Poll Finds Support for Religion in Public Life


The American people have a deep belief in the power of religion to improve U.S. life, the president of a nonpartisan research organization.

The American people have a deep belief in the power of religion to improve U.S. life, the president of a nonpartisan research organization said Jan. 10.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life hosted the briefing at the Brookings Institution in Washington, to unveil a new study by Public Agenda on what Americans think about the place of religion, faith and personal morality in various arenas of public life — schools, the workplace, social gatherings, politics.

The study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, included a random-sample telephone survey of more than 1,500 adult Americans and in-depth discussions with seven focus groups in different parts of the country.

Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth said the belief of Americans in religion's power for, good "is largely driven by an equally strong conclusion that American society is suffering from an appalling dearth of morality."

"From the decline in family values to the rise of materialism, from a lack of civility to excessive crime, most Americans in our study, regardless of the issue that we start out with, wind up talking about moral decay; and in their view the antidote to this problem is a greater dose of religion in American life," she said.

The 60-page report on the study is titled "For Goodness' Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life." Highlights of its findings are available on the Internet at publicagenda.org.

The phone survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3%. The researchers did additional surveys of self-identified Jews and nonreligious people to establish statistically reliable samples of more than 200 in each of those subgroups.

According to the survey, most Americans think that if Americans were more religious, volunteer and charity work would increase, children would be raised better, and there would be less crime, greed and materialism. A full 69% of respondents agreed that religion is the best way to strengthen moral behavior and family values.

A slim majority, 52%, thought a more religious populace would show less tolerance toward people with "unconventional lifestyles." Nearly two-thirds did not think prejudice toward religious minorities would increase. A majority of Jews and nonreligious respondents, however, felt prejudice toward religious minorities would go up.

When asked about public school prayer, 53% of those polled favored a moment of silence; 20% thought students should say a prayer that refers to God but not to any specific religion; 6% favored a Christian prayer that refers to Jesus; only 19% said public schools should avoid all of those.

Majorities of Jewish and nonreligious respondents opposed any form of school prayer, however. Most regarded it as unconstitutional, an infringement on parents' rights and embarrassing to students of minority religions or no religion.

Two-thirds of respondents said a major Jewish holiday, should receive the same attention in school as Christmas if Jewish parents request it. A slightly smaller majority, 56%, said the same should hold for a Muslim holiday.

The report said the inclusiveness represented in the favorable responses on non-Christian holidays and on silent or nondenominational prayer indicates a strong desire by Americans "to navigate a middle ground" — encouraging a religious presence in their public institutions while recognizing the country's religious pluralism and avoiding the tensions that can rise from it.

Those polled also complained of bias in the media against religion (cited by 56%) and a general dissatisfaction with media coverage of religion (64%).


The results showed a great deal of caution in mixing politics and religion. This year's presidential campaign may have had a large role in these negative feelings, after the controversies over George W. Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University and fund-raisers for Vice President Al Gore at the Playboy Mansion.

Senator Joseph Lieberman's openly speaking about his Jewish faith brought many other such statements from Bush and Gore about their own religious experience.

A full 74% of those polled said that politicians who talk about their faith "are just saying what people want to hear."

Fifty-eight percent said it is wrong for voters to seriously consider a candidate's religious affiliation in deciding how to cast their vote; 37% said a candidate's affiliation should matter when deciding how to vote.

Only 26% said that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who always decides on the basis of his religious convictions.

One of Bush's campaign promises was to make greater use of faith-based groups as suppliers of government-funded social programs.

Two-thirds of survey respondents favored increased government funding to churches or religious groups for social programs such as homeless shelters or help for addicts, while 31% opposed idea.

Nearly two-thirds of those in favor thought government funding should be available even if the programs in question promote a religious message.

In a two-hour panel discussion at the briefing, experts had a lively debate about the possible implications, points of tension and questions arising from the findings.

Panelist Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard University professor of government, said the survey findings indicate most Americans hold the "socially useful" view of religion articulated by President Eisenhower, that "having some religion or other will produce a better social and moral order."

He said, however, that less evident was the "faith as truth" perspective and the related "prophetic role of religion in politics" — the idea of "troublesome" challenges to the status quo because of a faith conviction that they are wrong.

Sandel cited the 19th-century abolitionist movement and current movements opposing abortion, capitalism and the death penalty as examples.


Zenit "Poll Finds Support for Religion in Public Life." National Catholic Register. (January 21-27, 2001).

This news analysis was provided by Zenit.

ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.

Copyright © 2001 ZENIT

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