Tue. 9:45 a.m.: Poll says voters open to candidates without deep religious faith

FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 file photo, a local resident leaves a church after voting in the general election in Cumming, Iowa. Religion's role in politics and social policies is in the spotlight heading toward the midterm elections, yet relatively few Americans consider it crucial that a candidate be devoutly religious or share their religious beliefs, according to an AP-NORC national poll conducted Aug. 16-20, 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

NEW YORK (AP) — Religion’s role in politics and public policy is in the spotlight heading toward the midterm elections, yet relatively few Americans consider it crucial that a candidate be devoutly religious or share their religious beliefs, according to a poll released today by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Just 25 percent of Americans say it’s very or extremely important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs, according to the poll. Only 19 percent consider it very or extremely important that a candidate shares their own beliefs, and nearly half say that’s not very important or not important at all.

Still, most Americans see a role for religion in shaping public policy. A solid majority of Americans — 57 percent — want the influence of religion on government policy to extend beyond traditional culture-war issues and into policies addressing poverty. Americans are more likely to say religion should have at least some influence on poverty than on abortion (45 percent) or LGBT issues (34 percent).

There is little public support for the campaign by some conservative religious leaders — backed by President Donald Trump — to allow clergy and religious organizations to endorse political candidates while retaining their tax-exempt status. Such a change is opposed by 53 percent of Americans and supported by 13 percent. The rest expressed no opinion.

Trump’s stance on political endorsements by clergy is one of many reasons he has retained strong support among white evangelical Christians, despite aspects of his behavior and personal life that don’t neatly align with Christian values. The AP-NORC poll found that 7 in 10 white evangelical Protestants say they approve of Trump.

The importance of a candidate’s religious faith varied across religious and political groups.

Among white evangelical Protestants, 51 percent consider it very or extremely important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs. An additional 25 percent think it’s moderately important. Far fewer Catholics and white mainline Protestants considered this important.

Roughly two-thirds of Republicans said it’s at least moderately important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs, compared with 37 percent of Democrats.

Jack Kane, an accountant from Key West, Florida, was among the Republican-leaning poll participants who said it wasn’t important to him whether a candidate was deeply religious.

“I’d much rather have a guy run the government and not spend all our money, instead of sounding off on what’s going on in the church or on things like abortion,” said Kane, 65, who describes himself as nonreligious. “Who is Catholic, Jewish, Southern Baptist — I could care less, as long as they’re going to carry the torch of freedom.”

Kent Jaquette, a Republican-turned-independent and a former United Methodist pastor who lives near San Antonio, said he does not base his choice of candidates on their religious faith.

“In politics, you need to look at a person where their morals are, where their values are,” he said. “It may or may not have anything to do with their religion.”

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