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New Saint Leo University Polling Institute Survey Reveals at Least Half of Americans Want Political Leaders to Have a Spiritual Life

The Saint Leo University poll also shows Americans think President Biden should draw upon his faith in decision-making.

Politics and religious faith can intersect, as evidenced by the most recent Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey. The new poll (http://polls.saintleo.edu) shows that majorities of respondents somewhat or strongly agree that President Joe Biden should use his faith in decision-making, that politicians are right to use their faith in making policy, and it’s important that politicians are spiritual — 56.4 percent, 53.1 percent, and 54.8 percent respectively.

The 2021 poll was conducted online February 7-14, among 1,000 total respondents nationally. The resulting margin of error for the results is 3.0 percentage points in either direction. The institute completed a parallel study during the same time period in Florida among 500 respondents, and the resulting margin of error is 4.5 percentage points in either direction.

Holy-Trinity-Catholic-Church-where-President-Biden-attends-Mass“I think a key distinction here is that between institutional religion and its role in politics on the one hand, and personal faith and spirituality and their role in politics on the other,” said Dr. Marc Pugliese, associate professor of religion and theology and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Biden talks far more about his ‘faith’ and its role in his personal life than his ‘religion’ or his being Catholic. I think that those who view Biden’s faith positively and agree that it should influence his decision-making are seeing this as his ‘personal’ faith and spirituality, not the fact that he is Catholic or a member of an organized religion. Far fewer (30.3 percent) agreed that regardless of who they voted for or supported in November 2020, President Biden’s Catholic faith made them more inclined to support his candidacy,” Pugliese said, referring to the results from another question posed by the polling institute. 

Saint Leo’s poll asked those being surveyed to take a look at some statements about faith and politics. For each, respondents were asked to indicate if they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed. The cumulative totals for those strongly and somewhat agreeing are presented below and broken out by national respondents, national respondents who identified as Catholic, Florida (the home of Saint Leo University) respondents:

  • Test statement - President Biden should use his faith to guide him in decision-making: 56.4 percent of the national sample agree, as do 67.4 percent of Catholics polled from the national sample. From Florida, 55.8 percent of the poll respondents agree.
  • Test statement - Politicians are right to use faith when making policy: 53.1 percent of the national sample agree, along with 59.8 percent of Catholics in the national sample. And from the Florida sample, 55.4 percent agree.
  • Test statement - It is important to me that politicians are spiritual and have deep faith: 54.8 percent of those polled nationally agree, while among the national sample of Catholics polled, agreement is 63.5 percent. In Florida, 59.6 percent of the state sample agree.
  • Test statement - I’m OK with politicians citing Scripture while making an argument or taking a position: 54.4 percent of the national sample agrees and nearly the same percentage of Catholics agree at 54.2 percent. In Florida, 57.2 percent agree.
  • Test statement - Too many politicians use public displays of faith to gain votes and promote their image: Almost exactly two-thirds, at 65.6 percent nationally, agree with this statement, as do 65.7 percent of Catholics in the national survey base. The Florida sample results matched the national results with 65.6 percent agreeing.
  • Test statement - Despite whom, in the end, I supported or how I voted in 2020, President Biden’s Catholic faith made me more inclined to support his candidacy: 30.3 percent nationally agree with this as do 39.5 percent of Catholics nationally. From the Florida sample, 32.4 percent say they agree.

Noting that 67.4 percent of Catholics surveyed nationally say the president should use his faith as guidance, Dr. Stephen Okey, assistant professor of religion and theology, said, “Biden is generally regarded as being authentic in his religious and spiritual commitments. While some commentators criticize those positions he holds that are contrary to Catholic teaching, most still recognize that his invocation of his faith is authentic, not performative or transactional. This is evident in that throughout his public career, he has been consistent in Mass attendance, in invoking his Catholic faith, and in referencing the texts, hymns, and traditions from the Catholic faith. That authenticity wins him significant support, especially among younger demographics who place authenticity at a premium.”

The poll shows 61.4 percent of those ages 18 to 35 agree (somewhat or strongly) that the current president should use his faith to make decisions; while 58.5 percent of those 36 to 55 and 52.9 percent of those 56 and older, agree. In addition, poll respondents in the youngest group (18-35), voice the most agreement with the statement that Biden’s Catholic faith influenced their support of him, at 43.6 percent. Among those 36 to 55, 35.4 percent agree, as do 21.4 percent of those in the oldest group, 56 and older.

“One question this raises is whether their support [ages 18-35] is because they respect President Biden for living out his faith—personal integrity in ‘walking the talk’—without necessarily agreeing with him, or whether their support is because his values match up with their own,” Pugliese said. “I think the answer here is not a simple ‘either-or.’”

Support for Biden using his faith to guide his plans was strong among those who say they are members of a religion: 67.2 percent of Catholics, 65.6 of non-Catholic Christians, and 60.6 of those of other religions. Among those who say they do not belong to a religion, 23.7 agree that the president should be guided by his faith.

Among the 1,000 respondents, Saint Leo polled 271 Catholics; 410 non-Catholic Christians; 198 non-religious; and 104 members of other religions. Seventeen respondents were not sure.

“As far as the younger demographics, ages 18-35, this might seem surprising given the relatively higher rates of religious disaffiliation among younger people in the U.S.,” said Okey, the religion and theology professor. “However, we must keep in mind that still roughly half of the U.S. millennial population identifies as Christian and that the ‘nones’ [no religion] are not monolithic in their postures towards spirituality and religion. Many continue to identify with important parts of religious traditions they were raised with, while many others pick and choose among the beliefs and practices of a range of traditions.”

“Institutional religion is on the decline in America, but personal faith and spirituality are not,” Pugliese said. “The number of Americans who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’ [SBNR]—where ‘but not religious’ typically means not affiliated with an organized religion—continues to rise.”

The recent Saint Leo poll also shows majorities agree (somewhat or strongly) that too many politicians use public displays of faith only to gain votes (65.6 percent), and that they are OK with politicians citing Scripture when taking a position (54.4 percent).

Photo: Since becoming president, Joe Biden has attended Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, DC, the same parish he frequented as vice president. This photo of the church’s exterior is from the church’s Facebook page.

To read about some of the other discoveries the Saint Leo University Polling Institute made in surveying the public about recently, visit all the content: http://polls.saintleo.edu. Topics include national and Florida politics, the popularity of Pope Francis, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and attitudes toward climate change. You can also follow the institute on Twitter @SaintLeoPolls.

Media contact

Mary McCoy, Saint Leo University, University Writer & Media Relations, mary.mccoy02@saintleo.edu, (352) 588-7118 or cell (813) 610-8416.

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