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In evidence of a striking change in Americans' attitudes about religion and politics, a majority of the public now believes that churches should be allowed to express political opinions, a reversal from what a majority believed a generation ago, according to a new nationwide survey of religious identity and political opinion.

Support for churches' expressing political opinions runs highest among white evangelical, or born again, Protestants, a group that has grown enough over the past decade that it accounts for a quarter of the American electorate, roughly on a par with white Roman Catholics and members of mainline Protestant churches, like Episcopalians and Presbyterians.The survey also shows that with the growth in their numbers, white evangelicals have emerged as a cohesive force shaping American political debate and holding more conservative views than other groups on issues including gay marriage, immigration policy and gun control as well as abortion. They are the group least enthusiastic about President Clinton, but they are divided about the Republicans' record in Congress, making it difficult to predict how they will behave at the ballot box this fall.

But the survey also found that although Americans say they regularly hear clergy members speak out on a wide variety of political and social issues - especially hunger, poverty, abortion and school prayer - only about one in 15 churchgoers reported being told how to vote. About twice that many, or one in seven, reported finding candidates' campaign literature in church before the 1994 mid-term elections.

The survey will be made public on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an independent research entity in Washington, formerly known as the Times Mirror Center, which is now financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia. The report, "The Diminishing Divide . . . American Churches, American Politics," derived its findings from telephone interviews with 1,975 adults nationwide from May 31 to June 9. The survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The margin of sampling error for smaller groups was greater, plus or minus five percentage points for white evangelical Protestants, for instance.

The survey, which also used supplemental information taken from telephone interviews from July 1994 to October 1995, portrayed a nation in which 65 percent of the population can be characterized by one of three religious identities - white evangelical Protestant, 23 percent; white mainline Protestant, 22 percent, or white Catholic, 20 percent.

Of the remaining 35 percent, 9 percent are black Christians, including those within evangelical, mainline Protestant and Catholic traditions. Eleven percent who identify with no religious tradition. Hispanic Catholics, other religious Hispanic people, Jews and LDS Church members account for 2 percent each, while smaller affiliations make up the balance of 7 percent.

One question the survey posed was whether churches should keep out of political matters, or whether they should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions. When this question was asked by the Gallup organization in 1968, 53 percent said churches should keep out of politics, while 40 percent said they should express their views.

But in the three decades since, according to the Pew survey, the public's views on this matter have reversed, with 54 percent saying churches should express their views, while 43 percent say they should keep out of politics.

Among religious groups, 70 percent of white evangelicals said they favored churches' expressing political views, while 68 percent of black Christians did also.

But the survey also showed that a majority of the public still did not want clergy members to become overtly partisan. Yet, even here a shift may be evident.

In 1965, when Gallup asked if it was ever right for clergy members to discuss candidates or issues from the pulpit, 22 percent said yes. In the three decades since, resistance to politicking from the pulpit has eroded, and 29 percent are now willing to allow clergy members to discuss candidates from the pulpit, the Pew survey found. Still, two-thirds of respondents opposed this idea.

The Pew report found that among the groups it surveyed, white evangelical Protestants had been the most politically dynamic. Citing previous surveys, the survey said they had increased their strength to 23 percent of the electorate, up from 19 percent of registered voters who identified themselves as evangelicals in 1987.

Even in 1987, the number of people who identified themselves as evangelicals had risen from the decade before. In 1978, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that only 16 percent of the population identified themselves as white evangelicals.

Commenting on the new poll, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center said, "The conservatism of white evangelicals is the most powerful political force in the country."

The survey showed that white evangelical Protestants took more conservative positions than other religious groups, both on moral issues and some secular issues.

For instance, white evangelical Protestants were the least likely to approve of gay marriage or to favor allowing public schools to provide birth control information. And 63 percent of this group say immigrants today are a burden on the country, while 55 percent or fewer of the other major religious groups express that view.

In addition, 44 percent ofwhite evangelical Protestants support handgun control, while over 50 percent of the other major religious groups do. And 34 percent of evangelical Protestants favor Clinton's decision to send troops to Bosnia as part of an international peacekeeping force, while more than 40 percent of the other major religious groups favor this decision.

James Guth, a professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., said members of conservative Protestant groups, like the 15.6 million Southern Baptists, show a growing tendency to adopt the evangelical label, as a means of identifying both their theological and political beliefs.

"Evangelical Protestants are becoming an increasingly politically cohesive force," Guth said. In addition, he said, political activity by conservative, Southern Baptist ministers, including discussing issues and candidates, is on the rise and is increasingly accepted by their congregations. "It's becoming almost routine or conventional activity of many evangelical churches and pastors in election years," he said.

Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, said evangelicals were gaining in numbers nationally because an ever-greater number of people, many within mainline Protestant denominations, are calling themselves evangelicals as a means of making a statement about their religious beliefs.

"People will identify themselves as evangelical in spite of what denomination they're in," she said. "I think it's another of the many signs of the weakening of denominational identity, and the growth of new ways of people talking about themselves and organizing themselves."

But Professor Ammerman also said the evangelical label should not always be taken to imply conservative politics by those who claim it. "We have something that's going to help us understand people's voting behavior, but it's not a perfect predictor," she said, adding that political choices are often influenced by local issues and the economy.

Also analyzing how much religious teachings influence public policy debates, the Pew survey found doctrine had its greatest effect on moral and sexual issues, especially on matters like abortion and homosexual marriage.

For example, a plurality of 37 percent said religion was most influential in forming their views on the question of whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry. Over all, the survey found that the idea of legalizing such marriages remained highly unpopular, opposed by 65 percent of those surveyed. The survey said conservative religious beliefs heavily contributed to that view.

But, in a finding that may prove unsettling to church authorities, the survey also said that religious teachings have remarkably little influence in shaping people's attitudes on broad social issues like welfare and the role of women in the workplace.

Although Catholic bishops in the United States and the National Council of Churches have criticized recent political efforts to restrict state and federal welfare benefits, only 6 percent of those surveyed cited religion as having the greatest influence on what they thought about this issue. Most people said they formed opinions based on personal experience, education or news reports.

The Rev. Robert Friday, professor of moral theology at Catholic University, said that although the Catholic Church had issued many pronouncements about social justice over the past century, tradition caused people to associate the concept of sin with personal or sexual issues.

"You don't see cartoons of people in hell because they didn't pay a just wage," Friday said. "It's usually for adultery and all that."

Still, it is in the area of religion and politics that the Pew survey provides some of its most interesting data.

Majorities of Catholics, black Christians and mainline Protestants, according to the Pew survey, said they approved of the job that Clinton has been doing. But 56 percent of white evangelicals said they disapproved of the president's efforts. An even larger evangelical majority, 59 percent, said they had an unfavorable view of the first lady.

Among social issues, the Pew survey found that some of the strongest agreement among religious believers exists on the issue of environmental protection. Majorities in every religious group said environmental regulations were "worth the cost," although support was markedly lower among white evangelicals and LDS Church members.