Do People Really Want Religion Out of Politics?

By Paul A. Djupe

[Image Credit: RNS]

We’re in the midst of impeachment hearings, we’re gearing up for a presidential election year, and we’re deep in the Trump Administration, so it seems everything is divisive. Given the strong overlap with partisanship, it would seem that the presence of religion in politics would be near the top of the list. So, when Pew asked Americans if they would prefer “churches and other houses of worship” to “keep out of politics” or “express their views on social/political questions,” it would seem obvious that they would select the former. And 63% did. There was also strong opposition to houses of worship endorsing candidates (76%) (the report is here).

These are useful questions to ask, especially given that they’ve been asked consistently over time, but the “keep out of politics” question is 1) quite vague, 2) double-barrelled, and 3) does not tell us how strongly that position is held. That is, it is possible that at least some Americans would prefer that congregations avoid political advocacy, but be involved in the political process in other ways. That position was certainly the message I’ve heard from many mainline clergy in the past, though they make up just a small fraction of the clergy and congregations today (about 10%). This particular report also did not do much to contextualize who wants religion to keep out of politics and of course that matters a lot.

This gives me an opportunity to examine some measures capturing a broader set of roles for religion in politics. The survey that Ryan Burge and I assembled was administered to a quota sample consisting of half denominational and half non-denominational Protestants in mid-May 2019 (so expect more posts about non-denominational Protestants in the near future). The results are weighted and we thank the Louisville Institute for the funding. Note: we’ve covered some of this ground about religion’s role in politics before: here, here, and here.

The items were not forced, binary choice, but featured a scale with labels on the end points that you can see below. Cells closer to the label indicate more support for that position, while choices in the middle suggest ambivalence (or indifference). In the figure below, only 35 percent of Protestants wish congregations to keep out of political matters, though 27 percent are on the fence, meaning there is not majority support for any position. That lesson is consistent across the remaining items – there is no majority support for all but one position. And the one that gains majority support? “Churches and other houses of worship should let government succeed or fail on its own,” which stands in contrast to “Churches and other houses of worship should support good government practices” (only 17% chose points close to this position).

It is astounding to see this disinvestment in the success of government. Religion has long been linked to the fate of the United States, the so-called “shining city on a hill,” whose success would be a beacon to the world showing the power and rightness of Christianity. I’m not saying that’s true, simply that the argument has been frequently made. Instead of this civil religious superposition of religion and civic life, most Protestants appear to have little interest in ensuring good government (17%), something I’ll explore in another post with additional items.

The pattern of support across the measures tells us just what Protestants, on balance, want congregations to do – advance their agenda. A plurality (44%) want congregations to endorse candidates (30% on the fence), while 47% do not want them to help register people to vote. It would be tempting to conflate those groups, but it turns out that those who favor endorsing candidates also want congregations to register people to vote.

And a plurality of Protestants want houses of worship to provide forums for political discussion as well (42% with 34% on the fence), which is a far cry from the sense that people do not want a mix of religion and politics.

I am concerned with a few sources of variation in support for congregational politicking that can comment on how the above pattern is agenda driven: partisanship and disagreement. There are others, of course, but this isn’t a journal article; these results come from a model with controls.

Strong partisans are more supportive of religious politicking, but Republicans are more supportive than Democrats (~ 4 pts), and the weakest support is among Independents (9 pts less than strong Republicans). The relationship is curvilinear (a “lazy J”) and fits with most of our conceptions of religion and politics today.

Support for religious politicking from congregations hinges on disagreement. As a shorthand for disagreement, I used the difference between feeling thermometers for Trump between the respondent and where they would place their clergy. The greatest difference in those figures drops support for religious politicking by 8 points compared to unity over Trump. However, the relationship is asymmetric between Trump supporters versus opponents. The figure below shows that Trump opponents who face Trump-supporting clergy (left side) have less support (~5 pts) for religious politicking than those who agree with their clergy (middle). But the least support for religious engagement is from Trump supporters who face clergy who are perceived to oppose Trump (~ 14 pts compared to those who agree). Surely the gap is accounted for by support for democratic norms, which is much weaker among Trump supporters, and dogmatism, which is higher.

No one will be surprised that deep disagreement is uncommon in congregations, and unity is the modal position. But there is disagreement. The histogram below shows that disagreement is tightly clustered around zero – 39 percent are within 10 points of zero in either direction; 57 percent are within 20 points in either direction. Only 11 percent of the sample perceives at least a 50 point gap of support with their clergy. One reason the distances are not greater is how tight-lipped clergy have been about Trump – there’s a nice spike around the 50 mark when placing clergy on this scale.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to argue that any headline that is definitive about what Americans want regarding religion in politics is wrong. We should not forget that large portions of Protestants are on the fence about religious politicking, something the Pew measure cannot show given its construction. Moreover, there is a plurality of Protestants who want a vigorous involvement of congregations in political matters that has a particular cast – it is agenda (and surely identity) driven. Religion is not seen as a neutral force, enforcing guidelines for good government and democratic functioning. Instead, religion is largely seen as a vehicle for the ingroup to seek policies and candidates they support. That position is reinforced by the lack of disagreement faced, which is itself a function of clergy often too scared to share their actual views.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (check out his posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.


  1. I would be interested to see a similar poll here in the UK. Although the nons (no religion/belief) are increasing in numbers here, there is still a lot of religion intertwined in our politics, although I think most Brits would say that link is less obvious than in the USA.

    Liked by 1 person

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