Ted S. Warren / AP
Mitt Romney, right, bows his head in prayer as he stands on stage with local elected officials during a campaign rally on Feb. 3 in Elko, Nev. Nearly six in 10 Republican and Republican-leaning voters who favor Romney for the GOP presidential nomination say churches should keep out of political matters.
In an election campaign season in which issues such as birth control and gay marriage have made headlines, a growing number of Americans think political leaders are talking too much religion, according to a new national survey.
The survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds signs of uneasiness over the mixing of religion and politics.
Nearly four in 10 Americans (38 percent) say there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders -- an all-time high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question more than a decade ago. Thirty percent say there has been too little.
Most Americans (54 percent) continue to say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics. It’s the third consecutive poll conducted over the past four years in which more people have said churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics than said they should express their views on social and political topics, according to Pew. That's also an about-face from 2006, when 51 percent of Americans believed churches should speak out and 46 percent said they should keep quiet.
The view that there is too much expression of religious faith by politicians remains far more widespread among Democrats than Republicans, and there are also divisions within the GOP primary electorate.
Fifty-seven percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who favor Mitt Romney (a Mormon) for the presidential nomination say churches should keep out of political matters. By contrast, 60 percent of GOP voters who support Rick Santorum (a devout Catholic) say that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions.
And while more than half (55 percent) of Santorum’s supporters say there is too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, just one in four (24 percent) of Romney’s backers agree.
Santorum has worked hard on the campaign trail to court conservative Christian voters, and the former Pennsylvania senator has talked openly about the journey of his faith in visits to evangelical churches.
Kimberly Conger, a political science instructor at Colorado State University who has studied the intersection of religion and politics, says the latest Pew findings are not surprising.
“Religious people's opinions on the relationship between religion and politics seem to be driven by their political identity more than their religious one. These results bear that out,” she said by email to msnbc.com.
“Republicans are less likely to think there is too much religious talk by political leaders, and Republicans are hearing more such talk than Democrats. It is also unsurprising that there has been a slight uptick in the overall number of people uncomfortable with religious talk since the Republican primary has had some significant religious overtones.”
As to whether politicians should steer clear of religion on the campaign trail, Conger says it depends.
“It's clear from the breakdown of religious and political groups that Rick Santorum ought to keep talking about religion as long as he's fighting for the Republican nomination. But if he were to win the nomination, he'd have to start appealing to independents, a key voting group that's uncomfortable with candidates' religious talk,” she says.
“They key challenge in the general election will be for Republicans to broaden their appeal by toning down religious talk. But the data suggest that Democrats face a similar if less intense challenge in broadening their appeal by appearing more welcoming to religious beliefs. Both sides will have a fine line to walk.”
The Pew telephone survey was conducted March 7-11 among 1,503 adults. You can read the full results here.
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