It’s become obvious that there is a deep gap between the America in which real people live, and the America we see political leaders talking about on the news 24/7. Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute, joins us this week to give us a closer look at the PRRI survey out last week that’s been popping up everywhere in the discussion about the contraceptive controversy. The PRRI team found that a majority of Catholics support requiring employers, including religiously affiliated colleges & hospitals, to provide health coverage plans that cover birth control for their employees at no cost. Listen in to find what that means for the debate and if there are any implications for the 2012 elections.

Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. Click here to download it. Scroll down to read the transcript. Click here to listen to Dr. Jones’ previous appearances on State of Belief Radio.



[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: It’s becoming more and more obvious that there really are two Americas. The one that’s portrayed daily in mainstream media and in partisan rhetoric, and the one that’s represented by everyday people as they lead their daily lives and make their daily choices.

In times like these, with the issue of health insurance coverage for birth control dominating the headlines, a fire fueled by conservative religious forces, even as an estimated 98% of American women have used contraception, it’s easy to hear what the rhetorical America is saying. On the other hand, it’s often more difficult to follow the unamplified voice of the rest of the country. That’s why it is so valuable to ask – and nobody does a better job of asking than the Public Religion Research Institute. I’m very glad to welcome back the founder and CEO of that institute, Doctor Robert P. Jones, who is always welcome as a guest on State of Belief Radio; Robby, welcome.

[DR. ROBERT P. JONES, GUEST]: Thanks Welton, happy to be here.

[WG]: You released the findings of a survey last week that made a whole lot of headlines! I bet…

[RJ]: It made the rounds.

[WG]: …As a pollster, when you came here, you never thought that one of your best headline days would be around contraception.

[RJ]: That’s true, right. Not the issue I would have picked.

[WG]: The PRRI tracking poll revealed that the percentage of American Catholics who support the mandate for employee sponsored contraception coverage at religiously-affiliated institutions was higher than the level of support in the general population: 52% of Catholics vs. 49% overall. So let’s start right there: the difference is small, but it is right there at the tipping point.

[RJ]: Right. So, you know, this debate that sort of mushroomed last week, really, over whether – it should be clear that, really, where the heat was, was over whether religiously-affiliated schools and hospitals should be required to require health insurance plans to cover contraception at no cost to their employees – so that’s really where the heat was. We asked several other questions to, kind of, get some nuance – and maybe we can come back to that – but on that particular question, the country is… A plurality of the country says yes, they should be able to require it; 49% compared to 46%, so it’s a pretty evenly divided country. And, as you say, the number of Catholics is slightly higher, 52%; that number is actually not statistically significant. So, basically, what we have is Catholics, you know, majority support, certainly, for saying that religiously-affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required, but it’s a slim majority: 52%, with 45% opposed on the other side.

[WG]: So what’s that mean, it’s not a statistically…?

[RJ]: Right. So, basically, it means: if we have 49% of all Americans and 52% of Catholics, that three-point difference actually isn’t different. So what I would say is that, Catholics are as divided as the country on whether or not religiously-affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required.

[WG]: I see, yes, ok. Well, as in most of your polling, there’s a treasure-trove of data here, and I would like for you to talk about some of the other results in the poll.

[RJ]: Well, we actually started with a more general question, because we weren’t really sure how much people were really following all the ins and outs of the religious exemptions, and who was in and who was out, so we started with a general question about, just, in general, without getting into the religious exemptions: “Do you support the general principle that all employees should be required to provide, for their employees, healthcare plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost.” When we don’t get into any of the religious exemptions, 55% of Americans say: “Yes, the employer should be required to do this,” and 58% of Catholics. So again, Catholics right there with the general population. Interestingly enough, the one group that stands most opposed to this is a group that traditionally has had no problem with contraception itself, but it’s white Evangelical Protestants, were the most-opposed group in the country; only 38% of white Evangelical Protestants said, even in principle, “We support this idea.”

[WG]: How do you explain that?

[RJ]: Well, you know, I don’t think it’s really about contraception here. I mean, this has become a partisan football, is really what it’s going one here; and Evangelicals, as we know, heavily support Republican presidential candidates, and their numbers are almost indistinguishable from rank and file Republicans. So rank and file Republicans are right down there in the, kind of, mid-30%’s supporting this, and that’s right where white Evangelicals are, as well.  Catholics, being a swing group, look pretty much like the general population on this matter, despite the theological objections of the Catholic hierarchy to the contraception itself.

[WG]: Yeah, well let me pick up on your reference to the politicization of this issue – I mean, why not, everything else is politicized. How much of a connection do you see between the rise of Rick Santorum in the national polls, and the prominence of this debate? Is it about Santorum, or is it about Obama?

[RJ]: Well, I certainly think the rise of this debate – it also happened across the CPAC Conference, which is the, kind of, big conference with conservatives gathered in Washington, all the candidates were there – given Santorum’s footprint on this issue, I mean, he has been the quintessential culture warrior, right? He has been at the front of every parade – whether it’s about eliminating rights to abortion, whether it’s about same-sex marriage – he has been on these issues ever since he’s been in the Senate. So this is a very natural issue for him to talk about; and in many ways, this was a gift to the Santorum campaign, for this to come when it did, just as he was beginning to pick up some speed. And it certainly, I think, has helped his campaign make some gains on Romney.

And the other thing to say is, I think, as the economy – as we begin to get some signs that the economy is actually improving, I think that has taken some of the talking points away from some of the Republican candidates criticizing president Obama. This has kind of come to the forefront as, kind of, the new front line of attack.

[WG]: Robby, do you know how the findings of your survey relate to the history of these issues? I mean, are we seeing major changes, or is this about where people would have come out on it ten years ago?

[RJ]: Yeah, well, it’s hard to know, because we haven’t really had this debate about – I mean, I don’t think we’re seeing any big shift on the support for contraception. I mean, even when we look at, for example, Catholic women… So, Catholic women, according to – Guttmacher Institute has the best numbers on this – you know, 98% of Catholic women who’ve been sexually active have used contraception at some point in their lifetime. So we’re not seeing any big, huge movement, I think, on the issue of contraception itself; but this has come in a particular package that is about, they’ve really framed… The bishops, particularly, have framed this issue as a religious liberty issue, and I think that’s what’s new about this. We’re not really having a new debate about contraception. Contraception’s, sort of, been the gateway through which, I think, a new debate about the limits and the width and breadth of religious liberty up against the rights of others: where do we draw those lines?

[WG]: It’s a little bit like you’re reading my mind, because I wanted to ask you about the way this thing is framed. Do you think the framing of the contraception coverage mandate as a destruction of religious liberty – does that resonate with Americans who have personal experience with religious oppression, either themselves or their families? And I can’t help but wonder about American Muslims.

[RJ]: Yeah. Well, we don’t, unfortunately, have enough data in the sample to know where American Muslims are on this particular issue, but again, if we look at the groups that are most opposed, it really does seem this framing of it as religious liberty and government imposition on religious liberty is really tapping groups that have a, sort of, an antipathy to big government, to government intrusion – and that is, I think, groups in the south; it’s white Evangelical Protestants and groups that tend to lean more Republican that, I think, are, sort of, more attuned and open to those talking points. And they have a, kind of, anti-government or small government mentality; and this is, sort of, one way in which they perceive government overreaching. It can be defined fairly easily, I think, in that way among those groups.

[WG]: Just because I know you personally and know something of your background is the reason I’ll ask this next question: but if you were doing a poll on religious liberty, as you’ve done many times, would you have put this issue in a religious liberty poll?

[RJ]: Right. No, I don’t think it would have occurred to us earlier. We have heard this on the issue of same-sex marriage, for example. We’ve heard this argument before. I haven’t heard it on contraception before, but I think we’re going to be seeing this argument about rights, on the one hand, of the majority versus the religious liberty rights of some religious minorities as, sort of, increasingly the way these battle lines get fought out, whether it’s same-sex marriage or abortion or contraception. We’re definitely going to be doing some more polling, trying to, kind of, sort that out, because it does seem like that is going to be the way these issue are getting framed – certainly in this upcoming election cycle.

[WG]: It seems to me, if you’re going to argue it as a religious liberty issue, that there are two sides to that – neither of which is really clear. You could say, as many are saying, that the President is trying to compromise the religious liberty of the Catholic bishops; you can also argue that the Catholic bishops are trying to compromise the integrity of how religious liberty is to be enforced in the United States.

[RJ]: Right. Or, for other people, who think this is part of their religious rights, to control the reproductive health. I think that’s right, and it’s going to be a really difficult thing to sort out. One interesting thing from the poll, though, that I wanted to point out is that Americans actually are making some kind of fine distinctions between… Because we also asked, for example, whether churches and other places of worship should be required to provide these things, and Americans actually reject that; they say “No, no, no, churches are different, churches should be able to make their own rules, they shouldn’t be subject to these kinds of things.” And so they make a distinction between churches and places of worship that employ primarily their own coreligionists, on the one hand, and Americans are largely in agreement: those groups should be exempt. And they were exempt, even under the initial ruling by HHS; but where the battle is, and, I think, where the disagreements are is: then what about religiously affiliated groups? And the rub is, there, that many of these groups, like major hospitals, employ many, many employees who aren’t Catholic, right? And so, then, that’s where it becomes, I think, much muddier, and where the general public actually makes a distinction, and ultimately comes down on the side that says, you know, “Look: we’re kind of divided, but we lean into making them be required to carry these coverages.”

[WG]: Robby, does this have the potential to be a sea change in the way we discuss rights, I mean, by hijacking the language of liberty, how far can, say, the Conservative movement go on this in the national psyche? Can it be totally separated from electoral ramifications?

[RJ]: Right. It’s a really, really interesting question. We’re actually going to be doing some more polling trying to figure this out, because I do think this is actually a really important fault line. But, you know, when we ask about less popular things, like the religious rights of Native Americans to smoke peyote, for example, in certain rituals – how far do their religious liberty rights go, right up against public health concerns, and other kinds of controlled substances laws that we have in this country? I mean, those are really in the same basket of the kinds of things we’re talking about here; and this, kind of, dance that we’ve done with trying to respect, I think, the differences for religious groups while at the same time providing, kind of, equality under the law for everyone – that’s a dance that’s going to continue, I think, and it’s going to be really interesting to watch play out.

[WG]: You’re going to do that soon, the poll?

[RJ]: I hope so, yes. We’re planning on it.

[WG]: I hope so too. And you’ll come back and talk to us?

[RJ]: Absolutely.

[WG]: I tell you, your work is so timely and so relevant, and it’s just very helpful to have you listening to the voices of the American people. Dr. Robert P. Jones is CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, and their valuable work is freely available at

As always Robby, thanks for taking time to stop by, you’re always welcome on State of Belief Radio, and you’re always helpful.

[RJ]: Oh, absolutely. I’m honored to be here.



State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.

Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.


The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.

While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.

Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.

Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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