Political data in the Pew pews

dday 0138Attention all journalists who cover religion, politics or both.

Our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have always produced waves of interesting poll materials on issues linked to faith and public policy. And, at least for now, it is the home base for the always candid and insightful John C. Green, the scholar whose work — back in the late 1970s — began to put the political power of evangelical Christians on public display.

Now, the forum’s tech folks have started putting some of their information into a new form at Religion & Politics ’08. It looks rather simple, at the moment, with short profiles of six candidates — three in each party. It’s the usual faces, with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama on one side and Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney on the other. Obviously, there are more GOP profiles ahead.

Here is a bit of Hillary Clinton‘s religious biography:

The daughter of a Methodist Sunday school teacher, Hillary Clinton was raised in Park Ridge, Ill., attended Sunday school and vacation Bible school and was active in her church’s youth group. She is a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church, the country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. After her marriage to Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, she taught Sunday school at First United Methodist in Little Rock, Ark. As First Lady, she regularly attended services at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

In her autobiography Living History, Clinton describes her faith as a “crucial, though deeply personal, part of my life and my family’s life.” Clinton has said that even if she had not been taught by her family to pray, “after I’d been in the White House for a few months, I would have become a praying person.” She writes that her faith helped her in the days and weeks following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton’s 1998 impeachment by the House of Representatives.

That’s part of the story, of course. A longer biography would have to address her college years and the impact of feminism on her faith. It will be interesting to see how deep these Pew religious biographies become as the campaign rolls along.

Meanwhile, the site provides lots of information and numbers to all kinds of familiar topics — abortion, church-state issues, the death penalty, education, the environment, gay marriage, health care, Iraq, poverty, etc. However, what struck me — the moment I opened up the site — was the strong mainline Protestant tenor of the leading candidates and the lack of a clear candidate for the conservative side of American religious life.

I mean, I knew that in my head. But it’s interesting to see it displayed so openly in this kind of site. With Rudy’s status as the official cafeteria Catholic, and McCain acting as a flashback to the silent, establishment Episcopalianism of the George H.W. Bush era, we really are looking at the revenge of the National Council of Churches.

This is especially true in light of the recent Pew study that found key elements of American society drifting toward unbelief, vague forms of faith and/or more liberal stands on moral issues — all of which helps the Democratic Party and hurts the conservative side of the bitterly divided Republican Party.

Thus, we have an interesting paradox. The world of liberal, mainline Protestantism has, for decades, been in sharp decline at the level of membership (worship statistics can be spun in a number of different directions). However, it appears that the religious left may be gaining power as part of an anti-Religious Right coalition with the growing ranks of hardcore secularists and the vague world of spiritual-but-not-religious voters.

yeste128This raises an interesting question. Politicos have focused a lot of attention on the percentage of GOP voters who claim they would refuse to vote for a Mormon. Has anyone asked how many Democrats would refuse to vote for a conservative, off-the-rack evangelical Protestant? I predict the percentage would be higher than the GOP Mormon number. How about a Catholic candidate who actually supports the teachings of his or her church on moral and doctrinal issues (yes, the whole “Culture of Life” spectrum)?

The Pew Forum will chart all of this, I am sure. We can also hope for an update from the City University in New York, where political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce should be getting done with an update on their interesting study of “anti-fundamentalist voters” and the Democratic Party leadership. (It appears that The Public Interest‘s report on their work is not available online anymore.)

But as I looked through the Pew site, I found myself becoming less interested in the politics of the religious left and more curious about the religion of the religious left. It would be interesting to see Pew focus its talented team on a poll probing the doctrinal side of life in this small but very powerful corner of the American religious scene.

May I, perhaps, suggest asking these voters the following questions or some variation on them?

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dan

    I’ve always thought it would be interesting to see a poll of Catholics on political and social issues that compared the views of the following category of Catholics: (1) daily communicants, (2)those who attend Mass weekly, (3) those who attend Mass but not every week, (4) those who self-identify as Catholic but never attend Mass, and (5) those who were baptized in the Catholic Church but no longer self-identify as Catholic or as adhering to any other religion. I am certain that views on abortion, and probably most other social and political issues, would correlate strongly to the frequency of Mass attendence. However, I’ve never seen a poll that addresses this.

  • jim

    I don’t see how that trinity of questions is even remotely relevant to a presidential campaign.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    The trinity of questions would gives an indication of what the candidate feels is “religious belief” or the candidate’s theological underbelly. Now, whether one believes in a literal resurrection or not isn’t something that impacts presidential decisions, a candidate’s views are to be examined. What is Hillary’s definition of “faith” and what are her theological views? What was a typical Sunday school lesson she taught? Did she see class struggle in the Jacob-Laban narrative and the two deceivers deceiving each other, a la Perchick in Fiddler on the Roof? Does she see Jesus as the promised Messiah and

    personal Savior–or just another prophet against the upper classes? And will these views shape her politics and policies in office? Seems the press delights in castigating Bush because he’s directed by his faith.

    In her autobiography Living History, Clinton describes her faith as a “crucial, though deeply personal, part of my life and my family’s life.”

    You can see in the above passage Hill is straddling the fence on the issue. She has, in effect, stated “I have faith, it’s personal, I’m not talking about it.” Well, I do want to know about the content of that faith. Is it a part of her DNA and the very fiber of her soul? Or is her “faith” a talisman she wears for when it benefits her?

  • jim

    It seems to me that those questions would give you an indication of where candidate stands on your spectrum of theological purity. Maybe Clinton is not “straddling the fence” on these issues. Maybe she’s avoiding the question because she knows orthodox knit-pickers will try to pin her down and put her in a little box. Demonstrate their relevance to how someone governs, then you get to ask the question. We’re not electing a bishop.

  • Jerry

    I agree with the tenor of the other comments about those questions. The real questions would start with “How does your faith inform your politics?”

    There are specific questions which flow from that fundamental one such as stances on issues from abortion to global warming. But they are all specific issues that flow from the general question.

    But if you want to ask Bible-based questions, how about asking a Christian: The Sermon on the Mount makes a clear statement about not resisting evil but instead turning the other cheek when attacked (Matt 5:37). How would you implement that as policy if we had another terrorist attack?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    People, people, read the post.

    I suggested that Pew ask VOTERS on the religious left a few key doctrinal questions as a way of defining what makes people on the religious left tick. I didn’t say anything about asking these questions to candidates (and stranger questions have been asked and Mitt will hear them in South Carolina).

    I want to know more about the rise of this new anti-evangelical block OF VOTERS.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    I still don’t understand why the press keeps saying Rudy is Catholic. Isn’t he excommunicated because of his divorce and subsequent? Wouldn’t it be more accurate for reporters to label him as formerly Catholic?

  • Joseph Fox

    The trends indicated in the polls quoted are not being driven by PR programs of the National Council of Churches. I think it is being driven by a broader view of religions and the behavior of their adherents that has been provided by advances in world-wide TV coverage and especially the access to the religious views provided by the internet(this site being an example). I think the Schiavo and Catholic Priests and Foley and Haggard cases (and on and on) have an impact on how the average American views religion. I do not know where it is going but I think we are wrong to focus on candidates professed religion. It is their track record that counts.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “I want to know more about the rise of this new anti-evangelical block OF VOTERS.”


    Your questions assume a Christian starting point for all discussion of the “religious left”. How would Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, adherents to indigenous faiths, Pagans, and other non-Christian faiths find any relevance in the first two questions? How would my attitudes towards Christian “salvation” or the resurrection of Jesus reveal anything useful about how my faith informs my political views? My being a part of an “anti-evangelical” voting block has very little to do with the individual truth-claims concerning Christian doctrine.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    You are right, of course, but you are also part of a small statistical group — while the polls seem to indicated (Check out that Beliefnet Tribes of American Religion feature) that the big block right now is, in fact, liberal mainline prots, liberal Catholics and secularists.

    I’m saying that to get a real picture of this trend, it would help to know its religious content as well as its political content.

    Jason, to say that you want to learn more about the political and religious beliefs of, oh, African-Americans does not automatically say you are not interested in Hispanics.

    Different issues. Different polls.

  • Jerry

    People, people, read the post.

    Mea culpa.

    But reading the post again, you assumed that everyone being questioned would be a Christian. Obviously the first question would be about what religion the person follows, if any. And I would reword questions to be

    1) How does your faith inform your political stance?

    2) From your faith position, what policies are most important for the government to implement?

    3) How important is it for political leaders to follow your religious morality?

    4) If a scientific finding disagrees with your current religious understanding, what will you do?

    5) Do you feel the scriptures you follow should be taken literally or do you believe they should be read non-literally?

    And, I would ask the people to answer some questions to make sure they really know something about their scriptures as too few really do. So I’d want to know if the person’s beliefs are out of ignorance of what is really there or are grounded in understanding.

  • Robbie

    I guess I’d have to add my voice to those questioning some parts of the post. While I’m sure you wouldn’t fall into this trap if you were the reporter on a story like this, I’d fear others in media might use such a story to further pigeonhole groups as “conservative Evangelical,” “liberal mainline,” etc. This seems like a limitation on both religions and political parties.

    For instance, I’m a lifelong and fairly active member of the Lutheran church (ELCA), along with a couple stints as an active Episcopalian. You’d likely consider both in the “liberal” group, and most members likely are liberal. But I also tend to usually vote Republican and consider myself more-or-less conservative, with a strong libertarian bent. As such, I’m rather heartened to see the “revenge of the NCC” in the GOP. And I know others like me.

    So am I “anti-evangelical”? Not sure. On one hand, I support their right to voice their opinions and seek to act on them, just as I welcome them as Christian brethren. At the same time, I likely disagree with their theology and politics as much as I disagree with those of a secular liberal.

    Am I therefore in a “coalition with the growing ranks of hardcore secularists and the vague world of spiritual-but-not-religious voters”? I’d disagree very much. Mainline theology is still very much theology, after all. For me, “solo gratia” (salvation by God independent of law or personal morality, thereby leading one to want to be good out of love) is more in line with libertarian conservatism (only the most basic government regulations on social welfare or personal morality, thereby letting people be good out of their own love) than the “social conservatism” of many others.

    But this would lead to problems giving quick answers to your questions. “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone?” I believe so, but just how to interpret this verse? “Is sex outside of marriage a sin?” I believe so, but is such “sin” that important?

    And does faith really depend on knowing the answers to any of these questions? Again, my theology would say that any human theology, like any human morality, pales in light of grace. So I’m not always sure we can expect detailed theological treatises from candidates, or from anyone else (except those of us who tend to be far too addicted to theology…). The only questions I would really like to know would be whether one believes in a power greater than that of human government or human power, whether one believes in a basic moral law, how one would try to explain that power and that law, and whether one believes that others should be able to publicly express and debate their faith — both privately and in the public sphere.

    To sum this far-too-long comment, I agree that we should try and understand candidates’ religious belief and theology. But I’m wary of asking such pointed questions, or of building a spectrum of politics and denominations.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Now read my response to Jason.

    No one knows how doctrine figures into this. Thus, the “religious left” tends to be defined by political votes and the answers to political questions — which makes it hard to tell an African-American progressive Baptist from a Unitarian Universalist.

    The way you learn about social groups is by studying them and, well, there is a lot more to religion than politics. Can I get an Amen?


    Everyone knows that there are doctrinal and, thus, social-issue conservatives in the oldline Protestant churches. Ask the reporters who cover Anglicanism.

    Someone — I nominated Pew — needs to know more information about one of the most important growing groups in American life, which is the religious left. The way to get info is to ask questions. That’s research.

  • Jerry

    I’ll give you an Amen to the goal but not to the questions you’d ask:-)

  • Harris

    Tmatt seems to be suffering from a case of Dobsonism–that conservative (Christian) belief must walk hand in hand with conservative opinions in politics and economics.

    The questions themselves have a number of problems.

    Unlike church leadership which presumably has made some claim to religious authority, and so questions of fidelity would seem to apply. For individuals, however, the reality is more complicated, not least because people are in process. Tmatt the Dem of yore, is now the conservative of the present; others move in the opposite directions. So questions like these are likely to yield little if for no other reason than they miss the dynamic in the pews.

    Second, the questions would only have any kind of validity if the questions were asked of everyone. Asking only the “religious left” is at best a species of anecdotalism.

    Third, the surveys have already covered much of this territory. Green’s work has already noted that 20% or so of Evangelicals are part of this religious left; likewise, there is also the correlation of religious attendance generally, be it orthodox or other, and conservative religious behavior. The questions yield no other information beyond that.

    And lastly, there is the question of behavior. Barna’s surveys already show the tawdry reality for evangelicals. Surveys of divorce show that Blue States are more faithful than Red States. What does the question show? Nada.

    The reality on the religious left is that there is a shift in valuation of which biblical teachings are more critical to faithful living. The abundance of texts on care for the poor, on economics far outshine those dealing with, say that of gays.

    A much better approach than fishing for preconceived answers, is to start talking with the people who are actually involved and ask real questions about their faith as they understand it. If they already thought like you, there would not be a need to talk would there?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I am saying that we need a better profile of the beliefs of people in the religious left.

    Let me say it again: Religion does not equal politics. That’s one of my main points.

    Harris: If you have read this blog at all you know that the last thing I would do is equate doctrinal conservatism with political conservatism. The only place that works is on a few hot-button moral issues on which the Church has 2,000 years of doctrine at stake.

  • Adam Greenwood

    Has anyone asked how many Democrats would refuse to vote for a conservative, off-the-rack evangelical Protestant? I predict the percentage would be higher than the GOP Mormon number.

    Unquestionably, and that’s assuming that by conservative you mean conservative in a religious, doctrinal sense.

    Imagine this scenario, for instance: Zebulon Pike, African-American candidate for the Democratic nomination, belongs to a denomination that believes that the woman should submit to the man and he refuses to disavow this belief. However, he says that its a private matter and he supports full gender equality in the public sphere, including affirmative action and the whole nine yards. Is Mr. Pike dead in the water? You bet.

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  • http://blackphi.blog-city.com/ BlackPhi

    Like other commenters here, I find the suggested questions puzzling. The post says they are meant to be about the religion of the religious left, yet they are put in terms which are mostly meaningful to the religious right.

    The first one, about the resurrection, is reasonably meaningful if you make it clear that ‘really’ means, or at least includes, ‘physically’. The second, about salvation being found through Jesus alone, depends a lot on what you mean by ‘through Jesus’ – ‘because of what he did’, or ‘by being a card-carrying member of an acceptable Christian church’, or ‘by being a member of the religious right’, or ‘by saying the sinner’s prayer and being baptised’. The third, about sex outside marriage being a sin, sounds simple but is theologically rather complex – every relationship is sinful in the sense that it falls short of God’s standards, yet the blood of Jesus “purifies us from all sin”.

    The questions are presented as closed, yes/no questions, but any yes or no answer to these questions is only meaningful if they are interpreted from a particular religious viewpoint. Maybe this highlights why communication is so difficult between different religious groupings, never mind in media.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I guess all credal Christians now are card-carrying members of the religious right, whatever that is.

  • http://blackphi.blog-city.com/ BlackPhi

    Chris, I’m curious why you think being a ‘credal Christian’ (by which I assume you mean someone who accepts the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) would make someone a member of the ‘religious right’?

    In terms of tmatt’s three questions only the first is directly credal: the Apostles’ Creed is unambiguous about a physical resurrection. I don’t see that any of the creeds shed much direct light on the implication of “No-one comes to the Father except through me” as a means of identifying who is saved; nor on sex outside marriage. There are a lot of Christian traditions in these areas, of course, but these come in a wide variety.

    Using ‘touchstone’ questions from one tradition to try to learn about another seems to me to be an unlikely way to improve communication, particularly when those questions are presented in a closed yes/no form – as touchstone questions tend to be.

    Maybe I should try to clarify what I mean by unpacking the “salvation through Jesus Christ alone” question a bit. A universalist could answer ‘yes’ to this if they believe that because of Jesus everyone in the world, irrespective of their religious views, is saved. I have met hard-line (in my view) evangelicals who would say ‘yes’ because they believe it implies that only those with evangelical views like theirs are saved. I have met other people who would say that the question is essentially irreverent, because it tries to restrict God’s sovereignty and grace by defining human borders between who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. This question seems to me to get in the way of communication, rather than to help it.