Americans see religion as gaining clout in public life

Suddenly, a big majority of the public sees religion as a more influential player, a new poll finds.

For the first time in almost half a century, a substantial majority of Americans see religion as gaining influence in public life.

The shift in public perception is both sudden and dramatic. The number of Americans who say religion now has a higher profile in society has more than doubled just since the beginning of this year - a leap that can probably be attributed, at least in part, to Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

This viewpoint - which, according to a nationwide survey released on Thursday, jumped dramatically from 37 percent in March to 78 percent in November - is shared by virtually all demographic and religious groupings.

"The widespread influence of religion is now more visible, more welcome, and more diverse," says Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center.

Some observers say that the reasons for the shift are varied - whether it be a renewed focus on the more significant questions of life, an acknowledgement of the need for deeper perspectives to guide the nation in coming months, or simply an awareness of greater religious involvement in issues of public concern over the past year.

For some, the results confirm that the nation has entered a new era, in which religion is no longer seen as simply a private matter but very much a part of the public sphere. "It's a quiet revolution that has been building since the 1980s, but this presidency has reinforced the trend," Dr. Haynes says.

At the same time, Americans have responded in the aftermath of the attacks with an across-the-board rise in acceptance of Muslim Americans. Those having a favorable image of Muslims increased from 45 percent in March to 59 percent today, with only 17 percent expressing a negative view.

The findings are from a survey of 1,500 adults carried out in November by the Pew Center for the People and Press in collaboration with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The new perception that religion is gaining influence is somewhat puzzling, particularly since, the survey confirms, there is little evidence that peoples have changed their spiritual practices in their personal lives. Only those who were already very religious are praying more or attending church more regularly.

Some suggest this may simply be a response to the innumerable public expressions of faith of recent weeks.

"It probably reflects the recurring TV images of leaders engaged in religious gatherings, and the president's own drawing on his spiritual side in talking about the war on terrorism," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But others see a rising religiosity outside of officialdom, as well.

"It reflects my experience as I travel across the country," counters Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "People are continuing to talk more openly about religious subjects and realizing many others share their concerns."

Over the past year, a number of controversial public-policy issues have drawn avid religious participation in the debate, from the White House's faith-based initiative, to proposals for a moratorium on the death penalty, to stem cell research and human cloning.

The Pew Forum, created to encourage public discussion on religion and politics, has also documented religious participation in issues that dominated public policy headlines in 2001. Its new report, released yesterday, suggests that a great mix of religions and religious groups are joining the debates - not just conservative groups or Catholics who have engaged on specific issues. "Many other religious groups are finding their voice, so there's a 'diversity push' for more religion in public life," Haynes adds.

Attitudes towards Muslims have improved among all political and religious groups in the United States. The survey shows that Mr. Bush's core supporters, conservative Republicans, made the most substantial leap in acceptance, from 35 percent to 64 percent. "That's probably directly attributable to presidential leadership," Dr. Land says.

Muslims will be encouraged by the fact that, in their case, familiarity seems to breed appreciation. The improved image of Muslims seems closely tied to knowledge about the faith as well as to education levels. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of those with some knowledge of Islam have a favorable view, compared with 53 percent of those who say they know little.

The poll also explored reactions to the view espoused by prominent conservatives that the terrorist attacks were a sign that God no longer protects the US. A resounding 73 percent dismissed the idea, with evangelicals only slightly behind at 63 percent.

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