Religious devotion sets the United States apart from some of its closest allies. Americans profess unquestioning belief in God and are far more willing to mix faith and politics than people in other countries, AP-Ipsos polling found.
In Western Europe, where Pope Benedict XVI complains that growing secularism has left churches unfilled on Sundays, people are the least devout among the 10 countries surveyed for The Associated Press by Ipsos.
Only Mexicans come close to Americans in embracing faith, the poll found. But unlike Americans, Mexicans strongly object to clergy lobbying lawmakers, in line with the nation’s historical opposition to church influence.
A nation of many faiths
“In the United States, you have an abundance of religions trying to motivate Americans to greater involvement,” said Roger Finke, a sociologist at Penn State University. “It’s one thing that makes a tremendous difference here.”
The polling was conducted in May in the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Korea and Spain.
Nearly all U.S. respondents said faith is important to them and only 2 percent said they do not believe in God. Almost 40 percent said religious leaders should try to sway policymakers, notably higher than in other countries.
“Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian policies and religious leaders have an obligation to speak out on public policy, otherwise they’re wimps,” said David Black, a retiree from Osborne, Pa., who agreed to be interviewed after he was polled.
In contrast, 85 percent of French object to clergy activism — the strongest opposition of any nation surveyed. France has strict curbs on public religious expression and, according to the poll, 19 percent are atheists. South Korea is the only other nation with that high a percentage of nonbelievers.
Australians are generally split over the importance of faith, while two-thirds of South Koreans and Canadians said religion is central to their lives. People in all three countries strongly oppose mixing religion and politics.
Researchers disagree over why people in the United States have such a different religious outlook, said Brent Nelsen, an expert in politics and religion at Furman University in South Carolina.
Some say rejecting religion is a natural response to modernization and consider the United States a strange exception to the trend. Others say Europe is the anomaly; people in modernized countries inevitably return to religion because they yearn for tradition, according to the theory.
Some analysts, like Finke, use a business model. According to his theory, a long history of religious freedom in the United States created a greater supply of worship options than in other countries, and that proliferation inspired wider observance. Some European countries still subsidize churches, in effect regulating or limiting religious options, Finke said.
History also could be a factor.
Many countries other than the United States have been through bloody religious conflict that contributes to their suspicion of giving clergy any say in policy.
Mixing politics and religion
A variety of factors contribute to the sentiment about separating religion and politics.
“In Germany, they have a Christian Democratic Party, and they talk about Christian values, but they don’t talk about them in quite the same way that we do,” Nelsen said. “For them, the Christian part of the Christian values are held privately and it’s not that acceptable to bring those out into the open.”
In Spain, where the government subsidizes the Catholic Church, and in Germany, which is split between Catholics and Protestants, people are about evenly divided over whether they consider faith important. The results are almost identical in Britain, whose state church, the Church of England, is struggling to fill pews.
Italians are the only European exception in the poll. Eighty percent said religion is significant to them and just over half said they unquestioningly believe in God.
But even in Italy, home to the Catholic Church, resistance to religious engagement in politics is evident. Only three in 10 think the clergy should try to influence government decisions; a lower percentage in Spain, Germany and England said the same.
Policy debates on the pulpit
Within the United States, some of the most pressing policy issues involve complex moral questions — such as gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research — that understandably draw religious leaders into public debate, said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.
The poll found Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to think clergy should try to influence government decisions — a sign of the challenges ahead for Democrats as they attempt to reach out to more religious voters.
“Rightly or wrongly, Republicans tend to perceive religion as, quote-unquote, ‘on their side,”’ Green said.
The survey did find trends in belief that transcend national boundaries. Women tend to be more devout than men, and older people have stronger faith than younger people.
The Associated Press-Ipsos polls of about 1,000 adults in each of the 10 countries were taken May 12-26. Each has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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