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May 3, 2000

Study on Religion and Politics Finds Widespread Interest in Progressive Issues

Survey Suggests Political Potential of Mainline Protestants

Princeton, N.J. -- Although religious involvement in politics is often associated with the right wing, a new study by Princeton University suggests the contrary: that Americans affiliated with religious organizations tend to be interested in liberal and moderate causes.

More than 5,000 adults around the United States were surveyed by Princeton's Survey Research Center as part of a larger effort to assess the public role of religion, particularly that of the mainline Protestant denominations, which represent about 20 million people.

Throughout its history, American mainline Protestantism has been at the center of efforts to achieve political reform, such as the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War. In recent years, however, that history has been overshadowed by conservative religious groups, leading some observers to conclude that mainline Protestantism is dying and has lost its public voice.

The survey suggests that this is not the case. "The perception that religious groups are really only interested in conservative issues is not true," said Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who directed the study. "They are not only focused on issues such as abortion or prayer in the schools. Progressive issues do seem to be of enormous importance to people."

The study found that more than three-quarters of the public believe religious groups should take a more active role in raising awareness about racial discrimination, giving poor people a voice in public affairs, protecting the environment and promoting a greater sense of community responsibility.

In general, the survey found support for progressive issues among all groups surveyed: mainline Protestants, black Protestants, evangelicals, Catholics, Jews and the unaffiliated. Six in 10 people surveyed said they were "quite interested" in "legislation to protect the environment" and in "social policies that would help the poor," and another three in 10 said they were "fairly interested" in those areas. The survey showed nearly as much interest in the issues of "overcoming discrimination against women in our society," "achieving greater equality for racial and ethnic minorities in our society" and "government policies to promote international peace."

The survey found great concern over what strategies should be used by religious organizations in the public arena. Three people in four think it is appropriate for candidates to speak publicly about their religious views. But only four in ten believe the clergy should discuss political issues from the pulpit.

There was little support for the kind of efforts made in recent years by leaders of the Religious Right, as respondents called for less of religious leaders forming political movements, criticizing elected officials, running for public office and appearing on television talk shows.

"We have too often assumed that mainline Protestants are politically dormant. These results show they are politically interested and active," Wuthnow said. "The public wants churches to be taking a more active role at the local level, but is less keen on religious groups exercising influence at the national level." He also noted the potential for local alliances among liberal Protestants, African American churches, Catholics, and Jews on such issues as protecting the environment and overcoming social injustice.

Other highlights of the study include:

• 77 percent of mainline Protestants described their religious views as moderate or liberal, as did 62 percent of evangelical Protestants, 70 percent of black Protestants, 78 percent of Catholics, and 86 percent of Jews.

• 49 percent of mainline Protestants have engaged in political activities during the past year (such as contacting an elected official, giving money to a political candidate or party, attending a political rally or meeting, or attending a class or lecture about social or political issues), compared with 42 percent of evangelical Protestants, 42 percent of black Protestants, 39 percent of Catholics, and 71 percent of Jews.

• 49 percent of mainline Protestants say they follow what's going on in government and public affairs "most of the time," compared with 42 percent of evangelicals, 39 percent of black Protestants, 37 percent of Catholics, and 49 percent of Jews.

• 56 percent of mainline Protestants say their congregation has helped sponsor a shelter for the homeless during the past year, compared with 44 percent of evangelical Protestants, 47 percent of black Protestants, 55 percent of Catholics, and 44 percent of Jews.

• 49 percent of mainline Protestants have "done volunteer work for an organization other than a church or place of worship" during the past twelve months, compared with 41 percent of evangelical Protestants, 37 percent of black Protestants, 42 percent of Catholics, and 67 percent of Jews.

When asked, "At present, do you think the things religious groups say and do affect life in this country a lot, some, only a little, or not at all?" 28 percent of the public said a lot, 49 percent said some, 17 percent said only a little, and 4 percent said not at all.

When asked, "Would you say the overall effect that religious groups have on the country is very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative, or very negative?" 16 percent of the public said very positive, 66 percent said somewhat positive, 12 percent said somewhat negative, and 3 percent said very negative.

Princeton's study is one of seven studies on "Religious Communities and the Public Square" funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia.


The Religion and Politics Survey was conducted by SRBI Associates for Princeton University between January 6 and March 31, 2000. A total of 5,603 adults age 18 or over who reside in the 48 continental states were interviewed by telephone. The survey has a statistical margin of error of plus or minus 1.42 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. Households were selected randomly through a random-digit dialing procedure (RDD) that excludes non-residential numbers, and individuals within households were selected through a randomizing procedure. Minor statistical weighting was used to ensure that the samples reflect national demographic patterns.

Religious preference was determined by asking a series of questions to obtain a precise definition of the respondent's denomination or tradition. The largest number of mainline Protestants are United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, and American Baptist Churches in the USA; the largest numbers of evangelical Protestants are Southern Baptists, independent Baptists, nondenominational, Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Church of Christ, and Presbyterian Church in America; and black Protestants, African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion; National Baptist Church, National Progressive Baptist Church, and Churches of God in Christ.