Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan
Breakdown, Religion in the News, Summer 2000
Ambivalence, Religion in the News, Spring
to Keep an Eye On, Religion in the News,
Choice and the New Religious Center, Religion
in the News, Spring 2000
Different Spiritual Politics, Religion in the
News, Summer 1999
and the Post-Welfare State, Religion in the
News, Summer 1998
the Boat on Charitable Choice, Religion in the
News, Summer 1998
in this issue
From the Editor: The
Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate
Purging Ourselves of Timothy
The Pope Among the
Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan
The Rael Deal.
Superceding the Jews
Jamming the Jews
Evangelism in a Chilly Climate
Palestinians and Israelis
The Perils of Polling
by Dennis R. Hoover
Public Opinion 101 teaches that the wording of a survey question can make
all the difference in the world. What happens when the surveyors misreport
what they asked? This spring, on charitable choice, the journalists followed
them over the cliff.
On April 10, the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life issued the first in
a planned annual series of religion-in-public-life polls. Conducted jointly
with the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the survey
produced a bevy of interesting, timely data, but the big news had to do with
public attitudes toward President Bush’s "charitable choice"
initiatives for faith-based social service providers.
"Faith-based Funding Backed, But Church-State Doubts Abound,"
announced the report, declaring on its first page, "Most notably, while
the public expresses strong support for the idea of faith-based
groups receiving government funding to provide social services, in practice,
it has many reservations. Most Americans would not extend that right to
non-Judeo-Christian religious groups" or to "groups that encourage
The poll report went on to say, repeatedly, that the public would not
"allow" specific religious groups to apply for government social
service funds. Also, a table listing the results for the different groups
was headed: "Who Should be Eligible for Government Funds?"
In fact, however, the survey did not ask the public for an opinion
on whether specific religious groups should be eligible to apply for
According to the published questionnaire, all it asked about eligibility
was whether or not respondents favored, "allowing churches and other
houses of worship to apply, along with other organizations, for government
funding to provide social services such as job training or drug treatment
counseling to people who need them."
It then moved on, asking for responses to a wide range of other matters
(36 in all) before circling back to pose another question about faith-based
funding. But this time, there was no mention of "allowing" or
"not allowing" groups to apply. Instead, respondents were told:
"I’m going to read the names of some specific religious groups. For
each one that I name, please tell me whether you would favor or oppose this
group applying for government funds to provide social services to people who
Opposing a group’s applying might have been taken to mean
opposing their right to apply. But it might also have been taken to
mean not wanting them to apply, or not wanting them to succeed in their
application. The question is highly ambiguous.
The public’s response to the general question of "allowing
churches and other houses of worship to apply" was very positive.
Seventy-five percent were in favor (up from 67 percent in a Pew Research
Center poll of September 2000 that included the same wording).
Responses to the question about specific religious groups varied.
Majorities said they were in favor of the following groups applying:
"Catholic churches" (62 percent in favor, 32 percent opposed, and
6 percent don’t know/refused to answer), "Protestant churches"
(61-31-8), "Jewish synagogues" (58-34-8), and "Mormon
churches" (51-41-8). More people were opposed than in favor when it
came to "Muslim mosques" (38-46-16), "Buddhist temples"
(38-46-16), the "Nation of Islam" (29-53-18), the "Church of
Scientology" (26-52-22), and "groups that encourage religious
conversion as part of the services they provide" (32-59-9).
It is likely that respondents would have been more favorable—across the
board—had they been asked if they favored or opposed allowing each
of the above groups to apply. Unfortunately, they weren’t asked—and we
don’t know the answer.
The Pew Research Center’s own September 2000 poll underscored how
sensitive the public is to wording distinctions. Some respondents got a
version of the funding question that asked about, "giving government
funding to religious organizations so they can provide services…."
(54 percent approved). But as this survey’s report noted, "There is
considerably more backing (67 percent) when the issue is recast as allowing
such groups to apply for government funding" (emphasis in
In short, the presence or absence of the phrase "allowing religious
organizations to apply" can cause a sizeable shift. (A shift of only
five percent from negative to positive in the more recent poll would have
given both Muslims and Buddhists slim pluralities.)
Yet in April both the pollsters and the press reported the new data as if
all versions of the question had been cast as "allowing" religious
groups to apply. On April 10 Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research
Center, told NPR’s Linda Wertheimer that while Americans approve the
abstract idea of allowing religious organizations to apply they have
"many reservations in practice. Most Americans would not favor allowing
non-Judeo-Christian religious groups to apply for such funds."
Wertheimer then prompted Kohut to confirm the public’s reservations on
specifics such as "whether groups should be allowed to proselytize or
require participants in their programs to attend services." "All
of these things," nodded Kohut. (In fact the survey did not mention
several relevant specifics of the charitable choice policy, such as its
requirement that religious services be optional, or its mandate for the
availability of secular alternative providers.)
Taking their lead from the survey report, in the next day’s Washington
Post Hanna Rosin and Thomas Edsall thought that the survey had
demonstrated that most Americans "balked" when asked about the
"specifics" of the initiative, "such as exactly which
religious groups should be eligible for public funds and whether they could
proselytize." "[T]he program faces major hurdles winning public
support," they added.
Similarly, in the April 11 New York Times Laurie Goodstein wrote
that, "while Americans favor the principle behind Mr. Bush’s
initiative, they oppose many of the details…only 38 percent of respondents
favored allowing Muslim mosques to apply for government funds, the same
percentage that approved letting Buddhist temples apply." The Christian
Science Monitor, Houston Chronicle, and the Washington Times
were among the news organizations that also used such language in reporting
Only Laura Meckler of the AP seemed to sense that something was amiss.
After reviewing the list of non-Judeo-Christian groups that apparently made
the public nervous, she noted that the survey "did not ask people
whether their concerns about such groups were significant enough to scuttle
support for the general idea."
The budget line suggested by the survey report—‘poll shows that
public rejects specifics of charitable choice’—encouraged journalists to
accentuate the negative. Both the Times’ Goodstein and the Post’s
Rosin and Edsall singled out findings that a majority of the public agreed
that an "important concern" about charitable choice was that
welfare recipients "might be forced to take part in religious
practices" (60 percent), and that the "government might get too
involved in what religious organizations do" (68 percent).
But the authors failed to mention that three additional "important
concerns" generated substantially less worry: interfering with
separation of church and state (52 percent), failing to meet standards (47
percent), and increasing religious divisions in the country (48 percent).
More importantly, they failed to mention the public’s positive response to
a set of four "important reasons to favor" the idea: religious
groups can do a better job because religion changes lives (62 percent),
religious providers are more caring (72 percent) and more efficient (60
percent), and people who need services "should have a variety of
options" (77 percent).
Put up a list of con reasons and people agree with most of them. Put up a
list of pro reasons and they agree more strongly. What the survey really
showed was that the American public was fairly positive about
charitable choice. But that wasn’t the way it played.
"Critics of the Bush plan used the findings as ammunition,"
wrote Rosin and Edsall. That was putting it mildly. Through April and May,
the survey report helped establish the conventional wisdom that the public
didn’t want to allow some religious groups to apply for government money
under charitable choice, and was very worried about the program’s
Into the many self- and enemy-inflicted wounds in the President’s
faith-based initiative, the poll story rubbed some undeserved salt.
For the questionnaire, which was included as an appendix to the survey
report, see http://pewforum.org/events/0410/report/topline.php3.
See the Letter to the Editor, and
Dennis Hoover's reply, in the Fall 2001 issue.
See companion article in this issue, Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan
Ambivalence, Religion in the News, Spring 2001
Issues to Keep an Eye On, Religion in the News, Spring 2001
Choice and the New Religious Center, Religion in the News,
Different Spiritual Politics, Religion in the News,
and the Post-Welfare State, Religion in the News, Summer
the Boat on Charitable Choice, Religion in the News,