On President’s Day, Pew Research highlighted the religious faith of America’s presidents:
With the exception of Democrat Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), all of the presidential hopefuls are Christians and most are Protestants.
In addition, all of the current presidential candidates have spoken openly about the importance of faith in their lives (again, with the exception of Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious”). Our recent survey shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say that it’s important for a president to share their religious beliefs. And more people now say there is “too little” religious discussion by their political leaders (40%) than say there is “too much” (27%).
Historically, about a quarter of the presidents – including some of the nation’s most famous leaders, like George Washington, James Madison and Franklin Roosevelt – were members of the Episcopal Church, the American successor to the Church of England.
The next largest group of presidents were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, which has roots in Scotland. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, all of whom had Scots-Irish ancestry, were among the commanders in chief who belonged to the denomination.
Protestants have dominated the office yet just two denominations – Episcopalians and Presbyterians – have supplied nearly half (19 out of 43) of the presidents. Arguably, Americans might not care exactly what denomination or particular doctrinal beliefs a president has as long as they identify as a Christian. This may be part of American civil religion where particularities are not encouraged but a general Christian faith is helpful.
In a continuing trend, a sizable number of Americans say they are unwilling to vote for atheists for president though more younger voters are open to it:
As the 2016 presidential election field takes shape, more than nine in 10 Americans say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, black, Hispanic or Jewish. Less than half of Americans would vote for a candidate who is a socialist…
Among religious identities, while the large majority of Americans would vote for a Catholic or Jewish presidential candidate, smaller majorities say they would vote for a candidate who is Mormon (81%), an evangelical Christian (73%), Muslim (60%) or an atheist (58%)…
At least two-thirds of adults younger than 30 say they are willing to vote for a candidate with any of the characteristics included in the survey.
How this influences the 2016 election remains to be seen.
Since Tim Tebow was traded from the Denver Broncos to the New York Jets, a number of commentators have suggested that Tebow was headed for the secular or even “heathen” city. However, some statistics suggest that the New York City region is more religious than the national as a whole though it is less conservative Protestant:
While New York has a reputation for godlessness, both city and state actually have higher rates of membership in organized religion than the country as a whole. In 2000, the proportion of state residents who belonged to some religious body was 76 percent — compared with 61 percent in the United States as a whole — according to an analysis by Queens College sociologist Andrew Beveridge. Even higher numbers specifically for the tristate region put it in the top 9 percent of urban areas in terms of religiosity, ahead of Salt Lake City and Little Rock.
Still, those who raised their eyebrows about Tebow’s arrival had a point. While New York is very religious, it isn’t religious in Tebow’s way: conservative Protestant. The state has proportionally far more Jews and Catholics than the rest of the country. The percentage of Muslims is only 2 percent — but that’s double the figure in America at large. In contrast, while the national proportion of conservative Protestants is 28 percent, the state population is 5 percent.
So it may not be Tebow’s being religious that raises eyebrows. Rather, it could be conservative Protestantism’s tendency to involve public proclamation. New Yorkers believe just as much, but they are less likely to talk about it openly.
It will be fascinating to see what happens. While the New York City region may be familiar with religion, it is a different mix of religions compared to other places.
The measure of belonging to a religious body could be telling – is this less about religious beliefs and practices and more about the social activity of being a member of a religious congregation or institution? If so, I wonder if this is tied to education levels. Several recent studies suggest that attending church is more common among those with higher levels of education. Other studies suggest that religion is not uncommon or unknown among professors and scientists.
Americans are considered to be a generally religious people, particularly compared to other Western nations. However, new findings from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggest that being religious doesn’t necessarily lead to being knowledgeable about faith traditions:
Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn’t know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ.
Respondents to the survey were asked 32 questions with a range of difficulty, including whether they could name the Islamic holy book and the first book of the Bible, or say what century the Mormon religion was founded. On average, participants in the survey answered correctly overall for half of the survey questions.
Atheists and agnostics scored highest, with an average of 21 correct answers, while Jews and Mormons followed with about 20 accurate responses. Protestants overall averaged 16 correct answers, while Catholics followed with a score of about 15.
So there are two interesting findings: people who are Protestants or Catholics can only answer about half of the questions correctly and they are outperformed by atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons.
It is interesting to think why this may be the case. Do Protestants and Catholics emphasize doctrine less? Can people be more of “cultural” Protestants and Catholics as opposed to dedicated followers? Does the minority/smaller group status of the other groups, atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons, mean that people who are in these faiths have to be more serious, intentional, or knowledgeable?