How Catholics and the Religiously Unaffiliated Will Shape the 2012 Election and Beyond
The American religious landscape is marked by significant diversity and fluidity. While Catholics and white mainline Protestants remain two of the largest religious groups in the United States, they have each experienced significant declines in membership.
- Although nearly one-third (31%) of Americans report that they were raised Catholic, only 22% currently identify that way, a net loss of nine percentage points. Notably, 12% of Americans today are former Catholics.
- While 15% of Americans currently identify as white mainline Protestant, 19% report that they were raised in that tradition. This shift represents a net loss of four percentage points.
The religiously unaffiliated represent the fastest growing group in the American religious landscape, and are more complex than previously understood.
- While 19% of Americans identify as religiously unaffiliated today, only 7% of Americans report that they were raised religiously unaffiliated, a net increase of 12 percentage points.
- While religiously unaffiliated voters support Obama over Romney (73% vs. 22%), religiously unaffiliated Americans are less likely to say they are certain to vote than religiously affiliated Americans (61% vs. 73%).
- Religiously unaffiliated Americans are comprised of three discrete subgroups, which have distinct religious and demographic profiles:
- “Unattached believers” (23%): describe themselves as religious despite having no formal religious identity, and are more likely than the general population to be black or Hispanic and to have lower levels of educational attainment;
- “Seculars” (39%): describe themselves as secular or not religious, and roughly mirror the general population in terms of racial composition and levels of educational attainment;
- “Atheists and agnostics” (36%): identify as atheist or agnostic, and are more likely than the general population to be non-Hispanic white and to have significantly higher levels of educational attainment.
- These three subgroups differ substantially in their opinion profiles, especially on certain social issues like same-sex marriage and religious liberty. Nearly 9-in-10 (89%) atheists and agnostics favor allowing gay and lesbians to marry legally, compared to 7-in-10 (70%) seculars and nearly 6-in-10 (57%) unattached believers. Three-quarters (75%) of atheists and agnostics and nearly 6-in-10 (59%) secular Americans believe that religious liberty is not under threat today. A majority (54%) of unattached believers disagree, saying that religious liberty is being threatened.
- Religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised with a religious identity report a range of different reasons for leaving the religion of their childhood. The most frequently cited reasons are the following:
- Rejection of the teachings of their childhood faith or belief in God (23%);
- Antipathy toward organized religion (16%);
- Negative personal experiences with religion or life experiences in general (11%);
- Perceptions that religion is at odds with scientific principles or logic (8%);
- Perceptions that religion or religious people are hypocritical (8%).
Although Catholics are often viewed as a monolithic group, the survey reveals distinct subgroups that are important for understanding the complexity of Catholics’ public engagement.
- The survey confirms complex opinion divides along ethnic lines between white Catholics (63% of Catholics) and Hispanic Catholics (29% of Catholics).
- Hispanic Catholics are more likely than white Catholics to have a favorable opinion of President Barack Obama (70% vs. 48%), while white Catholics are more likely than Hispanic Catholics to have a favorable view of Governor Mitt Romney (54% vs. 27%).
- White Catholics are more supportive than Hispanic Catholics of both the death penalty (47% vs. 30%) and legal abortion (56% vs. 43%).
- On the question of the public engagement of the church, the survey found important divisions between Catholics who prefer a “social justice” emphasis that focuses on helping the poor and Catholics who prefer a “right to life” emphasis that focuses on issues like abortion.
- “Social justice Catholics” (60%): believe that in its statements about public policy, the Catholic Church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life.
- “Right to life Catholics” (31%): believe that the Catholic Church should focus more on abortion and the right to life in its statements about public policy, even if means focusing less on issues like social justice and the obligation to help the poor.
- Among Catholics who attend church at least once a week, a slim majority (51%) believe the Church’s public policy statements should focus more on social justice and helping the poor, compared to 36% who believe that the Catholic Church should focus more on issues like abortion and the right to life.
- “Social justice” Catholics are more likely than “right to life” Catholics to favor Obama (60% vs. 37%), while “right to life” Catholics are more likely than “social justice” Catholics to favor Romney (67% vs. 27%).
Generational differences in religious affiliation are dramatic and point to the United States’ shifting racial, ethnic, and religious composition.
- Seven-in-ten seniors (age 65 and older) are white Christians, such as white evangelical Protestants (30%), white mainline Protestants (20%), and white Catholics (19%).
- Three-in-ten Millennials (age 18 to 29) are white Christians, such as white mainline Protestants (12%), white evangelical Protestants (9%), or white Catholics (8%). Nearly one-third (32%) of Millennials report that they are religiously unaffiliated.
In late September, President Barack Obama held a four-point lead over former Governor Mitt Romney (50% vs. 46%) among likely voters.
- Among independent likely voters, the race was a dead heat: 47% supported Romney and 46% favored Obama.
- President Obama garnered overwhelming support among black Protestant likely voters (97%), religiously unaffiliated likely voters (73%), and non-Christian religious likely voters (65%).
- Romney had overwhelming support among white evangelical Protestant likely voters (76%). A slim majority (52%) of white mainline Protestant likely voters also supported Romney, compared to 45% who supported Obama.
- Catholic likely voters overall were divided, with 49% supporting Obama and 47% supporting Romney.
The religious coalitions of Romney and Obama are starkly different.
- Nearly 8-in-10 (79%) likely Romney voters identify as white Christian, including 37% who identify as white evangelical, 19% who identify as white mainline Protestant, and 19% who identify as white Catholic.
- Only about 4-in-10 (39%) likely Obama voters identify as white Christian, while a much larger portion are drawn from the ranks of black Protestants (18%), Hispanic Catholics (6%), non-Christian religious Americans (7%), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (23%).
Approximately half of Americans continue to say that both candidates have religious beliefs that are different from their own.
- A majority (53%) of Americans say that Romney’s religious beliefs are somewhat or very different from their own, and nearly half (49%) of Americans say that Barack Obama’s religious beliefs are somewhat or very different from their own.
Most Americans agree about the importance of a social safety net, but are divided about whether people who use such programs are genuinely in need of help or are taking advantage of the system.
- By a margin of nearly 2-to-1, Americans agree that government policies aimed at helping the poor serve as a crucial safety net (63%), rather than creating a culture of dependency where people are provided with too many handouts (32%).
- However, Americans are divided on whether most people who receive welfare payments are genuinely in need of help (44%) or are taking advantage of the system (46%).
A majority (56%) of Americans agree that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that that cover contraception or birth control at no cost. Introducing additional information about organizations having religious objections does not result in significant differences in opinion.
- Majorities of white mainline Protestants (56%) and Catholics overall (54%) agree with this statement.
- By contrast, majorities of white evangelical Protestants (56%) and white Catholics (51%) disagree with this statement.
Americans remain divided over traditional gender roles. A majority (54%) of Americans say that women are naturally better suited than men to raise children, while 44% disagree. Overall, women (54%) are equally as likely as men (54%) to believe that women are naturally better suited to raise children. White women who have never been married are one of the few groups to disagree (64%) with this statement.
Cover photo courtesy of Mayang.com.