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Behind the Headlines: Survey; Religious Right Masses Often Don’t Engage in Politics

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A new survey of the religious right’s mass constituency shows that only 38 percent consider themselves supporters of the religious right political movement.

Significant numbers were also unaware of the movement’s leaders, proved to know little or nothing about conservative Christian groups active in politics and were no more likely to be politically active than other Americans.

The survey, conducted for the American Jewish Committee between May 10 and June 3 by the Gallup International Institute, compared the attitudes of 507 Americans aligned with the religious right with those of 503 other Americans.

The poll was released on the eve of next week’s Republican National Convention, where political leaders of the religious right hope to exert their influence.

Those political leaders, especially those affiliated with Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, claim a large constituency among members of the religious right.

Religious conservatives have sought to bring Christian values into public policy and have emerged as the most powerful religious force in politics today.

But the poll seems to suggest that there is not an automatic connection between the desire to enact government policies based on Christian morality and actual political involvement.

“The religious right is much more diffuse and, viewed as a political movement, much less cohesive than might have been supposed,” said Robert Rifkind, AJCommittee’s national president.

The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, identified 14 percent of Americans as being aligned with the religious right. Other estimates range from 7 percent to 23 percent, depending on how its constituency is defined.

The AJCommittee poll defined the religious right as those who believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally; say they have been born again or have had a born-again experience in which they committed themselves to Jesus Christ; and report that they have tried to encourage someone to believe in Jesus or accept Jesus as his or her savior.

Most individuals on the religious right tend to be male conservative, white evangelical Protestants from rural areas and from the South, according to the survey. They proved older, less educated and less financially well-off compared with other Americans.

The survey presents a complex portrait of a group strongly dedicated to conservative evangelical beliefs that wants government to reflect and promote Christian values.

Nearly half believe that a constitutional amendment should be adopted declaring the United States a “Christian nation,” in contrast with 23 percent of other Americans who hold that view.

Three out of four said Christians need to get involved in politics to protect their values.

But there was no evidence in the survey to suggest that those on the religious right were more politically active than other Americans.

Only 14 percent of those on the religious right, compared with 18 percent of other Americans, said they had given money to a political group or party.

Eight percent of the religious right and 16 percent of other Americans had attended a political meeting or rally, and 9 percent had campaigned for a candidate, compared with 10 percent of other Americans.

At the same time, nearly half of those aligned with the religious right said religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote. Nearly two- thirds agreed that a person can be both politically liberal and a good Christian. And they split in half on whether there is a correct Christian position on most political issues.

What emerges from the survey is a portrait of a constituency of religious conservatives whose attachment to the organized religious right movement is marginal, said Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center, who analyzed the survey for the AJCommittee.

“Fourteen percent of the population is nothing to sneeze at when it’s moving shoulder to shoulder,” Rifkind said, referring to those who make up the religious right.

“It’s enough to have significant impact, but the group that we polled, while deeply religious, does not readily translate that religious commitment into a political commitment.”

Fully 59 percent of the religious right said they had heard little or nothing about “conservative Christian groups that are active in politics, sometimes called the religious right or the Christian right.”

They also showed little awareness of or admiration for the movement’s leaders.

Eighty-two percent said they know too little about the Christian Coalition’s executive director, Ralph Reed, to have an opinion about him. And while most knew who Pat Robertson was, only a little more than half said they admired him.

Jews, meanwhile, were viewed by the religious right with ambivalence.

As a whole, those involved in the religious right are more supportive of Israel than other Americans, with 72 percent of those polled agreeing that “Jews have a right to the land of Israel, since it was promised to them by God.”

By contrast, 43 percent of other Americans hold that view.

A total of 53 percent of the religious right also believe that “now as in the past, Jews remain God’s chosen people.”

Reflecting the views of most Americans, 79 percent of those on the religious right said they are willing to vote for a Jew as president, 88 percent do not believe that Jews have too much influence in American society and 96 percent are willing to live with Jews as neighbors.

However, the survey also found they are more likely to raise objections to Jews on religious grounds.

Fifty-eight percent — compared with 22 percent of other Americans — disagree with the statement that “Jews do not need to be converted to Christianity.” And 22 percent — compared with 8 percent of other Americans — believe that Jews must still answer for killing Christ.

Those sentiments, said Smith, flow from “the basic tenet of Evangelicalism that the religious right and the Jewish community are fundamentally at odds with one another.”

Still, Smith said, followers of the religious right are “hardly fanatical exclusionists.” Most differed little from other Americans in their attitudes toward Asians, blacks, Catholics, Hispanics and Jews, with clear majorities saying that those groups do not have too much influence in American society.

Moreover, 93 percent of those on the religious right deemed it “essential” or “very important” to “promote racial, religious and ethnic understanding and tolerance in the United States.”

But when it came to acceptance of atheists, homosexuals, feminists and Muslims — the religious right views all these groups as outsiders, non-traditionalists and a serious threat to the country, Smith said — their tolerance appeared to have clear limits.

“From their faith comes conviction and a reluctance to accept as equal the beliefs and customs of others,” Smith wrote in an analysis of the survey.

“It is not that they are intolerant, but that they deem tolerance as a lesser value than Christian morality,” he said. “Their first political principle is that Christ rules; all else follows from that.”

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