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Poll: 61 in US say politics, religion shouldn't mix

But 10-nation survey indicates America is the most receptive

WASHINGTON -- Americans are far more likely to consider religion central to their lives and to support clergy having a say in public policy than people in nine countries that are close allies of the United States, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.

Yet, the US embrace of faith has its limits.

Religion and public policy often mix in the United States. Recent examples include the bitter fight over the appointment of judges and the fate of Terry Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose feeding tube was removed despite efforts by the GOP-led Congress.

When politicians in this country try to blend religion and politics, they find a comparatively receptive climate.

Nearly all US respondents said faith was important to them, and only 2 percent said they did not believe in God, according to the polling Ipsos conducted for the AP.

Almost 40 percent in this country said religious leaders should try to sway policy makers, a notably higher percentage than in other countries.

''Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian policies, and religious leaders have an obligation to speak out on public policy -- otherwise, they're wimps," said David Black, a retiree from Osborne, Pa., who agreed to be interviewed after he was polled.

Still, 61 percent said they did not think religious leaders should influence government decisions.

''I think religion and politics are too closely intertwined in this country," said Dillon Hickman, a businessman from Uniontown, Ohio, near Akron. ''A lot of religious leaders take too active a position in politics. And it's getting more so."

In Western Europe -- where Pope Benedict XVI contends that the rise in secularism has left churches unfilled on Sundays -- people are the least likely to believe among the 10 countries Ipsos surveyed.

Only Mexicans come close to Americans in embracing faith among the countries polled. But unlike Americans, Mexicans strongly object to clergy members lobbying lawmakers, in line with the nation's historical opposition to church influence.

The polling was conducted in May in the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Korea, and Spain.

''The United States is a much more religious country than other similar countries, looks a lot like what you call developing countries, like Mexico, Iran, and Indonesia," said John Green, a specialist on religion and politics at the University of Akron.

In the United States, some of the most pressing policy issues involve moral questions -- such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research -- that understandably draw religious leaders into public debate, Green said.

The poll indicated that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to think that clergy should try to influence government decisions in this country.

For Jason Schindler, a 30-year-old businessman from Markle, Ind., who has young children, ''Getting away from religion and overusing the separation of church and state has put a damper on our children and society as a whole."

But Elizabeth Brill, a Democrat from Cleveland, said, ''I don't believe religion and government should mix."

Many countries other than the United States have been through bloody religious conflict that contributes to their suspicion of giving clergy any say in policy. But a variety of factors contribute to that feeling.

In Spain, where the government subsidizes the Catholic Church, and in Germany, which is split between Catholics and Protestants, people are about evenly divided over whether they consider faith important.

The results are almost identical in Britain, where the state church, the Church of England, is struggling to fill pews.

Italians are the only European exception in the poll. Eighty percent say religion is significant to them, and just over half say they unquestioningly believe in God. But in Italy, as in other European countries, enthusiasm is low for the mixing of religion and politics.

The Associated Press-Ipsos polls of about 1,000 adults in each of the 10 countries were taken May 12-26. Each has a sampling-error margin of 3 percentage points.

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