Candidates Viewed as Least Religious Lead Presidential Race

While faith in the 2008 presidential race has taken on a large role, a new survey reveals that candidates don't necessarily have to be seen as religious to gain wide support from voters.

In a Pew Forum survey released Thursday, presidential candidates viewed by voters as the least religious are the current frontrunners for the Democratic and Republican nominations, according to the report.

Only 16 percent and 14 percent of the American public views Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani as "very religious," respectively. Other contenders in both parties were viewed as more religious than the leading presidential hopefuls.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life notes that most Americans continue to say it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs as in the past. However, the latest survey finds that "candidates for the White House need not be seen as very religious to be broadly acceptable to the voting public."

Moreover, Democrats John Edwards and Barack Obama are more likely to be viewed as very religious than any other leading Republican candidate, except Mitt Romney.

The survey finds that 24 percent view Obama as very religious and 28 percent say the same about Edwards. Meanwhile, fewer than one in five say Republicans Fred Thompson (16 percent), who just recently announced his candidacy for president, and John McCain (19 percent) are very religious. Most, however, see the Republican candidates as at least somewhat religious.

Romney is most likely to be seen as very religious compared to all the leading candidates, but his Mormon faith has many voters holding back support.

More people express reservations about voting for a Mormon (25 percent) than about supporting a candidate who is an evangelical Christian (16 percent), a Jew (11 percent) or a Catholic (7 percent).

Also, roughly six in ten Americans (61 percent) say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God, while 45 percent say they would be reluctant to vote for a Muslim.

The survey further shows that views of a candidate's religiosity are linked with overall views.

Those who perceive a candidate as being very religious tend to express the most favorable overall views of each candidate, according to the Pew survey.

Among those who describe Giuliani as being very religious, 76 percent express a favorable view of him. Among those who say Giuliani is not too or not at all religious, by contrast, just 43 percent say they hold a favorable view.

Similarly, 87 percent of those who describe Clinton as very religious express a favorable view of her. Among those who say she is not too or not at all religious, just 22 percent express a positive view.

Overall, the majority (69 percent) of Americans agree that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. At the same time, 43 percent say that it makes them uncomfortable when politicians talk about how religious they are.

When it comes to churches endorsing presidential candidates, most Americans (63 percent) are opposed to it. Even among conservative Republicans, 52 percent express opposition.

Findings are based on an Aug. 1-18 national survey of 3,002 adults, 18 years of age or older.

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