Monday, January 24, 2005

Are Americans Less Tolerant?

That's what reports like this this from Reuters would like you to think.  But don't blame Reuters and other news services that picked up on the underlying study.

Instead, look no further than the press release from Public Agenda, the organization who conducted the survey.  

Quotes and analysis on the flip.

For example, in 2000, 84% of Americans overall said "Even elected officials who are deeply religious sometimes have to make compromises and set their convictions aside to get results while in government." In 2004, that number had dropped to 74%, with even sharper drops among weekly service attenders (82% in 2000 vs. 63% in 2004) and Evangelicals (79% in 2000 vs. 63% in 2004).

On abortion, gay rights and the death penalty, the majority of Americans who attend services weekly now say that deeply religious politicians should stick to their own religious beliefs rather than be willing to compromise (see table on page 2).

"Compromise has a long and important history in American politics," said Ruth A. Wooden, President of Public Agenda. "But in 2004, there were more Americans who wanted elected officials to keep their religious principles in mind when they vote on issues like abortion and gay rights. We found double-digit decreases in support for compromise on these issues among those who attend services weekly and among Catholics. The changes are really quite dramatic."

Okay, blame Reuters a bit.  Their article on the survey is headlined "Survey Finds Church-Going Americans Less Tolerant," and they provide this nugget of insight into the survey results:

In the survey, 32 percent of those who attended church once a week said they were willing to compromise on abortion issues -- a 19-point drop in four years. Among the same group the question of compromising beliefs on gay rights was acceptable to only 39 percent, down 18 points from 2000.

This is in fact quite wrong.  The question in, er, question is about whether or not politicians should have to compromise their religious beliefs in making public policy.  It's a shift in opinion, to be sure, but not nearly the radical realignment the article makes it out to be.

And when you look at the responses overall, these shifts appear less dramatic still.  In 2000, 57% of the general public believed that elected officials "should be willing to compromise with others whose views are different"; in 2004, it was 51%.  For gay rights, those figures, respectively, were 60/54--hardly surprising considering the higher profile (and ensuing controversy) gay rights have attracted since 2000.

And go back and look at the survey question that kicked off this section:  "Even elected officials who are deeply religious sometimes have to make compromises and set their convictions aside to get results while in government."  Is that a question about whether politicos should compromise, or is it about compromise as a reality in political practice?  Read the second way, survey respondents might be stating the facts as they see them:  these days, less compromise on religious principles is necessary in the political world.

And so it goes.  A general pattern emerges from the survey results:  while there are sizable shifts among weekly or more-than-weekly churchgoers and various sub-groups of respondents, overall, the terrain has not shifted very much.

Even where it has, it seems more likely that the shift is due to an increased acceptance of the role of religion in public life, rather than a decrease in willingness to compromise.  Take, for example, abortion; as noted above 32% of weekly churchgoers feel that elected officials should compromise on their religious beliefs for the sake of policy.  That figure rises to 42% when the general public is considered.  But here's the interesting part:  80% believed officials should base their vote on their religious views even if those views were totally different from their own.  18% disagreed.  In 2000, it was 65/31.  In other words, Americans seem more willing now for politicians to "name and claim" their principles, even if those principles don't necessarily agree with voters' own values.

But this doesn't necessarily translate into blanket approval for religion-based politics.  There's no real shift in the numbers on whether religious belief makes for better politicians, nor in how many people believe politicians are just telling voters what they want to hear when they talk about their faith.  Same thing for whether respondents would be more or less likely to vote for religious pols, pols of no faith, or those who take advice from religious leaders.  

(It is still the case that the majority of respondents would be less likely to vote for an acknowledged atheist, but the proportion actually went down, from 54 to 52%.)

In one of the most intriguing results, only 8% of respondents correctly answered that Pres. Bush is a Methodist; 18% guessed wrong, and 43% said they didn't know.  By comparison, 37% knew that John Kerry was a Catholic.  This suggests that the Bush campaign succeeded in portraying Kerry not as someone without faith, but a person of bad faith--that is, not a "good" Catholic.  Meanwhile, because Bush was not pinned to a specific tradition, his own track record could not be compared.

Lastly, respondents weren't eager to endorse a wholesale takeover of the political system by religious forces.  While 61% felt that the system could accomodate more participation by religious groups, 47% claimed to feel "neutral" on whether religious leaders should endorse specific legislation, while 28% felt negative or strongly negative; the corresponding figures for endorsment of candidates were 39/43%.  In both cases, the negatives were up over 2000 numbers.

Given that the demographics have stayed about the same (at least in this survey), and attitudes haven't shifted much, what's going on here?

We'll have to let others fill us in on the leanings on Public Agenda, if there are any.  But certainly, the ability to depict Americans--especially regular churchgoers--as less tolerant plays into the political memes that have been running rampant in the past year:  that Americans are increasingly polarized around religious issues, and that they are looking for politicians to represent their beliefs accordingly.  And since as we all know, conservative evangelical churches are growing like wildfire*...guess who politicians should be representing?

*=not as true as they'd like you to believe.  The Southern Baptist Convention has grown by approximately 1% between 1990 and today.  That's better than the former mainline churches, but it's hardly explosive.


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