WPO Poll Analysis: American Evangelicals are Divided on International Policy

WPO Poll Analysis: American Evangelicals are Divided on International Policy

October 2, 2006

Decreasing Support for Bush Administration Positions Mirrors that of Nation

Published November 11, 2006

Evangelical Christians are far from united on foreign policy, an analysis of recent polls by WorldPublicOpinion.org shows, and their support for the war in Iraq has fallen dramatically.

Republicans have come to rely on the support of “value voters” who can be counted on to choose candidates based on their opposition to abortion or gay marriage. But this year, with Democratic candidates focusing on international issues in an attempt to turn the election into a referendum on the Iraq war, the unhappiness of many evangelical or born-again Christians with the Bush administration’s handling of foreign affairs could prove crucial.

Many evangelicals who profess no party affiliation—a potentially decisive swing vote—agree with Democrats on key issues. Most disapprove of how Congress is handling its job (67%) and half (53%) say they want a candidate who will pursue a “new approach” to foreign policy. Half of these independent evangelicals are also dissatisfied with the U.S. position in the world today (52%) and a majority says Bush administration policies have increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks (64%).

Most evangelicals oppose keeping U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely. A March 2006 WPO poll found that sixty percent believed U.S. troops should either be decreased (40%) or withdrawn completely (20%). In October 2004, only 28 percent of evangelicals overall wanted U.S. forces in Iraq to be decreased (14%) or withdrawn (14%). Among Americans who do not say they are evangelicals, 70 percent wanted to bring troops home from Iraq, including 28 percent who thought all should leave, according to the March 2006 poll.

This analysis is based on three surveys of American adults conducted by WPO and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. The most recent poll covered American views on foreign policy and took place Oct. 6-15, 2006 (1,058 respondents). U.S. attitudes on the Iraq war were examined in a survey fielded March 1-6, 2006 (851 respondents), and a more general poll of voter attitudes was conducted before the last national election on Oct. 12-18, 2004 (968 respondents).

The percentage of all evangelical voters who say they plan to vote for Democratic lawmakers this year is significantly greater than it was in the 2004 elections, though the number planning to vote Republican is roughly the same. Forty-one percent of evangelicals say they intend to vote for Democratic congressional candidates while 56 percent plan to choose Republicans. Two years ago, only 29 percent of evangelical Christians said they would vote for Democratic candidates while 59 percent favored Republicans.
This year there are fewer undecided evangelical voters. Only 4 percent say they do not know which party’s candidate they will vote for, compared to 12 percent in 2004. Thus it appears that Republicans have less hope in this election of winning support among undecided evangelical Christians.

Although a plurality of evangelicals (44%) identify themselves as Republican, the remainder are divided evenly between Democrats (29%) and independents (27%). But on the eve of the 2006 midterm, those evangelicals who do not profess a party affiliation seem to be leaning away from many administration positions.

Another recent poll, conducted by New York Times/CBS News found that self-described evangelicals are evenly divided between those who plan to vote for Democrats (42%) and Republicans (41%). This poll, conducted Oct. 27-31 nationwide, found that 17 percent of evangelical Christians were undecided.

Divisions on Key International Issues

On foreign policy questions, evangelicals tend to be evenly divided. Among the most contentious issues in the 2006 election is whether Bush administration policies are increasing or decreasing the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the United States. An overwhelming majority of Democrats (80%) say the administration’s policies have increased the danger of such an attack, while most Republicans (69%) say the likelihood has gone down.

Evangelicals are roughly divided on this question: 53 percent say the danger of attack has decreased; 45 percent say it has increased. Those who identify themselves as Republicans, however, are even more likely than Republicans as a whole to say Bush administration policies have decreased the danger of terrorism (83%). Evangelicals who say they are independents lean with the Democrats on this issue: 64 percent say a terrorist attack has become more likely.

On the question of whether the United States needs to change its approach to international relations, evangelicals are again divided. Fifty percent of evangelical Christians say they prefer candidates who will pursue a “new approach” to foreign policy, while 48 percent support the current approach. Overall seven in ten Americans (71%) favor changing course, including 91 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans.

Evangelicals are also evenly divided on the question of whether the U.S. government “plays on people’s fears too much” when it justifies its foreign policies to the American people. Forty-nine percent of evangelicals agree—and 49 percent disagree—with this statement. Democrats are nearly unanimous in their agreement with the statement (87%) while a majority of Republicans (61%) disagree. Most independent evangelical Christians favor the Democratic position, with 70 percent saying the administration is playing too much on Americans’ fears.

Support for Military Methods but also for the U.N.

Evangelical Christians tend to believe a strong military is important in the fight against terrorism. Asked whether the Bush administration should put more emphasis on military or diplomatic and economic methods, about half of evangelicals (51%) say military methods, slightly more than Republicans overall (44%) and much more than Democrats (19%). But nearly as many evangelicals (44%) say the administration should put greater emphasis on diplomacy, compared to 52 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats. Americans overall favor greater emphasis on diplomatic and economic methods rather than military means, 67 percent to 28 percent.

In contrast to Republicans, who tend to oppose more U.S. cooperation with the United Nations, evangelicals are divided on the issue. Forty-eight percent say the United States should be willing to make decisions within the United Nations “even if this means that the United States will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice,” while 46 percent disagree. A majority of Republicans (56%) disagree with such an approach, while three in five Americans overall support it (61%).

A majority of evangelicals think that the United States should strengthen the United Nations’ ability to deal with international conflicts so that the United States can “move away from its role as world policeman and reduce the burden of its large defense budget.” Fifty-seven percent of evangelicals agree with this statement, while 38 percent disagree. That’s considerably less than the percentage of Democrats who agree (84%), but more than the proportion of Republicans (53% agree, 44% disagree).

Pessimism about Chances of Success in Iraq

Evangelical Christians have become less confident that the U.S. operation in Iraq will succeed, although they still tend to be more optimistic about the ultimate success of the effort than non-evangelicals. In October 2004, about half of evangelicals (54%) said they were confident the U.S. effort in Iraq would succeed (28% not confident), while only a third (34%) of non-evangelicals were (49% not confident). By March 2006, confidence about the war among evangelicals had dropped 11 points to 43 percent, roughly the same proportion as those who said they were not confident (42%). Among non-evangelicals confidence of success in Iraq fell to 24% (63% not confident).

There is growing awareness among evangelical Christians that most arms experts have concluded Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States’ 2003 invasion. Two years ago, seven out of ten evangelicals (68%) said either that most experts thought Iraq had WMD (49%) or that expert opinion was “evenly divided” (19%). Less than one in three (28%) said, correctly, that experts largely agreed Iraq did not have such weapons. By March 2006, 52 percent said experts mostly agreed there were no WMD in Iraq while those saying experts thought Iraq had WMD (28%) or were divided on the issue (18%) had dropped to 46 percent.

Evangelical support for a full or partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq has also grown significantly over the past two years. In 2004, most evangelicals (68%) said the United States’ military presence in Iraq should be maintained (36%) or increased (32%). Less than a third (28%) said U.S. forces should be decreased (14%) or withdrawn completely (14%). By March 2006, the proportion favoring a reduction (40%) or total withdrawal (20%) had grown to 60 percent while those wanting to maintain (28%) or increase (11%) troops had shrunk to 39 percent.

Evangelicals who stated no party affiliation showed the most change on this issue: those wanting troops reduced or withdrawn rose 38 points (24% to 62%). Many evangelicals who identified themselves as Republicans also shifted position on this issue. Whereas 12 percent of this group favored a full or partial withdrawal in 2004, 47 percent supported such action in 2006.

METHODOLOGICAL NOTE: For the purposes of this analysis, respondents who said they were independents were counted as independents, even if in later questions they indicated that they leaned Republican or Democrat. In most political polling it is standard practice to count independents who say they lean toward Republicans or Democrats as affiliated with that party. This is done in order to analyze the views of those who feel some affinity—strong or weak—with one of the two major parties. For this article, however, all those who said initially they were independents were counted as independent in order to better understand the attitudes of people without a strong sense of party affiliation.


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