Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Last week in The Atlantic, PRRI’s Robert P. Jones explored the challenges faced by Pope Francis who appears open to wooing white evangelical Protestants aligned with his views on cultural issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. That said, the Holy See’s call for economic justice complicates this relationship.
In the U.S., Catholic support for traditional Church social teachings advocated by the Pope is much more tepid than that found among white evangelical Protestants, but Pope Francis’s emphasis on economic equality closely aligns with his American Catholic flock. Fewer than half (49 percent) of American Catholics agree with the traditional Catholic teaching that sex between two adults of the same gender is sinful, while nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) of white evangelicals agree. In a similar vein, less than 4-in-10 (37 percent) of Catholics oppose same-sex marriage, in contrast to nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) of white evangelicals.
On contraceptive and reproductive issues, white evangelicals again remain more aligned with the traditional teachings of the Church than Catholics themselves. Sixty-five percent of white evangelicals believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, compared to fewer than half (47%) of Catholics. White evangelical Protestants are also more likely than Catholics to oppose requiring all employers to provide free contraception coverage (58% vs. 37%).
On economic issues, however, Catholics in the U.S. generally share Pope Francis’s vision of a more equal society. Nearly 8-in10 Catholics (78 percent) favor raising the minimum wage to $10.00 an hour, compared to just 6-in-10 (61 percent) of white evangelicals, while 68 percent of Catholics agree the government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor, compared to less than half (47 percent) of white evangelicals.
A majority (62 percent) Catholics likewise believe that the government should guarantee access to health insurance, even if it means raising taxes. Only about a third (34 percent) of white evangelicals favor this approach. In general, Catholics seem to favor increased taxes and government spending as means to promote growth and equality, with more than half (52 percent) agreeing that raising taxes and spending more on infrastructure is the best way to promote U.S. economic growth, and only 44 percent preferring to cut taxes and reduce government spending. In contrast to this, a majority (63 percent) of white evangelicals prefer cutting taxes and spending to raising them (32 percent).
The Pope’s advocacy of traditional Church teachings on cultural questions has strong support from white evangelical Protestants, but his call to economic justice likely resonates more strongly with his Catholic flock.