Surprise! Gallup wants to probe faith, public life

Months before the 1996 election, some of the politicos behind President Bill Clinton's campaign tried to find out which poll questions best predicted a voter's Election Day choice. On which questions were the lines most starkly drawn between a Clinton voter and a voter determined to pull the GOP lever in the voting booth? They found out that these five worked best: Is religion very important in your life? Is sex before marriage morally wrong? Is homosexuality morally wrong? Do you every look at pornography? Would you look down on a married person who had an affair?

Some of you will be glad to hear that this is not another GetReligion item about the whole red pews vs. blue pews phenomenon (although it could have been).

This is a belated post about Moveon.org's attack on George Gallup Jr. and his controversial interest in the role that faith plays in American public life. Gallup is an Episcopalian, but one of very old-fashioned beliefs on faith and morals. The problem, as described in the New York Times and elsewhere, is that he has on occasion described himself as an "evangelical." Salon.com warned its readers that this influential American has even spoken words such as these, in an interview with the "moderate" Baptist Standard in Texas:

"'The most profound purpose of polls is to see how people are responding to God,' George Gallup Jr. said after giving the spring commencement speech at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. 'When I ask a question on these subjects, what I'm always trying to find out is, Are we doing the will of God?'"

The Baptist Standard also reported that while Gallup recently stepped aside as the company's leader, his vision remains intact.

"Questions on religion and spirituality are sure to continue, Gallup said, under leadership that shares a keen interest in the topic. Frank Newport is editor in chief of the Gallup Poll and vice president of the Gallup organization in Princeton, N.J. His father, John Newport, served more than 40 years as a philosophy of religion professor and administrator at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "And because George Gallup Jr. still carries his pocket-sized notebook, for scribbling down survey questions that might come to him at any hour of day or night, his ideas might even find their way into a questionnaire now and then."

And there you have it. Gallup's beliefs might be dangerous to Democratic candidates in some way, since his Christian conservatism might somehow favor the theocrats at the Republican Party. This is profoundly disturbing to the folks at Moveon.org, who seem as anxious to punch hot religious buttons in the current campaign as, let's say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

"Why hasn't he pushed for an update of the company's likely voter modeling, which his own father pioneered in the 1950s?" the MoveOn.org ad asked. The political group then appeared to answer its own question.

"Gallup, who is a devout evangelical Christian, has been quoted as calling his polling 'a kind of ministry.' And a few months ago, he said 'the most profound purpose of polls is to see how people are responding to God,'" MoveOn said. "We thought the purpose is to faithfully and factually report public opinion."

This slap at Gallup was a bit much for all kinds of people and anyone seeking a selection of reaction quotes can turn to the New York Sun or, as always, the omnipresent folks at the Christianity Today blog.

All the usual suspects speak out. What is especially interesting is that others cross the politics-as-usual lines and raise questions about Moveon.org's real motives. Here is Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization rarely aligned with the religious right:

"It's irrelevant, extraneous, and borders on being offensive to evangelical Christians," Mr. Foxman told The New York Sun. "It's one thing to challenge methodology and credibility. It's another thing to say that the methodology and credibility are motivated by faith. ... What if the poll was headed by a devout Jew? How would we have felt?"

And reporter Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times noted that the strategists behind the Moveon.org campaign seem, in their rush to shoot an offending pollster, to have forgotten to ask very, very, very basic questions.

What the advertisement did not say was that Mr. Gallup, who retired in May, is not involved in the company's political polling and made those comments in reference to his specialty and main interest -- polling people on their religious beliefs.

So let's replay that scene. Gallup is retired and he is not involved in the political polls that have so angered the WWW attack dog that speaks for the "anti-evangelical voter" wing of the Democratic Party establishment. And on top of that, Gallup's comments were yanked out of context. He was describing the motives that served as a foundation for his organization's decades of research into American attitudes about religious faith in public and private life, a subject on which his trailblazing work as inspired work at a host of foundations, think tanks and top-notch academic centers.

But let's end where we began. Bill Clinton's own pollsters discovered that, to cut to the political heart in 1996, they had to ask blunt questions about religious and moral issues. Should it be surprising that the Gallup organization and other top pollsters need to do the same?

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