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51% of Americans Do Not Want an Atheist President

By (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
New Pew Research Center Survey on Faith and the 2016 Presidential Campaign

GOP Candidates Seen As Religious – Except for Trump

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Jan. 27, 2016) – While the conventional wisdom in American politics has long been that someone who is not religious cannot be elected president of the United States, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that one of the candidates who is widely viewed by Republicans as a potentially “good” or “great” president, Donald Trump, is not widely seen as a religious person, even by those in his own party. And on the Democratic side, the share of Americans who say Hillary Clinton is not a religious person now stands at 43%, which is sharply higher than it was in the summer of 2007, when she was seeking the presidential nomination for the first time.

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Pew Research Center
The new survey, conducted Jan. 7-14, 2016, among 2,009 adults, finds that the leading Republican presidential candidates are more widely viewed as religious people than are Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Roughly two-thirds of adults (68%) say they think Ben Carson is “very” or “somewhat” religious, while 65% say the same about Ted Cruz and 61% think Marco Rubio is a religious person. By comparison, 48% of adults say they believe Clinton is a religious person, and 40% think Sanders is “very” or “somewhat” religious.

The major exception to this pattern is Donald Trump; just 30% of U.S. adults view Trump as a religious person.

The new survey confirms that being an atheist continues to be one of the biggest perceived shortcomings a hypothetical presidential candidate could have, with 51% of adults indicating they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. The study also shows that having a president who shares their religious beliefs is important to many Americans, with about half of U.S. adults saying it is “very important” (27%) or“somewhat important” (24%) to have someone in the White House who shares their religious perspective. This view is particularly common with Republicans, among whom 64% say it is at least “somewhat important” to them that the president share their religious beliefs.

At the same time, many Republicans think Trump would be a good president despite his perceived lack of religiousness. Of the 56% of GOP voters who think Trump would be a good or great president, a substantial minority of them (17% of Republican registered voters overall) say they think Trump is not religious. The pattern is very different for the other leading GOP candidates; virtually all Republicans who think Cruz, Rubio and Carson would be successful presidents (and who express a view about their religiousness) also say they view those candidates as at least somewhat religious. Just 2% of GOP voters think Rubio would be a good president and that he is not particularly religious, with just 1% saying the same about Cruz and Carson.

The new survey shows that among religious groups, 52% of white evangelical Protestant voters (regardless of party affiliation) think Trump would make a“good” or a “great” president. Evangelicals express a similar degree of confidence that Carson (52%) and Cruz (49%) would be successful presidents. They are less convinced that other Republican candidates would be good presidents. And few evangelical voters think Bernie Sanders (16%) or Clinton (15%) would be good presidents.

On the Democratic side, the view that Sanders and Clinton would be good presidents is most common among black Protestants and religiously unaffiliated voters (i.e., religious “nones”). Fully half of religiously unaffiliated registered voters (51%) think Sanders would be a successful president, while 42% think Clinton would be a good or great president. Among black Protestant voters, 62% think Clinton would be a “good” or a “great” president, while 36% say this about Sanders. Among both groups, just 15% or fewer think any of the Republican candidates would be good presidents.

The survey finds that 68% of U.S. adults believe that religion is losing influence in American society. And most who hold this view – 51% of all U.S. adults– say they think religion’s declining influence is a bad thing for American society.

The survey also shows that 40% of Americans think there has been too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, compared with 27% who say there has been too much religious talk by politicians. These figures are considerably different from the results of a survey taken at a similar point in the 2012 presidential election cycle. At that time, there were more people who thought there was too much religious discussion (38%) than who said there wasn’t enough (30%).

Other key findings include:

Candidates are viewed as religious by more people in their own party than the opposing party. The biggest partisan gap on these questions is seen in views about Hillary Clinton; two-thirds of Democrats say she is “very” or “somewhat” religious, while two-thirds of Republicans express the opposite view, saying that she is “not too” or “not at all” religious.

Like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama is also seen as less religious today than in 2007; about one-third of adults (35%) now say Obama is “not too” or “not at all” religious, up from 9% in 2007.

Half of Americans (51%) believe religious conservatives have too much control over the GOP, and more than four-in-ten (44%) think that liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democratic Party. Two-thirds of Democrats say the GOP has been co-opted by religious conservatives, while most Republicans reject this notion. Conversely, two-thirds of Republicans believe that secular liberals have too much power in the Democratic Party, while two-thirds of Democrats disagree.

One-quarter of adults (26%) say they would be less likely to vote for a gay or lesbian presidential candidate, while 69% say it would make no difference to their vote. Since 2007, the share of Americans who say a candidate’s sexual orientation would not matter in their vote has been steadily rising, while the share who say they would be less likely to support a gay or lesbian candidate has been declining.

There are more than twice as many Republicans who say they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who has been an elected official in Washington for many years as who would be more likely to support such a candidate (44% vs. 18%). Among Democrats, the balance of opinion leans in the opposite direction; 27% see extensive Washington experience as a positive, compared with 19% who see it as a liability.


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