WASHINGTON (CNS) — The role of religion in U.S. public life has Americans divided.
In its fifth annual American Values Survey presented Sept. 23, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 46 percent of respondents were more concerned about the government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion than they were with religious groups trying to get laws passed that force their beliefs on others.
Conversely, 46 percent were more worried about the religious groups than the government.
The figures were among the conclusions of a survey of 4,500 Americans of different race, religion, gender and socioeconomic status that focused on their perceptions of economic, political and cultural issues facing the country today.
Partisan divides were evident in the survey’s results, which showed 64 percent of Republicans were more concerned with government interference, while 59 percent of Democrats were more concerned about interference by religious groups.
Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, spoke as a panelist at the survey’s Sept. 23 release in Washington and commented on the importance of ideology, more so than other factors, in shaping political views.
"Social class is one of the least important divisions in Americans politics today," Abramowitz said. "There’s a huge party divide regardless of income. … People are divided over what the role of government should be, but their attitudes toward the role of government are not influenced very much at all by their social class (or) by their income level."
The survey findings showed that people’s opinions on religion and government varied largely based on their race and religious denomination. For example, 46 percent of white Catholics were concerned about government regulation of religion, but only 36 percent of Hispanic Catholics reported the same concern. The numbers diverged even more when looking at people of the same race but different denominations, as a majority 57 percent of Hispanic Protestants were worried about government interference in religion.
Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and survey presenter, noted the discrepancies within Hispanic communities and said they are part of two transformations.
"Over time what we are seeing is a shift to being less Catholic (in Hispanic communities) … but it is going in two directions, so it’s less Catholic and more Protestant," he said. "But it’s also becoming more unaffiliated and in fact those two flows look about equal. And what we see is Latino Protestants tend to be like white evangelicals. … They tend to be culturally conservative in a way that Hispanic Catholics are not.
"The short answer is that if you’re just looking at ideology or political leanings, what it basically looks like is that the overall needle … doesn’t move that much because there are equal numbers becoming unaffiliated as there are becoming Hispanic protestants."
In the coming years, as millennials ascend the voting booths, these statistics could have a significant impact on politics. In 2010, a Pew Research poll found that people between the ages of 18 and 29 were less likely to be religiously affiliated. This would be a detriment to Republicans, whose main constituents are white Protestants.
"I’ve called the 2020 presidential election Armageddon for the Republican Party," said Joy Reid, a panelist and host of "The Reid Report" on MSNBC. She said the GOP has a twofold problem in that Hispanics today under vote their share of the population and the next generation is "more minority" than their parents’ generation.
"White young voters still vote majority Republican … but there are less of them," she said. "So as the electorate becomes more minority-laden … by the time you get to 2020 you’re in a world of hurt if Republicans can’t find a way to expand their electorate."
Panelist Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the white Christian movement needs to have a new purpose that brings them together.
"They remain significantly at odds with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party," Olsen said. "That gives an opportunity for a redefinition of Republicanism that would be more … individualistic in its implementation of the government involvement in the social safety net."
Catholic social movements related to health care and immigration and poverty reform have caused contention between those religious constituents and the government, especially regarding the "dogfight between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration on contraception," Reid said.
"There’s been a push/pull of trying to draw religious groups into a relationship with government," she said. "It always meets eventually in ideological bearing."
The margin of error for the overall survey was plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.
Survey results of the survey were based on bilingual (Spanish and English) random-digit-dialing telephone interviews conducted between July 21 and Aug. 14 by professional interviewers. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 4,507 adults 18 years of age or older living in the U.S.
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