The poll in question was conducted by a group called the Public Religion Research Institute in conjunction with the left-leaning Brookings Institute, and it found two interesting things.
First, the poll found that Americans are split religiously: 28% of Americans identify themselves as religious conservatives; 19% identify themselves as religious progressives; 38% identify themselves as religious moderates; and 15% identify themselves as non-religious. The poll did not identify intensity, so these numbers overstate the actual support each group would get politically, but that doesn't change this analysis; indeed, it only strengthens the point because what these numbers tell us is that no religious agenda can prevail with the public unless you win the moderates, i.e. there just aren't enough conservatives, progressives or non-ists for any of those three groups to push through their agenda without pulling in moderates. That’s bad news for Team Santorum, who argue that getting more extreme and more exclusive is the answer.
Indeed, it suggests what should be obvious: if you want to change the public's mind on this (or any other issue), go slowly. As Walter Williams once wrote, you can't boil a frog by throwing it into a boiling pot. You need to turn up the heat little by little. It's the same with persuading the public. You need to win them over bit by bit, winning their confidence with each step and making the next step seem less intimidating and less significant. That's the only way to win people over.
The second thing the poll investigated was the future of religion in America. This is where the really bad news for the Religious Right arises. What the poll found was that the number of religious conservatives is shrinking in each generation:
● 47% of the WWII Generation are religious conservativesThis means the number of religious conservatives is collapsing and the Religious Right will lose about half its size over the next 20-30 years. Among Millenials, by the way, religious progressives (23%) and the non-religious (22%) will both easily outnumber them.
● 34% of the Baby Boomers are religious conservatives
● 23% of Gen X are religious conservatives
● 17% of Millennials are religious conservatives
So what does this mean? Well, on the one hand, it means the Republicans have hitched their wagon to a dying horse. They have essentially become a party that caters to what may have been nearly 50% of Americans at one point, but will soon be less than two in ten. That's suicidal for a political party.
On the other hand, it stands as a warning for the Religious Right. Various statistics I’ve found suggest that conservatives have around 30% more children than liberals, and presumably religious conservatives would have even more, yet "religious conservatives" aren’t managing to get their kids to adopt their beliefs. Nor are they apparently able to attract others to their beliefs. Each of the other categories is growing, but religious conservatives are not. This suggests that religious conservatives are doing something that is driving young people away. Now far be it for me to suggest, but if the Religious Right wants to reverse this trend, I would suggest figuring out what the problem is and addressing it.
What's the solution? Well, that's up to you. But I think it's instructive that the Pope is facing a similar problem and his response has been to make a push for the Church to return to the substance of religion rather than the pomp and procedure. Just this week, he told his bishops to get out of their ivory towers and go help people. It's also interesting that this has resulted in a severe backlash by conservative Catholics, who view the pomp and procedure as the purpose of the Church. Interestingly, the nature of that backlash is explained by this poll as well. The poll found that religious conservatives are much more likely to believe that "being religious" is about having the right theological views rather than being moral AND that "being moral" is about being religious rather than how you behave. In other words, they subscribe to dogma over substance... the very thing the Pope is trying to reverse within the Church. It will be interesting to see if the Pope's plan works. It will be just as interesting to see if the Religious Right can turn this trend around.