c. 2007 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) The conventional wisdom of presidential politics is that voters want their candidates to have strong personal faith. But at the moment, the front-running candidacies of Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani seem to suggest that beyond a certain minimum, how religious a candidate appears to be doesn’t matter, according to pollsters at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The stark exception to that rule is Mitt Romney, whom voters see as the most religious candidate in either field, but whose Mormon faith is a unique stumbling block for a quarter of those polled.
Since the 2004 election, Democrats in particular have sought to find a way to talk about personal faith in the context of politics, trying to counter Republicans’ charges that they are the party of secularists.
To some extent they have succeeded, said Greg Smith, a Pew Center research fellow: Large majorities of 3,002 Americans polled last month regard all the major candidates _ Democratic and Republican _ as “very” or “somewhat” religious.
But having established that much in the public mind, it doesn’t matter much whether one candidate seems much more religious than another, even to voters who care about religion generally, Smith said.
“You can conceptualize it like running the 100-meter hurdles. You have to get over the hurdle, but it’s not that high,” he said _ nor does it matter whether one candidate clears it by a greater margin than a competitor.
The Pew poll found that Clinton and Giuliani remain front-runners in their respective parties even though only 16 percent of those polled thought of Clinton as “very religious,” and only 14 percent of respondents considered Giuliani “very religious.”
By contrast, many more respondents saw John Edwards and Barack Obama as “very religious” candidates _ 28 percent for Edwards and 24 percent for Obama, Smith said.
Among Republican candidates, Fred Thompson was seen as “very religious” by only 16 percent and only 19 percent thought the same of John McCain.
Paradoxically Romney, who is seen far and away as the most religious individual _ 46 percent of respondents called him “very religious” _ faces a stiff challenge because he is Mormon.
Pew pollsters found that 25 percent of respondents, “Democrat, independent and Republican alike, say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is Mormon,” a report accompanying the poll said.
Other things being equal, voters said they would be more likely to vote for a Jew or a Catholic than a Mormon. They told pollsters they would be more receptive to a Mormon than a Muslim, and much more receptive to a Mormon than an atheist.
Mormons identify themselves as Christians, although many Christian denominations dispute that. Although Mormon teachings about family, work, chastity and charity closely track traditional Christian values, they spring from a different view of God, Scripture and the life of Jesus Christ.
On other matters, the Pew pollsters found that most voters this year are much less concerned about social issues like abortion and gay marriage than they have been in the past. Those issues have been replaced on voters’ radar by the war in Iraq and domestic issues like the economy, health care and the environment, Smith said.
He said that partly explains the lead by Giuliani, the pro-abortion rights, gay rights former mayor of New York running for the Republican nomination.
Pollsters found that fewer than a third of Republicans knew that Giuliani supports abortion rights, and perhaps more importantly, among those Republican-leaning voters who knew his position, his 76 percent approval rating remained very high.
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
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