The Role of Religion in This Year's Election

A new survey suggests the complex role of faith in the race for the White House.

Sen. Barack Obama, closes his eyes as the pastors lead a prayer for him in New Orleans.

Sen. Barack Obama, closes his eyes as the pastors lead a prayer for him in New Orleans.

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But Obama may face a greater hurdle than he realizes when it comes to abortion. Perhaps the most surprising finding of the new survey is that under-30 Catholics and evangelicals are even more opposed to abortion than most of their elders in both religious formations.

When it comes to the question of the broadening of the religious conservative agenda, it turns out that younger Catholics and evangelicals are more inclined than their elders to support greater government spending for the poor and more regulations to protect the environment. But, cautions Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, "what this does not tell you is the intensity of their commitment to these issues." And it is that degree of intensity, he says, that determines how much weight young Christian voters will give to one issue or another when they go to the voting booths.

On foreign policy, and possibly the war in Iraq, McCain's activist agenda is not necessarily going to win over many religious voters—or voters in general, for that matter. Only 36 percent of evangelicals and 36 percent of Catholics believe that it is best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs—a proportion that mirrors that of the general population. In fact, Jews are the only bloc of religiously defined voters who favor (by 53 percent) such activism, which perhaps suggests why Obama may have trouble with a group that has been traditionally liberal in its political leanings.

If polls tell only so much, the great value of this one is its elucidation of how social and political attitudes differ within traditions according to factors such as frequency of prayer and church attendance. If 73 percent of evangelicals who attend church weekly believe that abortion should be illegal, only 43 percent of all other evangelicals do. Similarly, if only 32 percent of those belonging to the generally liberal mainline Protestant churches want abortion made illegal in most or all cases, 43 percent of those Protestants who attend church at least weekly do. There are enough varieties of values voters to keep us guessing about this election, and the role of religion in it, until the very last levers are pulled.