PASCO COUNTY, Fla. – For about four in 10 Americans, personal religious beliefs factor into their voting decisions, according to the most recent survey from the Saint Leo University Polling Institute. A similar proportion expect that their fellow citizens will also apply their religious views in making decisions between candidates and about ballot measures.
The polling institute recently asked 1,000 respondents across the country, and another 500 respondents in Florida, about the role of faith in American political life. Respondents provided their answers between September 27 and October 2. Six of the seven questions also were posed during the institute’s February 2020 survey, when political parties were preparing for primary elections.
Frank Orlando, a political scientist and director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute, said the findings illustrate the continuing dialogue between faith matters and electoral politics. “Even though some argue that religion is fading from public life,” Orlando said, “the private religious conviction of a large part of the electorate informs their vote choice. As long as this is the case, politicians will try to woo these voters using whatever means necessary.”
The survey asked about faith in terms of one’s “own religious beliefs” and “my religious leaders” or “religious leaders” in general. The demographics of the survey base reflect the country in general, including mainline Protestants, Catholics, nondenominational Christians, people with no religious affiliation, and in smaller proportions, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, members of the Greek Orthodox Church, and Latter-day Saints. (See below for specific percentages.)
The polling institute survey inquired about the role of faith in the respondents’ political decisions by presenting them with seven test statements. Respondents were asked if they strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the statements. The chart below shows the combined percentages of people strongly agreeing and somewhat agreeing with each statement.
|Test statements – in the columns to the right are the combined percentages of people strongly and somewhat agreeing||February 2020 National – %||February 2020 Florida – %||October 2020 National – %||October 2020 Florida – %|
|I use my own religious beliefs to inform how I vote for candidates in elections||47.0||44.8||42.8||45.0|
|Elected officials should use their own religious beliefs in guiding how they govern and make decisions||43.4||43.0||40.8||40.8|
|Americans should use religious convictions when voting in elections for candidates and ballot measures||39.9||40.8||41.3||41.0|
|The United States is more of a secular nation than a Christian nation||50.7||51.3||53.4||53.4|
|I’m comfortable when my religious leaders offer political views during sermons, homilies, or in messages||35.1||37.4||34.2||37.0|
|Religious leaders should be more active in reducing the national political divide and tensions we face today||52.7||59.6||56.7||63.2|
|For me, I use the issue of abortion above all others when deciding on a candidate||–||29.0||32.2|
Orlando noted there are some populations in the respondent base who were more likely than the 42.8 percent reflected overall who said they were likely to use their religious beliefs in their voting formulations. For instance, of those who identified as Protestant or nondenominational Christians, 57.4 percent agreed that their religious beliefs inform their votes, more than 14 percentage points higher than the overall sample. That figure is also higher than the result for Catholics in the survey, of whom 44.4 percent said they use their religious beliefs in voting. As for members of other religions, 33.7 percent agreed with the test statement.
Additionally, political philosophies and party affiliations made a difference. Of those who said they are conservative, 60.5 percent said religious views are a factor in voting, nearly 18 percentage points above the average. It is also more than twice as high a percentage than found among liberals, among whom 24.8 percent agreed. Among moderates, 39.4 percent agreed.
The same pattern emerged with survey respondents who identified themselves as Republicans. Of GOP respondents, 57.8 percent said they use religious beliefs in voting, just a couple of percentage points lower than conservative. Of Democrats, 39.4 percent said they use their religious beliefs in voting, and of independents, the figure is 36.3 percent.
Orlando commented that “It’s interesting to see that non-Catholic Christians are more likely to use their faith than Catholic voters. This is perhaps due to years of Catholics occupying a place outside of the mainstream of political life, and thus having to de-emphasize their religion as a means of fitting in with the dominant Protestant groups. It also goes to show that the future of the Republican party is with religious voters—one of the few groups that has remained loyal to President [Donald] Trump.”
The fact that overall, about 40 percent of the respondents also agreed with the statements that other voters and elected officials should apply their religious beliefs in making political decisions, intrigued Dr. Stephen Okey, an associate professor of theology at Saint Leo University. He also comments on some areas of religion and politics for the polling institute. Okey said this suggests to him that “two out of every five Americans are comfortable with some role for religion in public life.’’
At the same time, the survey notes that about 50 percent consider America a secular nation rather than a Christian one. About 30 percent said that America is a Christian nation. Orlando said that group likely overlaps with the respondents who said they agree with applying religious beliefs to voting.
The survey also found that more than half the respondents agree that, “Religious leaders should be more active in reducing the national political divide and tensions we face today.” Orlando reflected that “for years, voters have been told that religion in politics has caused a lot of political strife, but that without unifying principles that religions can provide across the aisle, there is a void in American politics. So far, that gap hasn’t been filled adequately.”
Pro-life views and politics
For the first time, this particular series of questions on faith and politics introduced a test statement on whether respondents prioritize abortion above all other issues, when deciding upon a candidate. More than one-quarter, 29 percent, agreed nationally.
In a different part of the survey, more respondents indicated abortion would be one of the issues important to them in votes for Congressional representatives and president. The wording of that question asked respondents to read a list of 12 issues that have been prominent in the last year and discussed during campaigns—including the pandemic, the now-filled U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, police funding, and others, as well abortion—and indicate how important each one would be. Respondents used a scale to indicate the importance of each issue to them. The institute found that among national respondents, 43.7 percent emphasized abortion as important, even though some who answered this way apparently did not prioritize it above all other issues.
Compared to the other issues in the list of 12, abortion ranked last in terms of the percentage of respondents indicating it would be very important in their vote.
Okey, the theologian, commented that the group of “findings suggest that despite abortion often being considered the ‘single issue’ among many single-issue voters, fewer than half rank it as an important topic.”
Elsewhere on the scale, the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy was important to 57.7 percent of likely voters, ranking fifth. “What strikes me here,” Orlando said, “is that such a large percentage find this important. For a long time in American politics, only Republicans paid attention to filing court vacancies. With the contentious nature of the last three picks, Democrats are realizing that this is an important issue to run on as well.”
Catholic voting patterns and Catholic Social Teaching
Another Saint Leo faculty member looked at the voting preferences expressed by Catholics among the survey respondents, not just in the faith and politics section, where 44.4 percent of Catholics said they use their religious beliefs in voting.
Catholics could conceivably use as a guide what is formally known as Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Many people do not know it by that name, and may not be aware that the U.S. Conference of Conference of Bishops has a guide on the full range of the teachings. Still, Catholics are apt to be exposed to aspects of it, such as concern for the poor, support for peace and human rights, or concern for the environment, according to Dr. Marc Pugliese, also an associate professor of theology at Saint Leo. “These sorts of things come up in homilies and other parish activities,” Pugliese said. “Many Catholics are exposed to aspects of CST through Pope Francis, for example.”
What Pugliese has generally observed, though, is that many Catholics are more influenced by their political party affiliation or philosophy, and then are apt to “cherry-pick from whatever they do in fact know about CST [again, usually not by that label] to support their political views.”
So Catholics will in fact be divided on many issues, just as is the general public. This was apparent in the survey’s findings on current issues.
For instance, Pugliese looked at Catholic responses to a series of questions about racial and social justice and professional sports. People were asked if they agree or disagree that high-profile athletes who kneel during the pre-game playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice and acts of police brutality are trying to support a long-term movement, rather than just a moment. Catholics in the survey split on that, with 50.6 percent in agreement. Similarly, Pugliese noted, liberals and conservatives split on the issue: a majority of liberals agreed with the statement at nearly 65 percent, but fewer than half of conservatives (41.4 percent) agreed. As for the act itself of kneeling during the anthem at sports events, Pugliese noted that of Catholics in the survey, 53.3 percent oppose it and 41.3 percent support it.
Turning to the presidential election, 51 percent of Catholics said they will support Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden for president. That practically mirrors the overall survey finding that found 50.7 percent will support Biden. (Biden himself is a practicing Catholic.) The Catholic support for President Donald J. Trump’s re-election bid is 40.5 percent. Also, Pugliese noted, of the Catholics surveyed, 45.2 percent said they approve of the Trump’s job performance.
When the respondents were asked a hypothetical question about which of the two vice-presidential nominees they would choose to support if they were actually the party nominees for president, the Catholic reactions split again. “The percentages of Catholics who say they would support Kamala Harris and Mike Pence are extremely close, 43.2 percent for Harris and 44.8 percent for Pence,” Pugliese noted.
Orlando, the political scientist and polling institute director, agreed with Pugliese’s assessment of American Catholics as a varied group of voters defined by factors other than religion.
“By mainstreaming their beliefs and de-emphasizing religious doctrine when making vote choices, Catholics have become the bellwether of American politics over the last 20 years,” Orlando said. “While this means their support is important, it also means that the idea of a Catholic presidential candidate running is not appealing to a large number of Catholic voters and not scary to a large number of non-Catholics.”
Note: Of the 1,000 respondents nationally, 26.3 percent are part of a mainline Protestant denomination (such as Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.); almost as many, at 25.9 percent, are Catholics; 21.5 percent said they have no religious affiliation; and 14.9 percent said they belong to nondenominational Christian churches. Another 2.9 percent of respondents are Jewish, and 1.5 percent are Buddhist. Smaller populations, of less than 1 percent, identified themselves as Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and Latter-day Saints (Mormon).