THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting new report from the Public Religion Research Institute that found, contrary to the wishes of church officials, American Catholics have fairly progressive, mainstream views on marriage equality and gay rights.

Nearly three-quarters of Catholics favor either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43%) or allowing them to form civil unions (31%). Only 22% of Catholics say there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship. […]

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Catholics favor laws that would protect gay and lesbian people against discrimination in the workplace; 63% of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military; and 6-in-10 (60%) Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. […]

Less than 4-in-10 (39%) Catholics give their own church top marks (a grade of either an A or a B) on its handling of the issue of homosexuality.

Jamelle Bouie added, “This also holds true for abortion, the death penalty, and divorce, where there is almost no difference between Catholics and the public writ large.”

Given the larger public debate about these social issues, the opinion research should matter quite a bit. For policymakers worried about “the Catholic vote,” assuming that the church’s conservative attitudes are shared by adherents, it’s important for the political world to realize the difference. A priest’s message on the political culture war doesn’t always resonate with his parishioners — on the contrary, more often than not, it’s the opposite.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The latest twist in Oklahoma’s bizarre war on sharia has led Republicans to try to ban the use of all foreign law in state courts.

* In related news, the anti-sharia crusade in Tennessee was scaled back, just a little, when its leading proponents agreed to change the wording of their legislative proposal, making clear that “peaceful religious practices” would not be made criminal. How progressive of them.

* A Methodist pastor in North Carolina was forced from his church after saying he doesn’t necessarily believe that hell is a literal place.

* President Obama, as part of an ongoing effort to communicate directly with Iranians, delivered a Nowruz message this week.

* The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, still reeling from its role in covering up the systematic sexual abuse of many children, was hit this week with yet another lawsuit.

* And the Rev. Franklin Graham believes the recent disasters in Japan may be evidence that the Second Coming is near. Remember, in some circles, Franklin Graham is considered a credible religious figure.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.