WASHINGTON – A majority of U.S. college students say religion is important in their lives and that they’re concerned about the country’s moral direction, a finding that could influence the way they vote in upcoming elections, according to a Harvard University Institute of Politics poll that was released Tuesday.

In a telephone survey of 1,200 American college students, 7 out of 10 said religion was somewhat or very important in their lives, and 1 in 4 said they’d become more spiritual since entering college.

Fifty-four percent said they were concerned about the moral direction of the country.

Students who were surveyed said abortion policy, stem cell research and gay marriage provoked questions of morality. In a finding that surprised the institute, 50 percent said the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina raised questions of morality.

Sixty-two percent of students who identified themselves as Republicans said religion was losing its influence on American society, while 54 percent of Democrats said it was increasing its influence. Most agreed, however, that a candidate’s religion wouldn’t affect how they voted.

Jeanne Shaheen, the director of the Institute of Politics, said in a statement that the findings showed that “religion and morality are critical to how students think about politics and form opinions on political issues.”

“Students have gone from the “me’ generation, Generation X, to the “we’ generation,” Shaheen said.

The poll results make it hard to define college students as liberal or conservative, based on the traditional definitions of those political views, the institute found. While 44 percent of the student population could be considered traditional liberals and 16 percent traditional conservatives, 25 percent could be considered religious centrists and 13 percent fall into the secular centrist category.

American college students could play a major role in upcoming elections. Eighteen- to 24-year-olds cast 11.6 million votes in the 2004 presidential election, 3 million more than in 2000, according to the institute.

“We do care, we are involved and we do vote,” said Caitlin Monahan, 20, a Harvard government major who helped formulate the poll questions and collect data for the survey.

The institute also found that:

-College students’ opinions about potential 2008 presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are split. Forty percent said they’d vote for Clinton, and another 40 percent favored McCain. The remaining 20 percent said they were unsure which candidate they liked best.

-Only one-third approved of the job President Bush was doing, while 59 percent disapproved. Eight percent were unsure.

-59 percent said they thought the country was on the “wrong track,” 30 percent said it was on the right track and 12 percent said they didn’t know.

-Seventy-two percent said the United Nations, not the U.S., should lead in international crises and resolve conflicts. Sixty-six percent said the U.S. should deploy troops in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing.

-Sixty percent said the U.S. should begin to withdraw troops from Iraq.

To see which political classification you’d fall under, go to www.iop.harvard.edu and click on IOP Political Personality Test.

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