As 2011 draws to a close, it’s hard to pick just a few highlights from a year full of exciting findings at the intersection of religion and politics. As the economic crisis continued, the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement captured public attention much as the Tea Party movement did in 2010. Despite the dominant focus on the economy, American attitudes on other issues like same-sex marriage and abortion evolved in 2011, driven largely by the distinctive values of the Millennial generation. Americans also struggled with their commitments to the principles of pluralism and inclusion and the application of these principles, especially with regard to immigrants and religious minorities like Muslim Americans.
Below, we’ve compiled 11 key findings from Public Religion Research Institute, drawn from interviews with over 22,000 Americans in 2011.
1.Occupy Wall Street Matches the Tea Party in Influence. Equal numbers of Americans say the Occupy Wall Street movement shares their values as say the Tea Party movement shares their values (29 percent each). The Tea Party is more likely than OWS to resonate with white evangelical Protestants, while OWS is more likely to resonate with minority Christians and religiously unaffiliated Americans.
2.Support for Same-sex Marriage is No Longer a Minority Position. At the midpoint of the year, PRRI was one of four national public polls showing slim majority (51 percent) support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Subsequent 2011 surveys show a slight decline in support from the May high, but a plurality continue to support same-sex marriage. Among religious groups, Catholics stand out. While the Catholic bishops and church hierarchy strongly oppose same-sex marriage, a majority of American Catholics (52 percent) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. More than 7-in-10 (72 percent) of Catholics also say that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society.
3.Views on Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage Decoupling. Fueled by the distinct profile of the Millennial generation, the same-sex marriage debate is becoming increasingly unmoored from the abortion debate. While majority support for legalized abortion has remained steady over the past decade (57 percent support in 1999, compared to 56 percent support in 2011), the percentage of Americans who say that marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid has grown nearly 20 points over the same period, from 35 percent in 1999 to 53 percent in 2011.
4.Americans Continue to Struggle with Muslims’ Place in American Society. A majority (54 percent) of Americans agree that American Muslims are an important part of the religious community in the U.S., compared to 43 percent who disagree. However, significant numbers of Americans report being at least somewhat uncomfortable with public expressions of the Muslim faith such as a mosque being built in their neighborhood (46 percent), a Muslim woman wearing a burqa (48 percent), or Muslim men kneeling to pray at an airport (45 percent).
5.Americans Register Serious Concerns about the Morality of Income Inequality. Overall, more Americans believe that Christian values are at odds with capitalism and the free market than believe they are compatible. A strong majority (60 percent) of Americans agree that the country would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal, and two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans say the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
6.Taxing the Wealthy and Raising the Minimum Wage Enjoy Broad Support. Americans strongly support government policies to reduce inequality at the top and the bottom of the income spectrum. Sixty-eight percent of Americans say that to reduce the deficit, it is fair to ask the wealthy to pay a higher tax rate than middle class or poor Americans. Seven in ten Americans strongly favor (43 percent) or favor (27 percent) “the Buffett Rule,” raising taxes on those with incomes greater than $1 million per year. Two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans also favor increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.00 an hour. Majorities of all religious groups support the Buffett Rule and raising the minimum wage.
7.Significant Numbers of White Americans Register Concerns about Reverse Discrimination. Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. A slim majority (51 percent) disagree. Among white working class Americans, 62 percent agree. Religious groups are largely divided along ethnic lines on this question .
8.Americans are Divided on Whether the American Dream Still Holds True Today. A plurality (48 percent) of Americans say the American Dream—if you work hard, you’ll get ahead—once held true but does not anymore, compared to 44 percent who say it still holds true today, and 6 percent who say it never held true. Republicans, men, and Hispanics are the groups most likely to say the American Dream still holds true today. Religious groups are divided along ethnic lines.
9.Millennials Distance Themselves from Traditional Church Teachings on Sexuality Issues. Churches holding traditional teachings on issues such as abstinence and same-gender sexual relationships may find themselves increasingly at odds with the Millennial generation. Nearly 7-in-10 (68 percent) Millennials believe that sex between an unmarried man and women is morally acceptable, and more than 6-in-10 (62 percent) Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Moreover, nearly seven-in-ten (69 percent) say that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.
10. Americans Continue to Support a Comprehensive Approach to Immigration Reform that Includes a Path to Citizenship. Americans’ views on immigration policy are complex. But when Americans are asked to choose between a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that couples enforcement with a path to citizenship on the one hand, and an enforcement and deportation only approach on the other, Americans prefer the comprehensive approach to immigration reform over the enforcement only approach by a large margin (62 percent vs. 36 percent). Majorities of all religious groups support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform.
11. Voters Say it is Important for Presidential Candidates to have Strong Religious Beliefs. Two-thirds of voters say that it is very important (39 percent) or somewhat important (28 percent) for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs. Majorities of Republicans (78 percent), Democrats (66 percent) and Independents (58 percent) also agree.