Fool’s Errand

How to quantify a candidate's religiosity

Late Thursday, the Associated Press published the results of a Pew Research Center poll that sought to discern which presidential hopefuls people view as being “the most religious.”

Admittedly, the press is in a double bind when something as hard to pin down as religion is a very real part of how people will vote. However, the use of “religious” as an adjective that can be easily measured—the same way that “tall” or “rich” are used adjectively—raises the question of how the highly complex and wholly unquantifiable subject of religious belief is presented in the media. More worrisome still is how this ill-fated attempt to bring some clarity to the issue results in pure speculation regarding a candidate’s faith being quickly transformed into percentages and quotable facts.

To wit, the AP’s headline: “Poll: Clinton, Giuliani Least Religious.” It clearly implies that Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, both at the top of the national polls for their respective parties, are not perceived as religious by voters. However, as the AP’s story unfolds, the significance assigned to the numbers begins to unravel.

The poll concludes that seven in ten voters—including “broad majorities of both parties”—think it important for a candidate to have “strong religious beliefs.” This would seem to give great advantage to Mitt Romney, who came out with a winning 46 percent of the “very religious” votes, and a disadvantage to Clinton and Giuliani, who received 16 percent and 14 percent respectively. However, the numbers also point out that Romney’s religion in fact may hurt him because of voter discomfort with Mormonism. Furthermore, there is no indication of whether the 30 percent of those surveyed who do not consider it important that a candidate have strong religious beliefs would actually find it a positive if a candidate was perceived as less religious.

The survey concludes that religion is “not always the most important factor, but one important factor” for voters. This statement is about as mushy as they come, and if you ignore the headline and read to the end of the AP article, you pretty much arrive at the same place—nowhere.

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.