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Religion in public life: Americans yearn for a middle way

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2006



Concerned about the moral state of their country, many Americans have long said they desire more religious influence in public life. They still feel that way, but they're also growing wary about the forms it is taking.

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A national survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on Aug. 24 shows ambivalence about the relationship of religion to politics and social issues, and unhappiness with extreme positions. The public is not polarized into liberal and conservative camps, the poll suggests, but yearns to find middle ground on contentious social issues.

There is distress about both ends of the political spectrum: 49 percent of American adults say conservatives are too assertive about trying to impose their religious values on the nation, yet 69 percent say liberals go too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government.

"Americans value religion, and attempts to remove it generically from the public square bother a lot of people," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum, which cosponsored the survey with Pew Research Center on People & the Press, both in Washington, D.C. "But they start getting worried when religion becomes highly politicized," he says. "They don't want it to be too far to one side or the other, or too much in favor of one particular group."

Indeed, the poll shows that relatively few people say they belong to either extreme – the "religious right" or "religious left." Only 11 percent identify with the religious right, a slight drop from the 1990s, Dr. Green says, perhaps reflecting the decline of the Christian Coalition. The right includes about one-quarter of conservative Republicans and 20 percent of white Evangelicals.

Only 7 percent of Americans identify with the "religious left," yet that is an increase over previous years. Since the 2004 election, considerable foment has arisen within religious circles over the political agenda of the right, with new groups forming to present alternative views on values.

Perhaps surprisingly, the survey found stronger affiliation in these categories among African-Americans and younger adults. Fourteen percent of blacks identify with the religious left; 19 percent say they belong to the religious right. Among adults under 30, 14 percent choose the religious left, while 13 percent choose the right.

According to pollsters, the right remains a more potent political force because members agree on a cohesive list of key political issues, while those on the left hold a variety of views.

Indeed, the survey traces the spiritual roots of the right to white Evangelical Christians (about 24 percent of the US population), which the poll reveals as having views "distinctly different from those held by the rest of the public and even other religious groups."

When asked, for example, which should have more influence on US laws – the will of the American people or the Bible – 60 percent of white Evangelicals chose the Bible. Other Protestant, Catholic, and secular groups voted the opposite way by huge majorities.

Similarly, strong majorities of white Evangelicals believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people and that the state of Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, views not shared by majorities of the rest of the public. While 62 percent of white Evangelicals say the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, only 24 percent of Catholics, and 17 percent of mainline Protestants share that view (35 percent of the public as a whole).

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