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New Survey Explores How Religious Change Will Influence the 2012 Election and Beyond

New Survey Explores How Religious Change Will Influence the 2012 Election and Beyond

PRRI report details how Catholic and unaffiliated Americans are responding to presidential candidates and key campaign issues such as taxes and entitlement programs

Washington, D.C. — A new national survey finds that the outcome of next month’s 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 percent 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 percent 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 favor Obama (60 percent vs. 37 percent), while “right to life” Catholics are more likely than “social justice” Catholics to favor Romney (67 percent vs. 27 percent).

“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 emphasize 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 percent) Americans self-identify as religiously unaffiliated. But while religiously unaffiliated Americans are more likely to support Obama over Romney (73 percent vs. 22 percent), they are less likely to say they are certain to vote, compared to religiously affiliated Americans (61 percent vs. 73 percent).

“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 organized religion, to negative personal experiences with religion or life experiences generally.”

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 percent) atheists and agnostics favor allowing gay and lesbians to marry legally, compared to 7-in-10 (70 percent) secular Americans and less than 6-in-10 (57 percent) unattached believers. Three-quarters (75 percent) of atheists and agnostics and nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) secular Americans believe that religious liberty is not under threat today. A majority (54 percent) 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. “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 agree that the social safety net is important, the survey finds. More than 6-in-10 (63 percent) Americans agree that government policies aimed at helping the poor serve as a crucial safety net, compared to 32 percent who think such programs create a culture of dependency where people are provided with too many handouts. However, Americans are divided about whether those benefiting from such programs are genuinely in need or are taking advantage of the system.

Among the findings:                                                                         

  • Although nearly one-third (31 percent) of Americans report that they were raised Catholic, only 22 percent currently identify that way, a net loss of nine percentage points. Notably, 12 percent of Americans today are former Catholics.
  • Approximately half of Americans continue to say that both candidates have religious beliefs that are different from their own.
    • A majority (53 percent) of Americans say that Romney’s religious beliefs are somewhat are very different from their own, and nearly half (49 percent) of Americans say that Obama’s religious beliefs are somewhat or very different from their own.
  • The religious coalitions of Romney and Obama are starkly different.
    • Nearly 8-in-10 (79 percent) likely Romney voters identify as white Christian, including 37 percent who identify as white evangelical, 19 percent who identify as white mainline Protestant and 19 percent who identify as white Catholic.
    • Only about 4-in-10 (39 percent) likely Obama voters identify as white Christians, while a much larger portion are drawn from the ranks of black Protestants (18 percent), Hispanic Catholics (6 percent), non-Christian religious Americans (7 percent) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (23 percent).
  • Sixty-one percent of Americans favor increasing the tax rate on those earning more than $250,000 a year, while 36 percent are opposed.

Read the report.

Read the topline questionnaire, including the survey methodology.


The survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and funded by the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Results of the survey were based on 3,003 bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews of American adults conducted between September 13, 2012 and September 30, 2012 (1,201 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone). The margin of error is +/‐ 2.0 percentage points for the general sample at the 95% confidence interval.

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