Beliefnet

A large number of evangelical Christians have soured on Republicans and the political fray.

A large number of evangelicals have soured on Republicans and believe that President Bush’s faith has no effect on what kind of President he is, according to a new online survey by Beliefnet (click for full results here).

The results help explain why Democrats improved their standing among evangelicals on Tuesday and suggest Christians are reassessing their attitudes toward politics.

Since many Americans who are described by analysts as "evangelical Christians" don't actually identify themselves that way, the Beliefnet survey instead considered evangelicals to be those who said both that "accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and savior will give you eternal life" and that the "Bible is the inerrant word of God." 770 people answered yes to both questions.

Even though this was a conservative group-only 28.8 percent described themselves as Democrats and only 13.8 percent said they were liberal-they showed signs of great dissatisfaction with the Republicans. 30 percent said they voted for fewer Republicans than they had in earlier elections, and a stunning 60.7 percent said that in recent years their views about Republicans had become less positive. (51.5 percent said their views on Democrats had grown more negative).

Perhaps most surprisingly, half (49.3 percent) of these evangelicals do not believe that President Bush's faith makes him a better President. 37.2 percent said it's had no effect at all and 12 percent reported that it's made him worse.

Though no earlier polling exists that could prove statistically that these numbers are worse than a few years ago, Beliefnet’s reporting for the past six years has indicated that Bush's personal faith has been enormous part of his appeal to evangelicals, many of whom had believed that it would make him a better president.

Why did many evangelicals turn against the Republicans this year?

One major reason was Iraq. More evangelicals (22.5 percent) said the war was the most important issue, of greater gravity even than abortion (16 percent) and homosexuality (10.7 percent). And even among this conservative group, 74.7 percent said they did not support "President Bush’s approach to Iraq."

Among those evangelicals who specifically said their opinions of Republicans had worsened, 37.6 percent cited the war as the biggest issue. The other big issue was "corruption." 18.2 percent cited that as the issue that mattered to them most, more than 3 times as many who cited abortion or homosexuality.

All these factors led to a general dissatisfaction about politics in general among these voters. 40.2 percent of the evangelicals surveyed favored the idea of Christians taking a "fast" from politics, compared to 30.7 percent who opposed the idea.

Part of the problem, many reported, was that Christianity has become too closely associated with the Republican party. 42.9 percent said "Christians are too closely allied with the Republican party," compared to 29.6 percent who wanted a tighter connection to the party and 27.5 percent who said the current balance is just right.

A significant minority apparently believes that Christian involvement in politics has hurt the faith's image. 26.3 percent said Christian involvement in politics had given them a "more negative" impression of Christianity itself.

(This view was even more pronounced among non-Christians. 63.8 percent of Jews surveyed said Christian involvement in politics gave them a more negative impression of Christianity, compared to 7 percent who said it made them more positively disposed.)

The evangelical voters dislike many of the most well known Christian leaders involved in Republican politics. For instance, while they liked like Billy Graham, Rick Warren and Joel Osteen–who are known more for their uplifting spiritual message than their political activism–these Christians have negative views about the men often identified in the media as the pre-eminent evangelical leaders.

For instance, 50 percent had an unfavorable impression of Jerry Falwell, compared to 17 percent who viewed him positively. 46 percent viewed Pat Roberston unfavorably to 28 percent who viewed him favorably. While 4 percent still liked Ted Haggard, 58 percent viewed unfavorably, although very few said his downfall affected their vote.

The one highly political conservative religious leader who remains personally popular is James Dobson, whom 49 percent viewed favorably.

A small bit of good news for Republicans: evangelicals still overwhelmingly believe that President Bush better exhibits Christian principles in his presidency than did Bill Clinton (53.2 percent-21.3 percent).

And among the broader group of evangelicals surveyed, there seems to be an odd disconnect between what they personally viewed as the most important issues and those they think Jesus would care most about. While 16 percent of those surveyed listed abortion as their number-one issue, 34.4 percent said Jesus would consider abortion as the "most serious example of immorality today"–far more than the number who thought that Jesus would list homosexuality (11 percent) , poverty (12.8 percent) or the Iraq war (4.8 percent).

Though they disagreed with each other about what Jesus would emphasize, they were confident that Jesus would believe that our political leaders were "focused on the wrong things." 82.5 percent took that position.

11/13/06 Postscript for political junkies:
 
A debate has broken out about whether or not evangelicals Christians actually shifted to the Democrats. My view is that yes, there was a slight but meaningful shift. 
 
Exit polls showed that 28% of white evangelicals who voted in House elections chose Democrats. As I wrote above, 21% of evangelicals voted for Kerry in 2004.   This 7% shift seemed significant to me. There was also a shift when it came to the percentage of weekly churchgoers. In 2004, 55% of weekly churchgoers voted Republican this year; 61% of them voted for Bush in 2004.
 
Others have argued that the better point of comparison is not to the 2004 Kerry vote but to the exit polls conducted for people who voted in House races. In those polls, the shift was smaller:  25% of evangelicals voted Democratic in 2004, rather than 21%, a 3% gap.
 
Kevin Drum  at the Washington Monthly   argues that the most natural comparison is House results to House results and there’s certainly a logic to that; after all, having a liberal Massachusetts Catholic at the head of the ticket could certainly have had a negative impact. But to me, that’s sort of the point. If you have someone at the top of the ticket who’s anti-Christ-like to many Christians, it will affect the vote. If you don’t, it wont. This year, the top of the ticket was a home-grown candidate, often with local look, feel and faith.
 
In at least some local races, the gap shrinkage was even more noticeable. For instance, in Ohio the Democratic candidate for Senate, Sherrod Brown, got 44 percent of those attending worship services weekly or more. The Democratic Senate candidate in 2004, Eric Fingerhut, got only 27 percent and John Kerry got 35 percent of them. 
 
We have further evidence of a shift in a Beliefnet survey. Yes, I confess: this is not a scientific, random sample poll. It’s an online survey in which we invited our 9 million email newsletter subscribers to take a survey. 2006 did and among those were 770 evangelicals. But the group came pretty close to representing random-sampling polls. 49 percent self described conservative, 37 percent moderate, 14 percent liberal. It's certainly a devout group: 76 percent go to church weekly or more)
       
And yet 60.7 percent said that in recent years their views about Republicans had become less positive. (51.5 percent said their views on Democrats had grown more negative). And 40.2 percent of the evangelicals surveyed favored the idea of Christians taking a "fast" from politics, compared to 30.7 percent who opposed the idea.
 
Keep in mind, this is not “religious right” voters who shifted. It’s moderate and liberal evangelicals who were concerned about the war and corruption. They’re also conservative on gay marriage and abortion but were more worried about these other issues.
(Super Arcane Polling Postscript: Kevin’s second argument is that such a change is meaningless because it wasn’t more than the general 5% general shift.   Chicken-and-egg alert: Given the size of church-going bloc, wouldn’t a shift among them help cause a general shift?) 
 
So for me, the bottom line is that there was indeed a meaningful shift among churchgoing Christians toward the Democrats and that there is a real dissatisfaction among many moderate evangelicals with the Republican Party. But because it was triggered by two issues – Iraq and corruption – that cant be counted on in 2008, the Democrats will have to take some fairly dramatic steps to solidify these temporary gains.
 
 
       
 

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