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Voters wary of churches' role in politics

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Religion is often a hot-button topic in presidential elections, and this year's campaigning has included some unprecedented twists. Never before have Roman Catholic bishops questioned the Catholicism of one of the candidates, nor have strategists of any party ever attempted to access church membership lists.

"In 2000, it was hard to imagine the campaign could get more religiously infused, but 2004 seems to be topping that," says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, in New York.

A new survey released Thursday offers insight into how Americans perceive the interaction between religion and politics. The survey was done by the Forum and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

While a huge majority (72 percent) affirms that a US president should have strong religious beliefs - and the public is comfortable with leaders talking about their faith and using it to guide policymaking - most are wary about involvement of religious leaders and houses of worship in partisan politics.

On the question of moral values, while 64 percent say they will be very important to their vote, the highly visible issue of gay marriage ranks as among the least important priorities raised in the survey, of significance only among white evangelical Protestants. On the emerging issue of stem-cell research, a slight majority (52 percent) now supports research over protecting human embryos (34 percent).

One significant surprise is the way the nationwide poll of 1,512 adults challenges the conventional wisdom - oft repeated in the media - of a big "religion gap" between the parties, with Republicans being largely the party of the religious and Democrats the party of secular Americans.

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