10 percentage points.

For reference, in September, the word "God" has been spoken on the House and Senate floors 75 times, "Christian" 65 times and "Jesus" 10 times. Democrats and Republicans seem to use these words at similar rates.

3. Seven in 10 Republicans say it's important for a political candidate to have strong religious beliefs

"Nearly three-quarters of Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party say that members of Congress should have strong religious beliefs (72 percent)," according to the Pew survey. "Democrats, by contrast, are evenly divided on this question, with 50 percent saying it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs and 48 percent expressing disagreement with this sentiment."

4. Despite large numbers and political clout, a majority of white evangelical Christians feels discriminated against

Fifty percent of white evangelicals say that there is a lot of discrimination against them. White evangelicals are more likely to say that discrimination is a problem for them than it is for blacks (36 percent), Muslims (45 percent) or atheists (19 percent). Thirty-four percent of evangelicals say that it's become more difficult to be religious in America, and a third see themselves as a "minority" because of their religious beliefs — more than any other group. Never mind that Protestants are actually the largest religious group in America, and that white evangelicals are the largest Protestant sub-group.

White evangelicals are a core coalition of the GOP base. Their belief that they are a persecuted minority in a country where it is difficult to be religious explains many of the Republican trends above — a desire for a stronger church role in politics, a perception that politicians aren't talking about faith enough, and the necessity for politicians to talk about their faith.

These beliefs also undergird some of the GOP rhetoric about a "war on whites" that we've heard recently from people like Mo Brooks (R-Ala.). Of course, the data show that if there is indeed a war on whites, white people are winning it.

5. A majority of Americans now say homosexuality is a sin

Fifty percent say it's a sin to engage in homosexual behavior, up five percentage points from a year ago. Catholics and white evangelical protestants account for the lion's share of that uptick.

6. Support for gay marriage is down

Forty-nine percent of Americans say they support same-sex marriage, down from 54 percent in February. Support fell across all religious groups surveyed, although as the report notes, "it is too early to know whether this is an anomaly or the beginning of a reversal or leveling off of the growth in support for same-sex marriage widely observed in polls over the past decade."

7. Seven in 10 white evangelicals want the freedom to discriminate against gay weddings

Slightly less than half of the general public says a business that provides wedding-related services should be able to refuse those services to gay couples. Among white evangelicals, that figure is more than 70 percent.