Surveys Reveal 'Widely Divergent' Views of Religious U.S. Activists

First-ever polls comparing conservative and progressive activists are revealing to what degree these groups diverge when it comes to issue priorities, issue positions, and beliefs about scripture.

While the majority of both groups say religion is important in their lives, for example, they have strikingly different beliefs about scripture. Nearly half of conservatives (48 percent) believe scripture to be the literal word of God, while only three percent of progressives shared the same view, according to the 2009 Religious Activist Surveys conducted by the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in partnership with Public Religion Research.

The surveys, the results of which were released Tuesday, also show how religious activists part ways on issue priorities.

While the vast majority of conservatives identify abortion (83 percent) and same-sex marriage (65 percent) as the most important priorities among eight issues listed in the surveys, less than 10 percent of progressive religious activists called abortion and same-sex marriage the "most important" issues.

Instead, progressive activists identify poverty (74 percent), health care (67 percent), environment (56 percent), jobs/economy (48 percent), and the Iraq war (45 percent) as the highest priorities.

Religious activists further split in their views on each of these important issues.

On abortion, nearly all conservative religious activists opposed legalization of the practice (95 percent). In sharp contrast, the overwhelming majority of progressive religious activists support some form of legal abortions (80 percent). Twenty-six percent of progressives say abortion should be legal in all cases and 54 percent say it should be legal in most cases.

Regarding same-sex marriage, conservatives overwhelmingly (82 percent) oppose both same-sex marriage and civil unions. By contrast, 59 percent of progressives support same-sex marriage, and a third say the law should recognize legal agreements between same-sex couples but define marriage as a union between a man and woman.

On health care, only six percent of conservatives agree the United States should have comprehensive national health insurance even if it resulted in fewer choices for patients, compared to 78 percent of progressive activists who say the same.

"If anyone still believed that committed religious activists come down on only one side of any major policy issue, these surveys should finally put that idea to rest," said Dr. Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research. "These activists are faithful, engaged, and have widely divergent views about both the place of religion in public life and the political implications of their faith."

While both conservative and religious activists agree there is a role for religion in public life, the overwhelming majority of progressives (81 percent) say the United States should maintain a strict separation of church and state. In comparison, only 21 percent of conservative activists agreed with that statement.

Conservative activists rather believe America was founded as a Christian nation.

The surveys also found a significantly different makeup of conservative and progressive religious activists. Conservatives are mostly composed of evangelical Protestants (54 percent), Roman Catholics (35 percent), and mainline Protestants (9 percent).

Meanwhile, progressive activists are made up of mainline Protestants (44 percent), Roman Catholics (17 percent), evangelical Protestants (10 percent), and interfaith bodies and groups (12 percent).

Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and Public Religion Research conducted the surveys by polling religious activists affiliated with representative organizations. Random samples of 4,200 progressive activists and 3,000 conservative activists were sent a ten-page survey in the spring and summer of 2009. The mailings produced 1,886 usable responses from the progressive samples and 1,123 usable returns from the conservative sample.

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