Americans Divided on Whether Leaders Should Be Guided by Own Religious Beliefs

ST. LEO, FL – It’s been said that people in polite company don’t discuss politics and religion, but the recent Saint Leo University Polling Institute did just that.

The most recent poll ( was conducted online from February 17 through February 22, among 1,000 total respondents nationally. As part of a Catholic university, founded on Benedictine traditions, the Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts surveys on topics that affect Catholics.

Saint Leo’s most recent poll asked Americans about the intersection of politics and religion. While 50.7 percent of poll respondents strongly or somewhat agree that the United States is more of a secular nation than a Christian nation, 29.5 percent disagree, and 19.8 percent say they are unsure.

When the poll results are examined by religious demographics, just over half agree that the nation is secular. Non-Catholic Christian poll respondents say they strongly or somewhat agree at 52.8 percent, followed by those of other religions at 51.9 percent and Catholics at 51.1 percent. Among those who say they are non-religious, 45.5 percent somewhat or strongly agree with the idea that the country is secular.

Among the 1,000 respondents, Saint Leo polled 264 Catholics; 415 non-Catholic Christians; 213 non-religious; and 108 members of other religions.

Using Beliefs to Vote

Respondents were divided about using their own religious beliefs to inform how they vote, with 47 percent strongly agreeing or somewhat agreeing, and 45.6 percent saying they do not base their voting on their faith, and 7.4 percent saying they are not sure.

However, when it comes to Americans a group going to their polling places, more respondents disagree or strongly disagree (47.2 percent) that the general public should use religious convictions when voting on ballot issues or candidates. Those who think Americans should stick to their beliefs when it comes to vote on issues number 39.9 percent, while 12.9 percent say they are unsure.

Most non-religious poll respondents (71.8 percent) also say they disagree with the public basing votes on religious convictions. However, non-Catholic Christians, say Americans should vote based on their ideology (52.0 percent), while Catholics are evenly split with 44.3 percent agreeing and 44.6 percent disagreeing. Those of other religions disagree more at 42.6 percent while 37.0 percent say they think Americans should let their beliefs influence them at the voting booth.

“It’s not surprising that voters are more interested in following their own beliefs than having the public follow theirs because they [voters] know they might not like those other faith beliefs,” said Frank Orlando, director of the Saint Leo University Polling Institute and a political scientist.

Guiding the Leaders

As for elected officials, the Saint Leo poll shows Americans also are evenly divided on whether officials should use their own religious beliefs in guiding how they govern and make decisions, with 43.4 percent saying they agree strongly or somewhat agree. Disagreeing are 44 percent with 18.7 saying they somewhat disagree and 25.3 percent saying they strongly disagree. Another 12.6 percent report they are unsure.

Non-Catholic Christians, Catholics, and those of other religions all say they think those they elect should be guided by their religious beliefs in making decisions and governing, at 55.4 percent, 48.1 percent, and 43.5 percent, respectively. Those who are non-religious strongly or somewhat disagree, at 69.5 percent.

“It seems like some of the differences might derive from how Americans typically define religion and politics,” said Dr. Randall Woodard, chair of Saint Leo University’s Philosophy, Religion, and Theology Department. “For many people, mainline religious traditions or most controversial political issues are deeply religious. Would one perhaps critique Dr. [Martin Luther] King for pushing his Baptist religious views on America during the civil rights movement? Some people actually did while others realized his cause connected to their religious, political, or humanitarian consciences.

“It’s very difficult to divide political issues from religious faith as many contemporary issues connect to both,” Woodard continued. “We tend to ignore those religious or political issues when we disagree with our tradition and embrace the ones that match our political ideology.”

Preaching politics from the pulpit

The poll shows about half of Americans say they are not comfortable when religious leaders offer their political views with 50.5 percent saying they somewhat or strongly disagree while 35.1 percent say they are comfortable in such situations.

Also, among the poll respondents, 50 percent of Catholics and 69.5 percent of non-religious respondents say they somewhat or strongly disagree with religious leaders sharing their political views. Non-Catholic Christians are divided with 43.6 percent agreeing and 43.8 percent disagreeing and those of other religions report 38.9 percent agree and 39.8 percent disagree.

“What people might tend to actually mean is ‘I don’t mind when a religious leader speaks about the things I agree with, but I don’t like when they bring up those issues with which I don’t,’” Saint Leo’s Woodard said. “Catholicism believes firmly in the right to life for example, but depending on what issue a priest brings up [abortion, death penalty, immigration, or environmental issues] a parishioner might label some of those political, rather than religious issues. For Catholics in this case, they are both.”

Bridging the divide

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute asked respondents to state whether religious leaders should be more active in reducing the national political divide and tensions the country faces today. Those who strongly and somewhat agree number 52.7 percent while 28.7 percent report they somewhat or strongly disagree.

Among the faithful, Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, and those of other religions are looking to the clergy for healing, as 58.7 percent of Catholics, 58.8 percent of non-Catholic Christians, and 53.7 percent of those of other religions agree. Among the non-religious, 32.9 percent agree while 42.3 percent disagree.

About the Poll

METHODOLOGY: This national survey was conducted from February 17 through February 22, 2020, among a base of 1,000 respondents nationally, using an online instrument. The national sample has an associated margin of error of +/- 3.0 percent at a 95 percent confidence for questions asked of all 1,000 respondents.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The sample is drawn from large online panels, which allow for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that is convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive—usually $1 deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account—for their participation.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey results about national and Florida politics, public policy issues, Pope Francis’ popularity, and other topics, can also be found here: You can also follow the institute on Twitter @saintleopolls.

Media contacts:

Mary McCoy, Saint Leo University, University Writer & Media Relations,, (352) 588-7118 or cell (813) 610-8416

Jo-Ann Johnston, Saint Leo University, University Communications or (352) 467-0843 (cell/text).     

About Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University is one of the largest Catholic universities in the nation, offering nearly 60 undergraduate and graduate-level degree programs to more than 19,500 students each year. Founded in 1889 by Benedictine monks, the private, nonprofit university is known for providing a values-based education to learners of all backgrounds and ages in the liberal arts tradition. Saint Leo is regionally accredited and offers a residential campus in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, 32 education centers in seven states, and an online program for students anywhere. The university is home to more than 95,000 alumni. Learn more at