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Voters Don’t Like God-Talk

With the GOP’s congressional wing hostage to the Bible-thumping hard right and Rick Santorum bringing the Word to Republican primary voters nationwide, it’s easy to forget that Americans still cherish the separation of church and state. Indeed, the more politicians pander to evangelical Christians, the less the public at large wants to hear them spout any God-talk at all. That’s today’s news from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

As recently as two years ago more Americans favored (37 percent) than disfavored (29 percent) “expressions of religious faith and prayer by politicians.” But the lines crossed a year or so ago and now more Americans think politicians spout too much God-talk (38 percent) than too little (30 percent) or the right amount (25 percent). The change is mainly the result of the too-muchers growing steadily from a mere 12 percent a decade ago to the current 38 percent. A decade ago the Goldilocks caucus of right-amounters nose-dived practically overnight from 60 percent to 29 percent. Apparently that’s because 9/11 increased distrust of theocratic impulses, though during the same period the devout too-littlers jumped from 22 percent to 41 percent. At any rate, since the early aughts there hasn’t been much change for these two groups, while the secularist too-muchers have grown and grown. Interestingly, the secularists have been growing (though less steadily) even among Republicans. In 2001 only 8 percent of GOPers thought politicians talked about religion too much. Not surprising, considering they’d just put into the Oval Office a man who, when asked in a debate who his favorite philosopher was, replied, “Christ, because He changed my heart.” By 2012, though, 24 percent of Republicans thought politicians indulged in too much-God talk (as against 46 percent of Democrats, but still).

A similar flip occurred on the question of whether churches should or shouldn’t air their opinions on social and political matters. In 1996 a 54-43 majority said they should. This gap narrowed over the next decade and in 2007 the trendlines crossed. Now a 54-40 majority says churches should mind their own beeswax. From 1996 through the early aughts Democrats and Republicans didn’t differ too much on this question. A partisan gap opened up around 2000 and Republicans closed it in 2008 (perhaps as an expression of their distaste for Obama’s onetime pastor, Jeremiah Wright). But since 2008 the gap has reopened. Today 60 percent of Democrats think churches should keep out of politics as against 44 percent of Republicans. It’s worth pointing out that 44 percent is still a lot of Republicans. That 44 percent is why Santorum will never get the nomination.