Behind the Numbers

One Nation Under God

With Obama’s contraceptive plan putting him in hot water, how much does religion really matter at the ballot box?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Scott Clement is the polling analyst for the Washington Post. The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

Religion and politics collided once again this month as religious groups — led by Catholic bishops — objected to requirements to provide contraceptive-covering insurance in President Barack Obama’s health insurance rules. America’s widely varying levels of religious commitment, even within denominations, makes the outcome of such firestorms hard to predict.

It’s turned into quite the campaign issue, which has pollsters wondering whether religion can really tip the scales. Catholics represent about one in four adults in America, which makes the backlash from bishops to Obama’s new regulations potentially consequential. The rules — which Obama later modified — would have required religiously affiliated institutions to provide health plans that cover birth control, a practice with which they have a moral disagreement. Alienating such a large group could severely endanger his chances at re-election in November.

But Catholics, like Protestants and other religious groups in the United States, are far from monolithic. Only one in three self-identified Catholics reported attending Mass every week in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll. And even that figure may be an overestimate — given Americans’ tendency to say they are more churchgoing than they actually are.

Obama’s popularity among Catholics hasn’t taken a big hit, at least in the short term. His overall approval rating among Catholics in Gallup polls ticked down from 49 to 46 percent amid the controversy, a change within the margin of sampling error. While most Catholics in a Pew poll released this week said religiously affiliated employers should not be required to pay for contraceptives, just 15 percent said they believe using contraceptives is morally wrong.

So how much could this affect the 2012 campaign? Catholics represent just one aspect of America’s complex religion and politics calculus. Among Protestants, white evangelicals are a cornerstone of the Republican base, while white mainline (or non-evangelical) Protestants represent a key swing voting group. Black Protestants are overwhelmingly Democratic.

For white evangelicals, religion seems to be making more of a difference in the Republican primary than it will when Obama is on the ballot. Romney has struggled to win evangelicals in early primary contests in Iowa and South Carolina, but national polls show evangelicals overwhelmingly back Romney in a matchup against Obama.

For many religious voters, specific religious issues may play less of a role than long-held partisan loyalties. And in the general election, one key factor will be how voters with no religion cast their ballots. This group has grown and voted increasingly Democratic over the past two decades, and backed Obama over McCain by a 52-point margin in 2008, according to exit polls. Over six in 10 of religiously unaffiliated voters approved of Obama in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week, marking a shift from November last year, when just as many disapproved as approved.

For some perspective, it’s interesting to look at how America’s religiosity compares with other countries. Most nations tend to gravitate toward either end of the spectrum — either highly religious or overwhelmingly secular. The United States falls in the middle. Roughly six in 10 Americans say religion is "very important" in their lives. That’s about three times as many Britons who gave religion such prominence in Pew surveys in recent years and nearly double the number of Canadians who say this. The story is similar for Germany (where 25 percent say religion is "very important"), Italy (24), Spain (23), France (13) and Sweden (8). Compared to Europe, the United States is God’s own country.

But Americans profess less religious zeal than people living in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Around eight in 10 Egyptians see religion as very important, a number that rises even higher in Rwanda (90) and Senegal, where religious commitment surges to 98 percent.

American politicians are well aware of voters’ religious commitment. Nearly every single member of Congress professes a religious faith, and Democrats have worked hard to shed the stereotype that they are less friendly toward religion than Republicans. For candidates looking to connect with voters in 2012, "God bless America" is still a good refrain.

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