Evangelicals Defy Stereotypes, More 'Liberal' on Issues

Self-identified "evangelical/born again" Americans are still conservative in terms of their social views, but are shifting their concerns left to more "liberal" issues, found a new Beliefnet poll.

Instead of abortion and gay "marriage" being the top two issues for evangelicals, the economy, reducing poverty, and improving the health care system are now some of the "most important" or "very important" concerns for evangelicals.

The economy and cleaning up the government were most often chosen by evangelical respondents (85 percent) as the "most important" or "very important" issue in the Beliefnet poll conducted Jan. 17-23 on 980 evangelicals or born-again Christians.

Following close behind was reducing poverty (80 percent) and improving public education/access to health care (78 percent), which came in third.

Surprisingly, protecting the environment (70 percent) and ending torture (68 percent) rounded off the top five most important issues to evangelicals.

The two topics were at the center of a contentious debate among evangelicals last year when Christian right leaders accused the National Association of Evangelicals of becoming too liberal when it supported environmental activism and adopted a torture statement.

Based on the Beliefnet poll, evangelicals are more concerned about the environment and ending torture than ending abortion (61 percent) and stopping gay "marriage" (49 percent), as the conservative leaders preferred.

But this is not to say evangelicals have abandoned their conservative views or forsaken their Christian Right leaders. A solid majority (65 percent) said that Christian Right leaders sometimes or almost always represent their views.

Moreover, an overwhelming number (80 percent) said Christian Right leaders represented their views on defending religion in public life moreso than their views on "opposing gay 'marriage'/gay rights."

Despite their surprising priority of issues, 47 percent of the evangelical respondents describe themselves as conservative versus 14 percent who said they are liberal. Almost 80 percent said they attended church weekly or more, and 84 percent said the Bible is the "inerrant word of God."

Nearly half of respondents said they had become less positive about both major political parties, but a much higher number said they had become less positive about Republicans.

Almost 60 percent said they favored a more progressive evangelical agenda focused on protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDS, and alleviating poverty and less on abortion and homosexuality.

In terms of the presidential race, 28 percent of evangelical respondents preferred Mike Huckabee, more than any other Republican candidate. But John McCain had surprisingly strong support at 21 percent. In terms of favorability, 55 percent had a positive view of Huckabee while 53 percent held positive views of McCain.

Just seven percent of evangelicals said they preferred Mitt Romney, which Beliefnet noted might be due to his Mormon faith.

On the Democratic side, evangelicals far preferred Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, 31 percent to 12 percent. Eighteen percent preferred John Edwards and 33 percent were undecided.

Interestingly, 27 percent of evangelicals said Obama's religious views would make them less likely to vote for him, while 22 percent said Clinton's faith made them less likely to support her.

Only a third of evangelicals said religion was playing too big of a role in the presidential election, compared to two-thirds that said it was not.

The Beliefnet poll was promoted through its website and newsletters. Respondents were not told the poll was about evangelicals, but the organizers compiled responses from those who said they were "evangelical or born again."

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