September 22nd, 2011
02:26 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) - Half of the people who identify with the tea party in a new poll reject the science of global warming (50%) and evolution (51%), sentiments that some observers believe portray an increasingly religious electorate that mimics some GOP presidential hopefuls.
These numbers compare with 69% of all people surveyed who “believe there is solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades” and 57% who “believe humans and other living things evolved over time.”
According to a Thursday release from the Public Religion Research Institute, the firm that conducted the poll, these results present a strategic challenge for GOP presidential contenders.
“Americans who identify as Republican, along with key groups in the Republican base such as white evangelical Protestants and members of the tea party, hold views that differ significantly from the general population and from political independents,” stated an analysis of the poll.
These numbers mirror those in a September 9-11 CNN/ORC International poll that found 58% of tea party Republicans don't believe global warming is a proven fact and 50% of tea party Republicans don’t believe the theory of evolution is true.
Charles W. Dunn, author of "The Presidency in the 21st Century" and a distinguished professor at Regent University, a conservative Christian school founded by Pat Robertson, said these issues reflect the candidates' bedrock belief that the bible is the “infallible word of God.”
“There is a direct relationship between these issues and religion. Manifestly direct,” Dunn said. “This evangelical force, the idea of the infallibility of scripture, is writ large in (the candidates') thinking.”
In some cases, Dunn said, candidates' beliefs on religious issues show their desire to “use the lever of government to usher in the kingdom of God on Earth. “
Dunn said these deeply religious beliefs will lead the eventual Republican nominee to rebrand his or her opinions once they get into the general election, moving from courting the religious right to the less religious center-right.
Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, agreed on the differences in opinions.
“Republican primary candidates have this very fine line to walk,” Jones said. “If they put down a marker that is too tightly tied to the tea party, while that will be helpful in the primaries, it will certainly hurt them in the general election.”
This divide between right and center-right was evident in the CNN poll, too. Tea party Republicans believe global warming is not true by 20 percentage points more than other Republicans. Other Republicans are less sure on evolution, too, trailing tea party Republicans by 11 percentage points when asked whether the theory of evolution is true.
Dunn said it is possible to walk this dividing line, though. Citing President Reagan, Dunn said a candidate’s charisma can overshadow religious beliefs for some voters.
“A candidate may take a position such as on creation vs. evolution that many independents would not care for,” Dunn said. “Charisma will appeal to them, though, and override their feelings on that issue.”
Early in the GOP nomination race, those dividing lines between religiosity and science are already beginning to be drawn.
"When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call to question evolution, all I'm saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science," Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said at the NBC News/Politico debate in September.
Huntsman was responding to comments made by two fellow Republican contenders, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
At an August event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Perry said the theory of evolution “has some gaps in it.” He has also called manmade climate change a tool for scientists to get more grant money.
"I think we're seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists that are coming forward and questioning the original idea that manmade global warming is what is causing the climate to change,” Perry said at another event in New Hampshire.
Bachmann has made similar statements questioning the legitimacy of evolution and stating that the causes and effects of climate change are still unconfirmed.
In a thinly veiled swipe at the questioning candidates, Huntsman tweeted, “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
The poll also found party divisions over climate change.
According to the poll, 81% of Democrats and 70% of independents believe the Earth is getting warmer, compared with 49% of Republicans and 41% of people who identify with the tea party.
“What we know is that this issue has increasingly become driven by partisan politics,” Jones said. “Members of the tea party aren’t, in fact, just libertarians, they are also social conservatives by and large, and that is why these social issues resonate.”
Conducted by phone between September 14 and 18, the Public Religion Research Institute poll results reflect the responses of 1,013 adults 18 or older. The sampling error for the survey is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.