US survey exposes simplistic evaluations of 'values voters'

By agency reporter
October 23, 2012

A new national survey finds that the outcome of next month’s US presidential election will be determined, in part, by which Catholics head to the polls, and how many of America’s fastest growing religious community, the religiously unaffiliated, are motivated to vote.

The 2012 American Values Survey, conducted annually by the Public Religion Research Institute, takes a particularly close look at previously overlooked subgroups among Catholic and religiously unaffiliated voters, which have critical implications for both parties’ campaign strategies.

“The survey confirms that there is no such thing as ‘the Catholic vote’,” said Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO and report co-author. “There are a number of critical divisions among Catholics, including an important divide between ‘social justice’ and ‘right to life’ Catholics.”

The survey found that in the Catholic Church’s public policy engagement, 60 per cent of Catholics believe the 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, while 31 per cent say the opposite.

The distinctiveness of these Catholic subgroups is evident in their voting preferences. "Social justice" Catholics are more likely than "right to life" Catholics to favour Obama (60 per cent vs. 37 per cent), while "right to life" Catholics are more likely than "social justice" Catholics to favour Romney (67 per cent versus 27 per cent).

“Even among Catholics who attend church once a week or more, a group that is often considered more socially conservative,” said E.J. Dionne, Jr., Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and report co-author, “a majority believe the Catholic Church should emphasise issues related to justice and our obligations to the poor.”

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are the fastest growing group in the country’s religious landscape, having more than doubled in size since 1990. Today, nearly 1-in-5 (19 per cent) Americans self-identify as religiously unaffiliated. But while religiously unaffiliated Americans are more likely to support Obama over Romney (73 per cent vs. 22 per cent), they are less likely to say they are certain to vote, compared to religiously affiliated Americans (61 per cent versus 73 per cent).

“The majority of Americans who are now religiously unaffiliated were raised in a particular faith,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI Research Director and report co-author.

“Their reasons for leaving vary widely, ranging from a rejection of the teachings of their childhood faith or a fading belief in God, to antipathy toward organised religion, to negative personal experiences with religion or life experiences generally,” he added.

PRRI’s new analysis identifies important subgroups among religiously unaffiliated Americans: atheists and agnostics, seculars, and a newly-identified group of unattached believers. Attitudes among these subgroups vary widely on certain social issues, like same-sex marriage and religious liberty.

Nearly 9-in-10 (89 per cent) of atheists and agnostics favour allowing gay and lesbian people to marry legally, compared to 7-in-10 (70 per cent) among secular Americans and less than 6-in-10 (57 per cent) of unattached believers.

Three-quarters (75 per cent) of atheists and agnostics and nearly 6-in-10 (59 per cent) secular Americans believe that religious liberty is not under threat today. A majority (54 per cent) of unattached believers disagree, saying that religious liberty is being threatened.

PRRI’s 2012 American Values Survey also explores key issues animating the debates on the campaign trail. “There has been considerable attention to female voters and women's issues in the 2012 presidential campaign,” said William A. Galston, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and report co-author.

He commented: “The survey found that a majority of Americans say that women are better suited to raise children than men, an attitude that was surprisingly consistent across demographic groups.”

Most Americans seem to agree that the social safety net is important, the survey finds. More than 6-in-10 (63 per cent) Americans agree that government policies aimed at helping the poor serve as a crucial safety net, compared to 32 per cent who think such programmes create a culture of dependency where people are provided with too many handouts. However, Americans are divided about whether those benefiting from such programmes are genuinely in need or are taking advantage of the system.

* Public Religion Research Institute:


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