Religion in the Public Sphere

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A new report from the Center for American Progress says that religion and morality are deeply important to the vast majority of American voters—but with different political implications than one might think. While more than two-thirds of voters report praying at least once a day and over half say they attend religious services weekly, only a minority of them think that their own religion’s teachings ought to shape public policy.

More surprisingly, most respondents said that the values behind religion should underlie broader debates on poverty and hunger, homelessness, and government corruption. Yet fewer than half think the same about hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Those numbers, at least, should come as little surprise. Americans are on the whole a pious bunch and, especially after the 2004 election, Democratic pundits argued that to win the confidence of those voters, the party needs to do a better job staking out the moral high ground. What makes the CAP findings compelling is their suggestion that there might be other ways to do this than simply touting one’s religious devotion.

According to the study, only 7 percent of Americans think that being a moral person requires “honoring religious tradition and faith,” and only 20 percent approve of politicians “using the political system to turn religious beliefs in actions.” Of course, many more probably consider church-going a good indicator of morality, even if it isn’t requisite. Progressive themes may resonate with voters, as the study’s authors contend—now we just need to get politicians who expound them to do the same.

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