Image: Mitt Romney
Ted S. Warren  /  AP file
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, bows his head in prayer as he stands on stage with local elected officials including Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl, left, during a campaign rally on Feb. 3 in Elko, Nev.
By
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/22/2012 11:37:39 AM ET 2012-03-22T15:37:39

In an election campaign season in which issues such as birth control and gay marriage have made headlines, a growing number of Americans think political leaders are talking too much religion, according to a new national survey.

The survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds signs of uneasiness over the mixing of religion and politics.

Nearly four in 10 Americans (38 percent) say there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders -- an all-time high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question more than a decade ago. Thirty percent say there has been too little.

Most Americans (54 percent) continue to say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics. It’s the third consecutive poll conducted over the past four years in which more people have said churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics than said they should express their views on social and political topics, according to Pew. That's also an about-face from 2006, when 51 percent of Americans believed churches should speak out and 46 percent said they should keep quiet.

The view that there is too much expression of religious faith by politicians remains far more widespread among Democrats than Republicans, and there are also divisions within the GOP primary electorate.

Fifty-seven percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who favor Mitt Romney (a Mormon) for the presidential nomination say churches should keep out of political matters. By contrast, 60 percent of GOP voters who support Rick Santorum (a devout Catholic) say that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions.

And while more than half (55 percent) of Santorum’s supporters say there is too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders, just one in four (24 percent) of Romney’s backers agree.

Santorum has worked hard on the campaign trail to court conservative Christian voters, and the former Pennsylvania senator has talked openly about the journey of his faith in visits to evangelical churches.

Kimberly Conger, a political science instructor at Colorado State University who has studied the intersection of religion and politics, says the latest Pew findings are not surprising.

“Religious people's opinions on the relationship between religion and politics seem to be driven by their political identity more than their religious one. These results bear that out,” she said by email to msnbc.com.

“Republicans are less likely to think there is too much religious talk by political leaders, and Republicans are hearing more such talk than Democrats. It is also unsurprising that there has been a slight uptick in the overall number of people uncomfortable with religious talk since the Republican primary has had some significant religious overtones.”

As to whether politicians should steer clear of religion on the campaign trail, Conger says it depends.

“It's clear from the breakdown of religious and political groups that Rick Santorum ought to keep talking about religion as long as he's fighting for the Republican nomination. But if he were to win the nomination, he'd have to start appealing to independents, a key voting group that's uncomfortable with candidates' religious talk,” she says.

“They key challenge in the general election will be for Republicans to broaden their appeal by toning down religious talk. But the data suggest that Democrats face a similar if less intense challenge in broadening their appeal by appearing more welcoming to religious beliefs. Both sides will have a fine line to walk.”

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Santorum courts Evangelical voters

  1. Closed captioning of: Santorum courts Evangelical voters

    >> church outside of baton rouge sunday night with tony perkens and the family research counsel and pastor dennis terry who gave a fiery introduction.

    >> you don't like the way we do things, i have one thing to say, get out! we don't worship voodoo, we don't worship mohammed, we don't worship ala, we worship god . we worship god 's son jesus christ .

    >> thank you, father, for senator rick santorum . i pray your blessings, father, upon him, his dear wife and their precious children. and we pray tonight, father, for your will to be done in this upcoming election.

    >> hogan gidley communications director for the santorum campaign and joins us now. pastor terry then also prays for president obama . so it was a longer prayer at the end of the service. some questions have been raised about this issue. i know that what rick santorum said last night is that he's always stood for religious freedom . do you think he should have separated himself from pastor terry who was many people believe criticizing other religions, including, muslim religions and as well as hinduism?

    >> you just through making the point which is true that rick santorum 's for religious freedom for everybody. and then you asked me shun he condemn what the pastor said in his own church? he was talking about jesus and said we worship jesus and made the point other religions worship other things. why would santorum criticize that if he's for religious freedom ? that's what makes the country great. that's the theme, it's about freedom and that's what the election is about and that's what rick was talking about as soon as he left that church. of course introduction was not for rick. it was for tony perkins . there are a lot of little things here and the media likes to get in a frenzy about throws things but bottom line is santorum has been consistent and it's about religious freedom .

    >> an introduction for santorum on the stage with tony perkins and there was a q&a there. what about the fact that pastor terry said get out, get out if you don't worship jesus ? he was saying if you don't believe in america. equatesing people who don't worship jesus with people who don't believe in america.

    >> no, i don't think that's what he was doing. i'm not going to speak for the paster. that's up to him to defend. the fact of the matter is he's a pastor of a christian church , talking about his views and beliefs and he's perfectly able and -- perfectly able to do that in a free country . i mean i don't really see what the big deal is.

    >> karen santorum said last night that women should not worry about her husband because he would not take any steps against contraception. she seemed to be trying very hard to reassure women voters, independent women voter whose have had some concerns about the issue this year. is that the case, that if he becomes president of the united states he's not going to take, quote, any steps against contraception?

    >> she wasn't trytrying. she was stating the fact. rick's been candid about this in public, he's perfectly fine with the women's right to contra contracepti contraception. he was clear that he was against partial birth abortion . he wrote a bill, got it through congress, and now we outlawed partial birth abortion . he was very clear that contraception in the past is a woman's right. in the same way he didn't pass any legislation, wouldn't pass any legislation and has been clear that states untheir own constitution have the right to do it but he would oppose such effort because that's up it a woman's right.

    >> does he oppose some of the efforts that have gone on in almost 19 states i now believe? there's the law in arizona that jan brewer said she wouldn't sign. the issue in pennsylvania, rick santorum 's home state , of course, of having sonograms before abortion procedures that governor corbett has become criticized, widely criticizes for his comments on. what does he think about the state initiatives?

    >> i can't speak to every state because i don't know what every state initiative is. you have to ask rick that question more than me. he's been clear on the fact he wouldn't touch a women's right to conra tra ception at a state level. but you know this is a different topic. i can speak to that, that's something vie to find out from rick. you have ask him yourself. we'll try to get him on.

    >> on illinois , a state where you think you can win? you were behind on the delegates because you're not in four congressional districts . but what about the popular vote?

    >> i'm not sure. it's a very large state . we've been outspent, 6, 7-1. we think we'll do well in illinois tonight but of course, we don't hinge our campaign on one particular state here or there. last week mississippi and alabama i mean one candidate said they had to win there the other candidate promises he would win. we were saying we're going on to ill swil th illinois and then wisconsin and on. we don't put a lot of pressure on ourselves in that way. we know this is a campaign set for the long haul, it's structured that way. the money's there. we can keep this going for a long time. the support's there, we can keep it going for a long time. the states usually don't get to be involved in this process in the way they are. usually a candidate has been picks and force fed to them. now they fetget a choice.

    >> you look like a man having a good time out there. thank you very much for joining us. we look forward.

    >> you look like you're having a good time, too, andrea.

    >> we always do. thank you.

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