The Christian right, which has been the focus of intense debate in the Republican Party, is a far more diverse group in terms of geography, politics and religious doctrine than is generally suggested either by critics or vocal proponents, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows.
Predictably, these Christians are more conservative on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality than most Americans and even most Republicans. But from there, the caricature of Republican Southerners following a monolithic religious agenda breaks down.
Many Americans who describe themselves as conservative Christians reject any attempt to lump themselves into a "movement," preferring to describe themselves in specific doctrinal terms. Some said they resented being associated with conservative Christian figures such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell. They are as likely to be Democrats as Republicans. And while they are disproportionately from the South, conservative Christians live in all parts of the country.
While the poll indicates that there is a genuine division within the Republican Party over the appropriate role of its religious-oriented groups, it suggests that the debate cannot be painted in the sort of black-and-white terms offered by either side.
Many Republican leaders have denounced as bigots those who criticize the influence of religious groups in the party. But four out of 10 rank-and-file Republicans said they, too, were worried that the growing influence of these people could divide the party, and a majority of Americans said they did not consider it proper for politicians to preach on the campaign trail or for preachers to talk politics from the pulpit.
Nearly one-third of Republicans said that the political involvement of the religious right strengthened their party.
Cynthia Swarthout, a 28-year-old homemaker from Willard, N.Y.,
said religious conservatives like herself could save the Republican Party. "If we went back to what we should be according to the Bible, we wouldn't be having half the problems we have now," she said.
In the nationwide telephone poll of 1,339 adults, conducted July 14 to 17, 9 percent identified themselves as part of the religious right. Those who identify with the religious right are overwhelmingly Protestant and far more likely to attend religious services every week than other Americans.
Most Americans, the poll showed, perceive the religious right as overwhelmingly Republican. But while most people who identify with the religious right voted for George Bush in the 1992 presidential election, they split almost equally in their affiliations between Republicans and Democrats. Their educational backgrounds are roughly the same as those of all Americans.
According to the poll, only half considered themselves to be evangelical, fundamentalist or charismatic in their religious beliefs.
The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for all adults, 5 percentage points for those who identified themselves as Republicans and 11 percentage points for those who identified themselves as members of the religious right.
The poll found that conservative Christians disagree sharply with most Republicans on the issues of abortion and homosexuality. Sixty-five percent of the religious right said abortion should not be available at all, while among all Republicans, 28 percent held that position.
One in 10 members of the religious right said homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle, while among Republicans, 30 percent said it should be.