Voters downplay candidates' faith but shy from 'nones'

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Relatively few Americans say a political candidate's religious beliefs are an important factor when deciding how to vote, according to a poll released Sept. 11 by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

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Yet Americans hardly ever elect a religiously unaffiliated member of Congress, and atheists claim they are generally underrepresented in public office.

A Union University political scientist says the way Americans vote suggests a persistent discomfort with atheism despite voters' profession of apathy toward candidates' faith.

"Many middle of the road Americans are generally most comfortable with people who are religious, but not too religious," Hunter Baker, associate professor of political science at Union, told Baptist Press via email. "They like the idea that a leader considers themself somehow accountable to God, but they don't want that relationship front and center. Further, I think they intuitively end up casting atheists as just another category of zealous evangelists."

According to the AP-NORC poll, 25 percent of Americans say it's very or extremely important a candidate has strong religious beliefs. Just 19 percent say it's very or extremely important a candidate shares their religious beliefs.

That a candidate has some faith is most important to white born-again Christians and non-white Protestants. Fifty-one percent of the former and 47 percent of the latter consider it very or extremely important -- higher percentages than among Catholics (25%), other white Protestants (18%) and Americans with no religious affiliation (6%).

Thirty-five percent of white born-again Christians say it's very or extremely important a candidate shares their particular religious beliefs, as do 39 percent of non-white Protestants, 17 percent of Catholics, 11 percent of other white Protestants and 6 percent of those with no affiliation.

Despite the overall low percentage of those who view a candidate's religious beliefs as crucial, just one current member of Congress -- Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. -- describes herself as having no religious affiliation, a category dubbed the "nones." Ten other members of Congress, out of more than 530 total, have declined to state their religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center.

Some 98 percent of Congress reports affiliation with a specific religion, including 90.7 percent which claims Christian faith, Pew reported.

The percentage of Christians in Congress is about the same as it was in the early 1960s, according to Pew, despite a decline in America's overall percentage of Christians and an increase in the percentage of religiously unaffiliated individuals.

A political group called the Atheist Candidates Project is seeking "equitable representation for non-believers in government," according to its website. "Where other formerly underrepresented groups achieved equity in representation, atheists have not."

Baker said "many politicians" seem to "use religion as a kind of fig leaf or perhaps as a box that has to be publicly checked off. It raises suspicion if no affiliation is claimed and so they claim an affiliation. If we were to ask how many are serious members of a vital community of faith, that high number would drop dramatically."

In a separate section of the AP-NORC poll, Americans said religion should influence public policy on a range of issues.

Poverty topped the list, with 57 percent stating religion should have a lot or some influence on poverty policy. Climate change policy came in last among issues polled, with 32 percent saying it should be influenced a lot or some by religion. Forty-five percent said religion should influence abortion policy, and 34 percent said it should influence policy on LGBT issues.

AP-NORC polled 1,055 representative adults Aug. 16-20, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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