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?

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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Behind the Numbers

Don't Count on a Syria Intervention

In the end, Americans just aren't interested in getting involved in promoting democracy overseas.

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.

Syrian rebels continue to be bombarded by President Bashar al-Assad's forces. And in the wake of a failed Security Council resolution that would have pushed for a transfer of power, the embattled leader shows little sign of giving up the reins -- though he faces mounting international sanctions and efforts by his neighbors to push the nation towards a democratic government.

While harping on the need for Assad to stop the violence, President Barack Obama is throwing cold water on prospects of a Libya-like military intervention. And the administration's reluctance to use force jibes with the philosophy of most Americans, who see spreading democracy as a good thing in general, but are much more ambivalent these days about using the military to topple dictators.

Obama learned this lesson first-hand in the effort to remove Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Just before the president announced the enforcement of a no-fly zone last March, Americans were split roughly evenly on whether this was a good idea, with 49 percent supporting and 45 percent opposing in a Washington Post-ABC News poll. The public was somewhat more supportive of the United States acting as a participant in a no-fly zone.

But Obama faced criticism over doing too little or too much in Libya, and his approval rating on the issue teetered throughout the conflict. The public approved of his efforts by 52 percent to 31 percent after Qaddafi's killing, which capped a successful coordination between rebels and NATO forces to take down his regime. Nevertheless, fewer than half the public said the United States did the right thing by using military force in Libya, according to a November Quinnipiac University poll.

Why the lack of enthusiasm for what was probably an ideal outcome for Obama's foreign policy team? In general, Americans don't care too much about swooping in to replace dictators (nor dispatching bogeymen, as we noted last week). Only 13 percent of the public said that promoting democracy in other nations was a top foreign policy priority in a 2011 Pew poll, dead last among other foreign policy objectives, behind human rights and climate change. Protecting jobs of Americans workers and terrorism ranked highest, with over eight in 10 calling each a "top priority."

It's not that democracy isn't seen as something worth promoting, in general. Six in 10 Americans agreed the United States should be promoting democracy around the world in a 2007 Pew Research Center poll. But even more -- 70 percent in a recent CBS News poll -- said that the United States should stay out of other country's affairs rather than try to replace dictatorships. (If that's right, though, shouldn't Ron Paul being doing better?) But even when civilians are under violent attack by their own government, Americans split evenly on military intervention.

The obvious exceptions to this rule are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both involved military invasions to unseat a government that Washington didn't like. But both also involved much more than spreading democracy for its own sake. Afghanistan provided a haven for Osama bin Laden, and Iraq (right or wrong) was seen as having weapons of mass destruction and connections with terrorists.

Take away those factors, and Americans are much more leery to cheer the drumbeat. In a 2006 Fox News poll, the public two to one supported using military force only if "provoked or attacked" by another country.

In an election year with the economy and jobs at the front of voters' minds, a crusading effort to fight for democracy in Syria might seem like a sure bet to shore up popularity. But Obama seems more favorable to sanctions and diplomacy, and for most Americans, that's probably just as well.