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Elections 101 America is religious place

In recent columns both David Hill and I have discussed religion. There is a simple reason for that: it is an increasingly important part of our politics.

Future columns will explore the ways in which religion influences partisan alignments. Today, though, I want merely to describe some of the religious views of Americans.In recent columns both David Hill and I have discussed religion. There is a simple reason for that: it is an increasingly important part of our politics.

Future columns will explore the ways in which religion influences partisan alignments. Today, though, I want merely to describe some of the religious views of Americans.

Some will no doubt react to these data with a teenage “duh.” Such reactions are likely to come disproportionately from Republicans. Democrats are bit more likely to shake their heads in disbelief — hence the problem, at least in part. I don’t buy some of this either, but it does make us different from many, if not most, Americans.

Religion is central to the values and to the lives of most Americans. When we asked voters how important 20 values were to them personally, having faith in God ranked at the very top of the list. Half said it was one of the most important to them, placing just ahead of personal responsibility. A quarter identified “helping others” as one of the most important to them.

In “a typical day,” nearly half the public says, they find themselves “frequently” using their religious beliefs to help them “decide what to do.” Think about that.

Many times each day, half the country is consulting their religious beliefs as they make decisions. Does that describe you?

While Americans have remained religious, Europeans have become increasingly secular. Some 95 percent of Americans believe in God, compared to 70 percent of Canadians and 61 percent of Britons. More than 70 percent of Americans believe in life after death, and 90 percent believe in heaven. Forty-six percent of Italians, 43 percent of the French and 35 percent of Scandinavians share Americans’ view on life after death.

Religious behavior is also much more common in the United States than in Europe. More than six in 10 Americans claim to attend church or synagogue at least once a month, compared to 6 percent of Danes, 7 percent of Swedes and similar numbers of Britons and west Germans.

The Enlightenment and modernity brought secularization to Europe but not to America. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that difference already in 1835. “In America,” he wrote, “one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world, the people fulfill with fervor all of the outward duties of religion.”

Since that time, secularization has proceeded apace in Europe while religion has persisted, even flowered, in the United States. The reasons for that difference are not completely clear, though the fact is fascinating.

Even when religion appears to conflict with scholarship and modern science, in America it is often religion that prevails. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe in the virgin birth. Half say every word of the Bible is literally accurate, and a similar number say God created humans in their present form, with just 40 percent accepting a form of evolution. Sixty percent believe the Noah story is literally true.
Even more say that about the creation of the world in six days.

While voters have real sensitivities about government support for specific beliefs, there is agreement that faith has a vital role in the public square. Seventy percent feel it is important to have a president with strong religious beliefs. Only 46 percent could see themselves casting a ballot for an atheist in a presidential election.

Closer to today’s reality, just 21 percent believe there has been too much expression of “religious faith and prayer” by political leaders and a mere 14 percent say George Bush mentions his religious faith and prayer too much.

Winning elections starts with understanding de Tocqueville’s assessment that America remains a religious country.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) this year.