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New Poll: Faith and Politics of Young Adults in the 2008 Election

October 8, 2008, 1:44 pm | Posted by Kristin Ford

Study details views and issue priorities of young Evangelicals and Catholics

WASHINGTON — Results of a new poll released today provide a groundbreaking look at the faith and political views of young people in the 2008 election cycle. Sponsored by Faith in Public Life and conducted by Public Religion Research, The Faith and American Politics Survey is a large national survey with an unprecedented over sample of Americans ages 18-34.

The poll’s results are analyzed in a new report, “The Young and the Faithful,” available online here: http://faithinpubliclife.org/content/faps/. Findings include:

• Monthly worship attenders swing to Obama in 2008. The greatest shift in candidate preference between 2004 and 2008 has occurred among voters who attend religious services once or twice a month, moving from 49% support for Kerry in 2004 to 60% support for Obama in 2008.

• More Americans think Obama is friendly to religion than McCain. Forty-nine percent of Americans say Obama is friendly to religion, while 45% say McCain is friendly to religion. More than seven-in-ten (71%) say it is important for public officials to be comfortable talking about religious values.

• Young first-time voters are heavily supporting Obama. Among young first-time voters, who make up close to one-third of this age group (ages 18-34), more than seven-in-ten (71%) support Obama, compared to slightly more than half (53%) of young voters who have voted in previous elections.

• Younger Catholics more strongly support Obama, abortion rights, and more active government than older Catholics. While older Catholics (age 35 and older) are split between the candidates (46% for McCain and 44% for Obama), among younger Catholics Obama leads McCain by 15 points (55% to 40%). Six-in-ten younger Catholics say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to half of older Catholics. Younger Catholics are more pro-government than any other religious group, with two-thirds preferring bigger government with more services, compared to 41% support among older Catholics.

• Younger white evangelicals strongly oppose abortion rights but are less conservative and more supportive of same-sex marriage than older evangelicals. Young white evangelicals are strongly opposed to abortion rights, with two-thirds saying abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Yet, less than a majority (49%) of younger evangelicals identify as conservative, compared to nearly two-thirds (65%) of older evangelicals. Among young evangelicals, a majority favor either same-sex marriage (24%) or civil unions (28%), compared to a majority (61%) of older evangelicals who favor no legal recognition of gay couples’ relationships.

• Younger white evangelicals are more pluralistic and more supportive of active government at home and of diplomacy abroad. While less than one-third (30%) of older evangelicals say a person can be moral without believing in God, 44% of younger evangelicals affirm this idea, a 14-point gap. A majority (56%) of younger evangelicals believe diplomacy rather than military strength is the best way to ensure peace, compared to only 44% of older white evangelicals. Younger white evangelicals are also more likely than older white evangelicals to favor a bigger government offering more services, by a margin of 21 points (44% and 23% respectively).

• Americans say economy, energy and gas prices, and health care are the most important issues in 2008. Americans rank the economy (83%) and energy/gas prices (76%), and health care (71%) as the most important issues in the 2008 election. Economic issues topped the list of most important issues among all religious groups.

• Americans rank abortion and same-sex marriage as the least important issues in 2008. Only 43% and 28% respectively say these issues are very important issues to their vote in 2008. White evangelicals do not rank abortion or same-sex marriage in their top five most important voting issues.

• Americans see room for common ground in abortion debate. A majority (53%) of Americans believe political leaders can work to find common ground on abortion while staying true to their core beliefs, including majorities of white mainline Protestants (59%), Catholics (55%), and the unaffiliated (52%).

• Generation gap on same-sex marriage is large and increasing. Nearly half (46%) of young adults say gay couples should be allowed to marry, compared to only 29% of Americans overall. Over the last two years, support for same-sex marriage among young adults has jumped 9 points (from 37% to 46%), and the generation gap has nearly doubled.

• Support for same-sex marriage is significant among young religious Americans. Among young white mainline Protestants and Catholics, close to half (48% and 44% respectively) support same-sex marriage. Young white evangelicals are 2.5 times as likely as older evangelicals to say that gay couples should be allowed to marry (25% to 9%).

• Addressing religious liberty concerns strongly increases support for same-sex marriage. When respondents were provided with an assurance that “no church or congregation would be required to perform marriages for gay couples,” support for same-sex marriage increased by 14 points in the general population and among younger adults.

• Young adults prefer larger government that provides increased services. Nearly six-in-ten (57%) young adults say they prefer a larger government providing more services rather than a smaller government providing fewer services. Among Americans as a whole, less than half (45%) want bigger government. The generation gap is evident among every religious tradition. Two-thirds (67%) of younger Catholics say they prefer bigger government, and younger white evangelicals are 21 points more likely than older evangelicals to support larger government (44% to 23% respectively).

The results of the survey are based on telephone interviews with a representative sample of 2,000 American adults and an over sample of 1,250 younger adults (18-34), including both land line and cell phone interviews. The survey was conducted under the supervision of Opinion Access Corp August 28 – September 19, 2008.

The survey’s findings were announced on a conference call with journalists this morning.

“Younger Americans, including younger Americans of faith, are not the culture war generation. On issues from gay and lesbian rights to the role of government at home and around the world, young Catholics, mainline protestants and evangelicals are bridging the divides that entrenched their elders and ushering in an era of consensus in which the common good trumps the clash of ideologies,” said Dr. Robert Jones, President of Public Religion Research and lead analyst of the poll.

“As we go forward, expect to see young people across faiths focusing more and more on issues that reflect a concern for America’s image in the world and how our government treats the least of these at home and abroad. Expect to see the dividing lines of the culture wars continue to fade,” said Katie Paris, Director of Communications Strategy at Faith in Public Life.

D. Michael Lindsay, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and author of Faith In The Halls of Power and Amy Sullivan, author of The Party Faithful provided expert analysis of the poll on this morning’s conference call.

“Younger believers—including Catholics and white evangelicals—are significantly more supportive of bigger government and expanding diplomatic efforts abroad. It’s not surprising, therefore, that they are supporting some of the ideas put forward by the Democrats in 2008. It may very well be that in this election, the conventional wisdom about the ‘values voters’—who they are and what they want—gets turned on its head,” said Lindsay.

“A lot of us have found that there is a change going on within religious communities and younger members of these religious traditions have been even more pronounced in this broadening agenda. This is the first poll to provide the data to show this,” said Sullivan.


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