Americans have moved a long way from the time when religion and politics were the two hot topics to avoid at all costs in conversation. Today, some 100 million Americans discuss political issues with friends and family in a given week, and 90 million say they bring up spiritual or religious matters, says the Barna Research Group.
And it's clear that religion and politics are becoming more entwined in the American psyche. A nationwide survey released last week shows that religion plays a significant part in people's thinking about contentious policy issues and is seen increasingly as an important element in political life.
Religious perspectives show up readily, for example, in public attitudes toward such disparate issues as gay marriage and US foreign policy in the Middle East, according to the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The groups surveyed 2,002 adults between June 24 and July 8.
The poll reports that opposition to gay marriage decreased significantly in the US from 65 percent in 1996 to 53 percent today. Opposition dropped in nearly every segment of society, by 10 to 20 percent, except for two groups - white evangelical Protestants (83 percent opposed) and African-Americans (64 percent) - whose views did not change.
Strong support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is tied to faith concerns. Fully 44 percent of Americans believe God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people, the poll says.
And 36 percent believe that "the state of Israel is a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus" - 63 percent of evangelicals, 21 percent of mainline Protestants, and 25 percent of Catholics.
On the role of faith in political life, the survey could help boost religious rhetoric in the presidential campaign. It finds Americans are quite comfortable with the religiosity of public officials - particularly President Bush.
A 62 percent majority says he strikes the right balance in how much he mentions religious faith, and 58 percent say his reliance on religion in policymaking is appropriate.
When asked in general about expressions of faith and prayer by political leaders, 41 percent said there was "too little," and only 21 percent said "too much."
America has apparently moved beyond that era when religion was strictly a private affair. "Many people seem to look at it as allowing politicians to talk about themselves and what is important to them," suggests Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum. "There's more of an inclination for people today to be very open about who they are and what they believe."
Americans also acknowledge that a candidate's religion might affect their voting choices - 64 percent say it could lead them to vote against a well-qualified candidate from their party. A majority (52 percent) expresses reservations about supporting a candidate who has no religion, and 38 percent would be reluctant to vote for a Muslim.
Last March, a Pew poll on global attitudes taken in many Muslim nations revealed increasingly unfavorable perceptions of the US. The current US survey finds that Americans' perceptions of Islam have also deteriorated.
In March 2002, a year and a half after Sept. 11, only 25 percent said that Islam is "more likely than other religions to encourage violence." Today, 44 percent of Americans believe that, with significant increases occurring among mainline Protestants and Catholics as well as evangelicals.
Still, views toward Muslim Americans have not changed significantly, with 51 percent of Americans holding a favorable view, and only 24 percent unfavorable.
Muslim Americans remain particularly concerned, however, about those with negative views. Earlier this month, an Islamic civil rights group, the Council on American- Islamic Relations, released its annual report on anti-Muslim incidents in the US. According to the council, incidents of violence, discrimination, and harassment increased by 15 percent in 2002, from 525 confirmed incidents to 602.
The nature of incidents varies greatly. Just last week in one Maryland county, for example, two Pakistani youths were murdered - the FBI is investigating the motive - and a cross was set ablaze on the grounds of an Islamic school.