Voters Ready for Nonreligious Candidates

There’s always been an assumption in American politics that a candidate will lose votes if they admit to being an atheist, or even simply by not being openly religious. Now there’s some concrete proof that this truism simply isn’t true.

A recent poll by the Associated Press and the non-partisan and objective research organization at the University of Chicago (NORC) shows that few voters feel strongly that religious belief is an important consideration when evaluating candidates. According to the poll, “Just 25 percent of Americans say it’s very or extremely important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs…. Only 19 percent consider it very or extremely important that a candidate shares their own beliefs, and nearly half say that’s not very important or not important at all.” Most people polled don’t think religion should have a large impact on public policy.

Of course, these beliefs vary greatly across religious affiliations. Among white born-again Christians and non-white Protestants, close to half of the respondents (51 percent and 47 percent, respectively) view it as “extremely/very important” that a candidate profess “strong religious beliefs.” (And yet the first group voted overwhelmingly for Donald 
Trump.) For Catholics, however, the number who say strong religious belief on the part of a candidate is extremely/very important plummets to 25 percent and drops even further to 18 percent for white Protestants. Unsurprisingly, for those with no affiliation—that growing group of “nones” you hear so much about—only 6 percent want their candidates to have strong religious beliefs.

Interestingly, a significant portion of voters have more concerns that candidates hold the same view as the voter with regard to religion’s role in the political realm. Thirty-eight percent of white Protestants and 28 percent with no affiliation report that it’s extremely or very important that candidates share their view of religion in politics. Since those groups register the lowest percentages on the question of whether politicians should have strong religious beliefs, it’s fair to conclude they feel religion should have little role in politics and that they would prefer to support candidates with a similar view.

The poll also examines which specific issues respondents believe religion should influence. Most Americans are familiar with the role religious beliefs play in political issues like abortion rights or discrimination against LGBTQ people. The poll results demonstrate that respondents, overall, believe that poverty and education are the issues over which religion should have the most influence in public policy. Fifty-seven percent say that religion should have “a lot/some” influence on policy addressing poverty, and 49 percent say the same about education. Abortion comes in third with 45 percent and LGBTQ rights show up with only 34 percent, tied with foreign policy and after healthcare, immigration, gun policy, and income inequality. The only policy issue people think religion should have smaller influence over is climate change, which comes in at 32 percent.

Once again, views vary greatly across religious affiliations. Even though LGBTQ rights is low on the list of priorities for religious interference with the group as a whole, 61 percent of white born-again Christians think religion should have a role in public policy on the issue, while only 33 percent of Catholics and 14 percent of those with no affiliation agree.

However, among the policy issues respondents believe religion should play a major role in, the primacy of poverty crosses boundaries of affiliation. Sixty-five percent of people affiliated with any faith agree that public policy on poverty should be influenced by religion.

Perhaps, then, the issues championed by the religious right that hold so much sway in the White House, throughout the Trump administration, and in Congress at the moment, aren’t the same as the issues that religiously affiliated voters actually care about. Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, said of the poll’s findings:

Religious issues are much broader and deeper and different from the issues chosen by the religious right. The issues like poverty, immigration, what happens to the homeless—those are becoming the moral and political and voting issues for more and more Christians.

The poll offers another piece of good news for strong supporters of the separation of church and state. Only 13 percent of those polled are in favor of allowing religious leaders to endorse candidates while keeping their tax-exempt status. According to the poll, most Americans don’t want to see any changes to the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt charitable groups from participating in political campaigns.

The results may also show candidates that the religious right’s wedge issues—attacks on reproductive and LGBTQ rights—are not necessarily winners at the ballot box. The data may signal an opportunity for secular voters to find common ground with progressive religious voters on social and economic justice issues that are imperative to all.