Americans Not of One Mind on Religion

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Thursday, March 14, 2002

Americans Not of One Mind on Religion
By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

The results of a national poll, conducted for the second year in a row by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, yields some interesting insights into American attitudes about religion and its role in our lives. The survey was conducted between February 25 and March 10 of 2002, and was released this week with a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Some of the results were predictable, some surprising, and some apparently contradictory.

Questions about the influence of religion in American life produced a variety of results at different periods during the past year. While a majority of Americans (55%) saw religion declining as an influence in public life in March of 2001, in a separate poll conducted in November of 2001-two months after September 11-a much larger majority (78%) saw religious influence on the increase. By March of 2002 only 37% of Americans saw religious influence on the increase. However, the vast majority considers the increasing influence of religion a good thing-85%.

On the relationship between religion and morality, Americans split almost evenly between those who believe that a belief in God is necessary in order to be a moral person (47%) and those who do not deem it necessary (50%). On the other hand, an overwhelming majority (84%) agree that it is possible to be a good citizen without a strong religious faith. One panelist quipped that this might lead us to conclude that nearly 50 percent of Americans believe it is possible to be a good citizen without being moral. A clear majority (61%) believes that children raised with a strong religious faith are more likely to grow up to be moral adults. Someone attempted to account for this seeming contradiction by suggesting that Americans have vastly different ideas about the meaning of the word “religion.” Faith communities, rather than doctrine or theology, may be the image conjured up in most Americans’ minds by the word, suggested a panelist. A majority (58%) believes that America’s strength is based on religious faith. While most Americans have a relatively positive view of people of other faiths, atheists are persistently viewed unfavorably by a majority, especially in the South and Midwest.

On policy issues that clearly relate to issues of moral and religious values, like welfare reform, a majority of Americans (53%) continue to view the old welfare system as encouraging dependency on government handouts. Of those who believe the welfare reform legislation of 1996 has had an effect on the system, 46% believe the changes have been for the better, compared to 17% who view the new system as worse. Among those who have ever received welfare benefits, an even higher percentage-47%-see the changes in a positive light. Only 15% see the changes as making matters worse. Most Americans continue to view poverty as a failure of individuals rather than a failure of economics. Fifty percent believe that children live in poverty as result of the failure of parents, compared to only 31% who blame social and economic problems.

One result may come as a surprise to those of us who support efforts by the Bush administration and other political leaders to encourage marriage: When asked whether the government should develop programs to encourage people to get and stay married, 79% say they would prefer that the government “stay out” of such matters, compared with only 18% who favor such efforts. The most supportive group of all is white evangelicals, but only 35% of them favor such programs. A majority-60%-oppose them. It may be that the way the question was phrased led at least some respondents to answer in the negative. It may be that Americans are wary of government intrusion in such matters and are more likely to support private and church-based efforts in this area. This is one of those polling responses that raises more questions than it answers, and supporters of the marriage movement would do well to ponder how best to respond to this apparent lack of popular enthusiasm for marriage support initiatives.

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