The latest findings of the Pew Forum’s massive and indispensable U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reveal some intriguing confusion among Americans on cosmic issues. About 13 percent of evangelicals, it turns out, don’t believe in a personal God, leading to a shameful waste of golf time on Sunday mornings. And 9 percent of atheists report that they are skeptical of evolution. Are there atheist creationists?
On the relation of faith to politics, two points stand out in the survey:
First, there is a clear connection between piety—praying often and attending worship services frequently—and political conservatism across nearly every religious tradition. Seventy-three percent of evangelicals who attend services at least once a week believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases; among more loosely affiliated evangelicals, the figure is 45 percent. Jews who pray daily are twice as likely to call themselves political conservatives.
Second, religiously conservative people have more in common with the general public on political issues than some liberals and conservatives assume. Fifty-seven percent of evangelicals agree that “government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.” More than half of evangelicals believe that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. And though 50 percent of evangelicals still identify themselves as Republicans, that number has declined amid the broader trend of political alienation and restlessness.
Barack Obama’s campaign looks at this political diversity and sees opportunity. His advisers report to me that the candidate’s evangelical outreach is deeply in earnest—a long-term personal goal, not a political ploy.