Call it the state’s Great Divide.
In an election year when religion has been thrust onto center stage in a number of races, a Civil Beat poll found that 11 percent of likely voters believe Christianity should play an official role in setting government policy, with an additional 6 percent saying that the best teachings of all the world’s religions should do the same.
But many more people — 43 percent of likely voters — believe that Christianity should have no role at all, according to the automated telephone poll conducted for Civil Beat by Aloha Vote, a subsidiary of Merriman River Group (MRG), a Connecticut research firm. The survey of 1151 likely voters on Oct. 11 has a margin of error of +/- 2.9 percent.
In the middle are 38 percent of voters, who believe that religion should have no official role in government, but that there are important religious teachings that probably should at least be considered when setting policy.
“What surprised me is how many people said no role at all,” said Seth Rosenthal, director of polling for Merriman. “That is the liberal position. Seventy percent of liberals said none. That’s the big liberal position. Keep it out completely.”
Where the dividing lines fall could be seen by comparing the views of those who approve strongly of President Obama’s performance in office and those who approve somewhat. Sixty-three percent of the first group said religion should play no role. That dropped off to 39 percent among those who “somewhat” approve of Obama. Of those who disapprove strongly of his performance, 23 percent believe Christianity should play an official role; 17 percent of those who disapprove somewhat feel the same way.
Civil Beat asked a question about religion and its role in government because the topic has taken central stage in the governor’s race and some other contests this year. The fight over civil unions — with Democrat Neil Abercrombie supporting the bill vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle and Republican James “Duke” Aiona, Lingle’s lieutenant governor, opposing it — opened a religious chasm. State Republican Party Chairman Local Jonah Kaauwai called on Christians to vote for Aiona as the only “righteous” candidate on the ballot and another group, Island Values, said Abercrombie’s values are “unacceptable” to Christians.
Here’s what we asked likely voters in our poll:
“The people of Hawaii have differing opinions on the role of religion in setting the government’s policies. Which of these common attitudes best describes your opinion?
Would you say that religion should have no role at all in setting government policy? Would you say that religion should have no official role in government, but that there are important religious teachings that probably should be at least considered when setting policy? Would you say that the best teachings of all the world’s religions should play an official role in setting policy? Or would you say that the teachings of Christianity, in particular, should play an official role in setting government policy?”
The responses split along party lines, with 19 percent of Aiona’s supporters saying that Christianity, in particular, should play an official role in government policy and just 2 percent of Abercrombie’s backers believing the same thing.
At the same time, 63 percent of Abercrombie supporters believe that religion should have no role in government policy, while just 22 percent of Aiona supporters feel the same way. (Aiona, a Catholic, is very public about his faith and speaks often about the role of prayer in his life. Abercrombie rarely talks about faith, although he provided a window on his views to a faith group last week)
The split is less pronounced in the 1st Congressional District, where religion hasn’t surfaced as a factor in the choice between GOP incumbent Charles Djou and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa. However the same trend applies, with 15 percent of Djou supporters believing Christianity should play an official role in government and 59 percent of Hanabusa backers believing religion should have no role.
As might be expected, evangelicals as a group believe most strongly that Christianity should play an official role, with 32 percent holding that view while just 8 percent of Catholics believe the same thing.
That didn’t suprise Merriman’s executive director, Matt Fitch.
“Evangelicals are practicing religous figures,” he said. “Catholicism is a big tent. In a large portion of the country, lapsed Catholic is considered the second largest religion next to practicing Catholic.”
The issue splits along party lines, with 21 percent of Republicans saying that Christianity should play an official role and 7 percent of Democrats feeling the same way. But a majority of Democrats, 52 percent, say religion should have no role, while 24 percent of Republicans say the same thing. A quarter of those who said they belonged to the Tea Party movement said Christianity should play an official role.
As for age, it’s the group from 25-49 with the highest percentage believing in an official role for Christianity, roughly 20 percent, while just 8 percent of likely voters over 65 felt the same way.
The question that will be answered on election day, Nov. 2, is whether organizing efforts by some churches will help Republican candidates make it over the top or whether, despite the passion of some in the conservative faith community, the numbers just aren’t there to make a difference.