Americans are critical of both the political left and the Christian right when it comes to their approaches to religion in the public square, according to a new national poll.
Liberals have gone “too far to keep religion out” of public life while conservatives have gone “too far in imposing their religious values,” said the study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
These findings from the two Pew organizations -- nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based research groups -- were just two of many indicators of public opinion contained in polls and reports released in August on religious life in the United States. The surveys varied widely. Gays, politics and even attendance at Jewish summer camps were among the topics covered.
The Pew poll found that 69% of respondents said liberals have gone “too far to keep religion out of school and government” and 49% contended that conservatives have gone “too far in imposing their religious values.”
The poll, released last week, was based on telephone interviews with 2,003 adults July 6-19. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
“People are sick of two extreme points of view,” said the Rev. Kurt Fredrickson, director of the doctor of ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and an expert on the relationship between religion and American life. “There is this middle group of people that recognizes that religion does still have a very strong influence in our culture.”
The results show that Americans -- the most religious people in the world, according to many studies -- are “particularly irritated” by the idea of removing religion from the public square, said John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life who worked on the study.
“On the other hand, while they might agree that there should be more religion in the public square, they don’t agree with the religious right,” Green said. “That particular solution is not the one they had in mind.”
Concern over the left’s efforts to restrict religion’s influence on what the poll called “American life” crossed party lines.
Large majorities of Republicans (87%), independents (65%) and Democrats (60%) denounced efforts by liberals to minimize religious influence in the public square, including 70% of conservative and moderate Democrats. Just 38% of liberal Democrats expressed this view.
The survey also found that two in three respondents (67%) characterize the United States as a Christian country. A decade ago, 60% so described the nation.
Most of those surveyed (78%) also view the Bible as the word of God. But only 35% believe it should be taken literally.
Despite a strong connection Americans see between Christianity and the nation’s identity, most said the Bible should not be the driving force behind creating laws.
For example, when asked which should have more influence over the nation’s law -- the Bible or the will of the people, even when it is in conflict with the book -- 63% of Americans said the people’s will should hold sway, compared with 32% who thought the Bible was superior.
The study also showed that political and social issues are regularly discussed in places of worship.
Nearly all participants in the poll who attend religious services at least once a month say their spiritual leaders speak out on hunger and poverty.
And majorities of those who attend services said their clergy discuss abortion (59%), Iraq (53%) and homosexuality (52%). Nearly half (48%) said clergy discuss the environment and four in 10 said they talk about evolution.
Americans may be divided over religious groups’ involvement in politics, but most saw President Bush’s religious expression as appropriate.
Slightly more than half (52%) said Bush mentions his religious faith the right amount and 14% said he talks about his faith too little. Almost a quarter (24%) believed the president mentions his faith too often.
A second Pew study found that Americans are not easily categorized as conservative or liberal when it comes to today’s most pressing social questions. Like the other Pew poll, it surveyed 2,003 adults and had a sampling error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
A majority (56%) continued to oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry, while 35% expressed support, but just three in 10 favored a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.
A growing number of Americans see homosexuality as an innate trait, with a 49% plurality saying a person’s sexual orientation cannot be changed. Though a slim majority (54%) favored allowing gay couples to enter into civil unions, only 42% thought gay couples should be allowed to adopt children.
A 56% majority of Americans said it is more important to conduct stem cell research that may lead to new medical cures than to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos involved in the research (32%).
For the first time in Pew polling, more white evangelicals now favor stem cell research (44%) than oppose it (40%) -- one of several surprising discoveries of the researchers.
In a nationwide survey of 1,000 adults by the Ventura-based Barna Group, most Americans view themselves as good people who are spiritually stable and live “a good and honorable life.”
The Barna Group is an independent marketing research firm that has tracked trends related to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984. The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
About 90% of Americans characterize themselves as a “good citizen,” “friendly” and “generous,” according to the Barna survey.
Another poll, also by Barna, finds the faith of Americans virtually indistinguishable today compared with before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The big spike in religious activity such as attending church, praying and studying the Bible in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 had no lasting impact, according to the study, which analyzed data from nine national surveys involving more than 8,600 adults before the attacks and at regular intervals since then.
“People used faith like a giant Band-Aid,” said David Kinnaman, who directed the study. “It helped people deal with the ugliness of the event, but it offered little in the way of deep healing and it was discarded after a brief period of use.”
Then there was the survey of 1,200 adults in Los Angeles County released by the Foundation for Jewish Camping. The marketing study was designed to help Jewish camps understand the motivations guiding parents who send their children to overnight camps.
The survey, supported by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, found that 15% of the children of those surveyed attended a Jewish summer camp last year.
Twice as many have attended such a camp at some point in their lives.
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Religion in America
Research groups released a variety of polls in August offering snapshots of public opinion about religion in the United States. Here are some findings from a poll conducted by groups affiliated with the Pew Research Center:
Among adults nationwide, those who view the Republican Party as friendly to religion:
Those who view the Democratic Party as friendly to religion:
Q: Which should have more influence over the law of the country?
Will of the people: 63%
Don’t know: 5%
Views by gender
Will of the people: 67%
Don’t know: 4%
Will of the people: 58%
Don’t know: 5%
Q: Do you believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ?
White mainline: 60%
White evangelical: 95%
Black Protestants: 92%
Q: (If yes) Do you believe Jesus will return in your lifetime?
White mainline: 7%
White evangelical: 33%
Black Protestants: 34%
Note: The survey interviewed 2,003 adults nationwide by telephone, July 6-19. The margin of sampling error for the entire sample is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points; it may be somewhat larger for subgroups.
Sources: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Paul Duginski Los Angeles Times