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What Americans Know About Religion — And What They Don’t 

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

The Pew Research Center asked Americans 32 multiple-choice questions about religion and spirituality earlier this year. The quiz — which you can still take — included questions such as, “What is commemorated on Easter Sunday?” (The choices for responses were ascension, crucifixion, Last Supper and, the correct response, resurrection.) Nearly 11,000 people answered the questions, and Pew released the results this week.

Here’s what Pew found:

  1. Many Americans know some basic facts about major religions and belief systems — and not just Christianity. Seventy-nine percent of respondents knew that, in Christianity, the Trinity is one God in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and that Moses led the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt, a tenet of both Christianity and Judaism. Sixty-two percent of respondents knew that Mecca is Islam’s holiest city and a place of pilgrimage, while 60 percent knew that Ramadan is an Islamic holy month. Atheism (87 percent correctly described it as not believing in God) is better understood than agnosticism (61 percent answered correctly that it means being unsure of the existence of God).
  2. It gets murky for people outside of the basics. Respondents really struggled with some questions. For example, only 24 percent answered correctly that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Jewish New Year, similar to the number (26 percent) who knew that Islam is the religion of most people in Indonesia. Even some Christian doctrines and facts are not that well-known — despite it being the faith of about 70 percent of Americans. Only 51 percent correctly said that Jesus is the person known for giving the “Sermon on the Mount,” a number I thought was low considering that’s a fairly important event in Christianity. (The other possible answers were Peter, Paul and John.) And just 22 percent of Americans could describe the “prosperity gospel,” which is generally associated with evangelical Christians. (Pew defined it as the tenet that “those of strong faith will be blessed by God with financial success and good health.”)
  3. Americans really don’t know the number of Jewish and Muslim people living in the U.S. According to Pew Research estimates, about 2 percent of American adults are Jewish and 1 percent are Muslim. But only 26 percent of respondents answered correctly that Muslims make up less than 5 percent of the population in the U.S. And only 19 percent knew that the share of Jewish Americans is also below 5 percent. Most either thought the Muslim American and Jewish populations were each larger than 5 percent or didn’t know. But I suspect that the explanation for these inaccurate responses might not totally be about how much Americans know about these two religions but may instead be related to broader issues of innumeracy. Other research has shown that Americans have inaccurate views about the size of many demographic groups and may be particularly likely to overstate the size of groups of which they are not a part. For example, Republicans vastly overestimate the number of Democrats who are black.
  4. Some groups answered more questions correctly than others. On average, respondents answered 14 of the 32 questions correctly. But people who are Jewish (19 correct responses on average), atheist (18) and agnostic (17) scored the best.

Other polling bites

  • 27 percent of Americans say immigration is the most important problem facing the country today, the highest number of any issue, according to data released by Gallup this week. (The question was open-ended, so respondents could answer with any issue they wished.) Of the respondents, 42 percent of Republicans, 20 percent of Democrats and 20 percent of independents put immigration at the top of their lists of concerns.
  • An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released this week examined the popularity of various policy ideas, including some being pushed by the 2020 presidential candidates. The more popular proposals were allowing Americans to either enroll in a Medicare-style plan or keep their private insurance (70 percent of adults said this is a “good idea”); addressing climate change with a proposal along the lines of the Green New Deal (63 percent); legalizing marijuana (63 percent); and taxing income above $1 million (62 percent). Proposals that were fairly unpopular included eliminating private health insurance and putting everyone in a Medicare-style plan (just 41 percent think this is a good idea); abolishing the death penalty (36 percent); allowing undocumented immigrants to enroll in a national health care plan (33 percent); decriminalizing illegal border crossings (27 percent); and providing reparations for slavery (27 percent.)
  • 52 percent of British adults think Boris Johnson, the man selected this week to lead Great Britain, will be a “completely new kind of prime minister,” compared with 24 percent who think he will be like his predecessors, according to new polling from YouGov. And Brits are not particularly excited about how Johnson will perform in his new role. According to the poll, 50 percent think Johnson will do a poor or terrible job, while 20 percent say he will a great or good job and 18 percent an average job.
  • 55 percent of Americans say that national economic conditions are excellent or good, according to a Pew survey released this week. Views on the economy vary by party — 79 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents think the economy is excellent or good, compared with 33 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Views also vary by income — 88 percent of Republicans in households with family incomes above $75,000 a year think the economy is strong, compared with 54 percent of Republicans whose household income is less than $30,000.
  • Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are the most popular of the 2020 candidates among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, according to recent Gallup polling, with Sanders at 72 percent favorable and 17 percent unfavorable, while Biden is at 69 and 17 percent. But that may be in part because other leading candidates are not as well-known. Elizabeth Warren has a high favorable rating too (59 percent favorable, 13 unfavorable), but 29 percent of respondents said they had “no opinion” of her. (Respondents could give this answer if they hadn’t heard of the candidate or didn’t know much about him or her.) Kamala Harris had ratings similar to Warren’s (54 percent favorable, 11 percent unfavorable, 34 percent no opinion).
  • 63 percent of registered voters felt that Trump attacking four congresswomen and telling them to “go back” to their countries “crossed the line,” according to a new Fox News poll. Just 27 percent took the view that Trump’s remark was an “acceptable political attack.”

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.2 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.5 points). At this time last week, 42.5 percent approved and 52.6 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10.1 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 51.7 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.5 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 6.4 percentage points (46.2 percent to 39.8 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.4 points (46.2 percent to 39.8 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.8 points (46.1 percent to 40.3 percent).

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.