Politics and religion a combustible mix in a slew of recent polls

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — In a society where people are cautioned not to talk about religion and politics, no fewer than four polls have been produced since late February underscoring the intersection of politics with religion.

Maybe this is what they mean by Lenten penance.

The St. Leo University Polling Institute, housed at the Benedictine-run university in St. Leo, Florida, near the state’s Gulf Coast, issued a poll March 10 that focused in part on how respondents use their belief system in choosing a preferred candidate.

Respondents were divided about using their own religious beliefs to inform how they vote, with 47% strongly agreeing or somewhat agreeing, and 45.6% saying they do not base their voting on their faith, and 7.4% saying they are not sure, according to the poll summary.

“However, when it comes to Americans as a group going to their polling places, more respondents disagree or strongly disagree — 47.2% — that the general public should use religious convictions when voting on ballot issues or candidates,” the summary said, compared to 39.9% who think Americans should stick to their beliefs when it comes to voting on issues, and 12.9% unsure.

Frank Orlando, polling institute director, said there’s a need to learn Americans’ voting preferences by asking about their religion, just as there is by asking their age or what area of the country they live in. There are practical reasons, yes, he added, but “curiosity” also is a worthwhile reason.

But back to practicality. “This nexus interaction of region and politics is a huge area that I think in our current political debate we sometimes forget about,” Orlando told Catholic News Service in a March 13 phone interview from his home in Wesley Chapel, Florida. “In our political climate, people get all sorts of labels.”

The Catholic vote “is really split down the middle,” Orlando said. “You have different groups within Catholicism that are more Democratic, you have groups that are more Republican. And the issues that don’t work with their party, they downplay.”

While some political observers attach significance to the presidential candidate who gets the majority of Catholic votes as more likely to win, Orlando said, “I think it makes it (the Catholic vote) less sought-after” instead because Catholics as a bloc don’t press candidates to apply political solutions to religion-fueled issues the way other groups — most notably evangelicals — do.

Eternal World Television Network issued results Feb. 24 of a poll of almost exclusively Catholics; 2% said they were former Catholics when asked.

Conducted by RealClear Opinion Research, the poll found, in EWTN’s words, that they “are not a monolithic group.” It showed in respondents’ answers to questions about President Donald Trump.

A majority disapproved of Trump’s job performance. Trump also trailed among the five most prominent candidates running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination: by 11 points to former Vice President Joe Biden; by nine points to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; by six points to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts; and by four points to Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The poll was taken before the “Super Tuesday” primaries of March 3, after which Warren and Bloomberg had dropped out; Buttigieg had ended his campaign the weekend prior.

Another point in EWTN’s account of poll results that has since been eclipsed by events: “Central to the president remaining within striking distance of his rivals are the strong economy — including 58% of Catholics who think the country is better off financially than it was four years ago and 63% of Catholics who think they are personally better off financially than they were four years ago.” The coronavirus-induced stock market upheavals, which resulted in Wall Street-traded stocks losing at least 7% of their value twice in a four-day span, has weakened the nation’s financial forecasts.

This was the second in a series of four EWTN News/RealClear Opinion polls being conducted between November 2019 and November 2020 on Catholic voters’ attitudes and trends ahead of the 2020 election.

In the Pew Research Center’s March 12 survey, in which a lot of new questions were posed to respondents about Trump, 34% of those surveyed said they did not know his religion. Trump is a Presbyterian. Among the choices offered, 44% said he was “Christian” and 33% “Protestant,” while 8% said he was Catholic.

Among those who told Pew that Christianity’s influence is growing in the United States, 51% cited “the Trump administration giving Christians more influence,” while 36% overall said God was intervening to restore Christianity’s influence. The latter reason was cited by 61% of respondents who are Republican or lean Republican.

One new poll that focused not on personalities but on issues was one issued March 12 by the Public Religion Research Institute on immigration.

“There are no strong patterns among Christian groups, but religiously unaffiliated Americans — 37% — are notably less likely to say they see immigration as a critical issue,” said a PRRI report on the survey.

But deep divides exist among white and Hispanic Catholics. Fifty percent of white Catholics agreed with the statement, “Immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values,” and 47% agreed with the statement, “Immigrants are invading our country and threatening our cultural and ethnic background.” But just 22% and 20% of Hispanic Catholics, respectively — figures less than half those of white Catholics — agreed with those statements.

While no numbers were reported for Hispanic Catholics, more than half of their white counterparts — 54% — favor prohibiting immigrants from applying for citizenship if they are likely to use government benefits, and 59% say immigrants are a burden to local communities by using more than their share of social services.

White Catholics are split 50%-47% with the larger number opposing local governments limiting their interaction with the federal government efforts to enforce immigration law. A larger percentage of Hispanic Catholics, 58%, similarly oppose limiting local-federal cooperation. Another area of agreement is opposition to federal family-separation policies: 70% of white Catholics, and 84% of Hispanic Catholics.

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