America sees moral shortfall, looks to faith

Poll reaffirms the concept of 'one nation, under God,' with people viewing more religion as the antidote to social ills.

Americans put a lot of faith in faith.

According to an in-depth national report released today, a large US majority wants religion's influence on society to increase.

This may seem surprising, coming as controversies over school prayer and the Ten Commandments test the courts, and as some people are uneasy about the freer use of religious language in politics. But Americans remain deeply concerned about a loss of moral moorings in the US, and they are looking to religion as the best means to right the ship.

The 100-question survey of more than 1,500 Americans, by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization in New York, portrays a people convinced of religion's ability to change attitudes and behavior, but, quite remarkably, equally attuned to the importance of respect for religious diversity.

"[Respondents showed] an intrinsic respect for pluralism, a deep commitment to religious freedom; and in wanting more religion, they say it can be any religion, not just their own," says Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda president.

Other broad indications emerging from the report, titled "For Goodness' Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life":

* Many are ready for a "softening" of the separation of church and state in some areas.

* Despite hand-wringing over politicians' behavior, government is not where people expect religion to have much effect.

* In the workplace, religion should be introduced only with tact and discretion, and accommodation to the needs for diverse religious observances should be made where reasonable.

* Some minorities - Jews and the nonreligious - remain wary of any significant increase in religion's public role.

Americans' most immediate concern is how to remedy the moral deficiencies they see persisting in society - deterioration in family structure, declining civility and respectfulness, and rising materialism. Some 69 percent see more religion as "the best way to strengthen family values and moral behavior." They also expect it would lead to a decrease in crime and greed.

The paradox is that previous surveys have shown that religious people don't differ much in priorities and behavior from the nonreligious (divorce, goals in life, etc.), that the secular culture has pervaded the daily lives of everyone. Perhaps aware of this, most respondents chose as their definition for being religious, "making sure that one's behavior and day-to-day actions match one's faith."

It's the perceived close tie between religion and morality, and a growing alarm over the state of American youth, that drive the strong desire to bring religion back into the schools. "There is this sense that young people are out of control, with no moral compass, and religion is the antidote," Ms. Wadsworth says.

Americans place a remarkable confidence in the influence of school prayer: 56 percent call it one of the most effective ways to improve youths' values and behavior, and 74 percent say it teaches that faith in religion and God is an important part of life.

Gallup polls have long shown broad support for prayer in the classroom - in clear conflict with Supreme Court decisions. But by providing more options for consideration, this study reveals that people are much more thoughtful about both sides of the issue, and a majority opts for middle ground. Fifty-three percent prefer "a moment of silence"; 20 percent, a prayer referring to God, but no specific religion; 19 percent say "avoid all of these"; and only 6 percent say "a Christian prayer."

Jews differ strongly, with 60 percent wanting to avoid any action. Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Center for Jewish Learning, cites his people's historical memory of "school prayers in which Christian language was used and made them feel like outsiders.... For the average Jew, a moment of silence, right or wrong, is a slippery slope."

While showing appreciation for the value of church-state separation, 60 percent disagree that "school prayer violates the Constitution."

Some also part company with the "separation" idea in funding faith-based organizations to carry out social programs. "It's a good idea even if these programs promote religious messages," say 44 percent. But 31 percent call it a bad idea, and 23 percent accept it only if the programs avoid religious messages.

President-elect George W. Bush has made this a priority and plans a White House office on faith-based programs.

"We are seeing that there is going to be a renegotiation of this boundary between church and state," Rabbi Kula says.

When it comes to religion and politics, Americans' skepticism jumps to the surface. Despite the yearning for more moral behavior, their view of what it takes to rise in politics makes many say being more religious wouldn't make much difference.

They feel strongly that it's wrong to vote for candidates based on religion. They don't want politicians to emphasize their own beliefs when making substantive choices. And they place a high value on compromise, even on sensitive issues such as gay rights, the death penalty, and abortion. They endorse the right of religious leaders to be active in politics, but have mixed views on the impact.

A clear message, Wadsworth says, is that in all areas of public life Americans want religious influence, but on the basis of "practice what you preach, rather than preach your practice."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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