Public Look at Private Pews

Placing a person's religious thinking under the microscope of polling and focus groups has an inherent flaw: It seeks to observe objectively what is subjective.

It's like trying to know a church by looking at its stained-glass windows from the outside, when the beauty (and truth) lie in the experience from within.

Still, a nonpartisan group called Public Agenda, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, has used scientific research (calling 1,507 Americans and probing various focus groups) to glean insights on how much people want spiritual thinking brought to families, jobs, schools, and other public communities. (See story on page 3.)

The simple conclusion: more.

Seven of 10 Americans say more religion is the best way to strengthen family values and moral behavior.

And just over half say the most important meaning of being religious is to make sure one's behavior matches one's faith - more than attending a service or feeling God's presence.

A whopping 80 percent reject the idea that society would do well if many Americans were to abandon their religious faith. And raising children without any religion is rejected overwhelmingly. Just over half say the media has a bias against religion.

The depth of spiritual commitment among Americans also helps them know the limits of practicing religion in the public realm, where views may differ. Tolerance remains high, but so too does a desire for some form of school prayer that won't offend those of other faiths. They look for elected leaders who draw strength from religion but don't flout it on the stump.

Faith can't be measured, but the surest measure of faith is that people say it is at work for them.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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