WHILE political, social, and technological forces have vastly reshaped America in the past half-century, belief in God, reliance on prayer, and acceptance of spiritual values have remained almost constant. So concludes George Gallup Jr. in a special report that looks at religion in the United States from 1935 to 1985.
The Gallup Organization, headquartered close to the Princeton University campus here, has tested public preferences in presidential elections since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Less publicized have been its periodic reports on ``Religion in America.''
Noting the approaching holiday, Dr. Gallup said in an interview, ``I think that at Christmastime people put aside some of their more selfish motives . . . and move into an area of greater commitment [to spiritual values].''
But interest in religion and acknowledgment of the supremacy of God are on the upswing today and do not just manifest themselves in seasonal goodwill, says Gallup, who took over the polling group's reins after his well-known father passed on earlier this year.
Perhaps Gallup's most significant new finding is that more Americans today (48 percent) than in the past three decades believe that religion is having an increasing influence on American life (see chart). This is uniformly true for men and women, younger and older citizens, and Protestants and Roman Catholics. Only in the late 1950s was confidence in religious influence higher, the pollster says.
At the same time, 56 percent of those interviewed feel that religion is ``very important'' in their own lives. This has remained steady over a five-year period, and is up slightly from the late '70s. Sixty-one percent of the respondents said that ``religion can answer all or most of today's problems.'' This figure has remained fairly constant in the past decade.
Gallup cites other trends which bolster his conclusion that religion is ``alive and well'' in America. For example, his latest surveys show church membership remaining fairly high (68 percent), along with reliance on prayer (87 percent) and belief in God (95 percent).
But he stresses that this commitment does not translate into church attendance, nor is it always reflected in moral or ethical values. In fact, last year only 39 percent of Protestants and 51 percent of Catholics said they went to church.
Ironically, crime, sexual promiscuity, and fraudulent business practices have flourished in the US, Gallup says, while religious commitment has remained stable or even grown stronger.
``It's something of a paradox: Morality is losing ground, and religion is gaining ground,'' he adds. ``We have a high crime rate, a very high divorce rate, a high rate of cheating . . . [and] tax evasion.''
He explains this in terms of the difficulty of ``bridging the gap'' between one's beliefs and human actions -- ``the superficiality of faith . . . and what would appear to be a failure, in part, of organized religion to make a difference in society in terms of morality and ethics.''
But Gallup suggests that the situation might actually be worse if it were not for ``religion acting as something of a brake or as an inspiration.''
The pollster, a practicing Episcopalian, says the most important element in coming to grips with the ills of society is ``spiritual commitment.''
``Until greater proportions of the populace are moved to the level of deep spiritual commitment, we will not see a great deal of improvement there,'' Gallup says.
He says it should be the prime task of religious leaders to inspire that deeper spiritual commitment among their members, ``and not just get them into the churches or synagogues.''
Another key Gallup finding is that youth -- after an apparent turning away from church and religion in the 1960s -- are slowly returning to the fold.
``We do see signs of new interest in religion on the part of young adults in this country,'' Gallup says. ``There's a slight upturn in churchgoing among young people. And when we survey college students, we find that a higher proportion than in the last five or six years say that religion is very important in their lives.''
Gallup notes that the influence of fundamentalist religions on youth is relatively strong today. But he says this is not the prime factor in the upswing.
``The interest in religion is across the board. And students are interested in religion in general. Religious-studies courses in colleges are oversubscribed. They [young adults] are searching for spiritual moorings. But it's not necessarily within a traditional religious framework [such as church membership],'' he points out.
Mr. Gallup steers clear of making value judgments on the current controversy over separation of church and state. But he says his polls indicate that ``the vast majority of Americans would like prayer in the schools.''
``By the same token,'' he says, ``most Americans say that spiritual [teaching] takes place best in the home or church. That's where they feel religious background and interests should be built up.''
Further, he says many people have conflicting ideas about the entanglement of religion and politics.
``They want their ministers, priests, and rabbis to speak out on issues facing the nation; but they don't want these same ministers, priests, and rabbis to be actively involved in the political scene and endorsing candidates,'' he explains.
Gallup says churches and individuals are going through a period of searching. ``We are essentially very religious, and we want to be more religious. But we don't always know how to go about it. I think the emphasis of churches should be on the how of religion . . . how to bring the Bible into one's life, how to learn to pray.
``If the churches do this,'' he predicts, ``we may be moving toward a period of religious renewal or, conceivably, revival.'' CHART: Survey question: At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing it influence? Percent saying religion is increasing influence Source: The Gallup Organization