March 20, 2002

Americans Struggle with Religion’s Role at Home and Abroad

51% of Americans say Sept. 11 proves there is too little religion in the world

A poll released today by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 8-in-10 Americans believe that religion has a positive influence in the world today. By a margin of 51 percent to 28 percent, Americans think that the lesson of September 11 is that there is too little, not too much, religion in the world.

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But the public does not see all of religion’s effects as beneficial. A 65 percent majority believes that religion plays a significant role in most wars and conflicts in the world.

“Americans overwhelmingly view religion as a powerful force for good in our nation and in the world, but they also believe it can be a catalyst for conflict,” said Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum.

While most say Islam is not more likely to encourage violence than other religions, a plurality of Americans believe that, in general, “some religions” are more likely than others to encourage violence. According to Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, these findings reveal a “closet concern in the linkage between Islam and violence.”

Americans feel significantly more favorable toward Muslim-Americans than they did a year ago (54 percent hold a favorable view today, compared to 45 percent last spring). Favorability ratings for Muslim-Americans have dropped off only slightly since the surge in favorability documented in November 2001 (59 percent).

At the same time, when Americans were asked their opinions of Muslims without identifying them by nationality, Muslims’ favorability rating dropped to 47 percent, and when asked about Islam, favorable responses outweigh unfavorable ones by a thin 38-33 percent margin.

“Under the surface there’s potential for much more reaction down the road,” with regard to views of Muslims and Islam, Kohut said. “I don’t think we can be complacent because there is so much fragility in the measures.”

Three-quarters of Americans say that many religions can lead to eternal life, compared with only 18 percent who regard their own religion as the “one true faith.” Those with a high level of religious commitment are more likely to see their own faith as the only path to eternal life. Still, nearly half of highly committed white evangelical Protestants say many religions can lead to eternal life.

The number of Americans who believe that there are many paths to God is “very striking,” said E.J. Dionne Jr., senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of the Pew Forum, at a press briefing this morning. “For many Americans, there’s a desire to be simultaneously religious and tolerant.”
According to Bill Galston, professor at the University of Maryland, the fact that so many religious Americans believe in many paths, “speaks volumes about the nature of faith in America and tells a lot about how deep and even fervent faith can be reconciled with liberal democracy.”

Over the past half-century, there has been a steadily growing sense that people in this country, especially young people, lack the morals that they once had. In 1952, half of Americans saw no decline in public morals, and 57 percent said young people had as strong a sense of right and wrong as did the youth fifty years previously. Today, just 2-in-10 think Americans on the whole are as honest and moral as in the past, and an equally small number (19 percent) think that young people have the same sense of right and wrong as 50 years ago.

Galston expressed concern about this “moral pessimism” that “colors the entire outlook of American people today.”

But according to Karlyn Bowman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “This anxiety [about the loss of morality] is not new.” Some of it is “the familiar impulse to nostalgia. It’s quite natural to worry about the loss of things we hold dear,” she said.

Other significant findings include the following:

  • While the number of people who said that religion was increasing its influence in American life spiked markedly after September 11 (78 percent in a November Pew Forum/Pew Research Center poll), the number has returned to its pre-9/11 level. Just 37 percent believe that religion’s influence is increasing today–the same number that was reflected in the first annual Pew Forum/Pew Research Center poll released a year ago.
  • By a margin of 46 percent to 17 percent, Americans say the welfare reform legislation passed in 1996 changed things for the better compared with the previous system. Significantly, those who are most familiar with the system–current or former welfare beneficiaries and their families–also react positively to the changes (47-27 percent).
  • 7-in-10 Americans feel that houses of worship should not come out in favor of one political candidate over another during political elections.
  • 6-in-10 Americans believe children are more likely to grow up to be moral adults if they are raised in religious households, but just under half (47 percent) feel that belief in God is necessary to be moral, and only 13 percent believe a person has to have religious faith to be a good American.
  • Americans broadly condemn the Catholic Church’s handling of the ongoing sexual abuse scandal. Solid majorities of all religious groups surveyed–including Catholics themselves–say Church officials have mostly covered up cases of sexual abuse rather than dealing with the problem.

The nationwide survey of 2,002 adults was conducted February 25 through March 10 by the Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center and is the second annual survey of its kind.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life serves as both a town hall and a clearinghouse of information, providing independent research, new polling information, balanced analysis, and referrals to experts in the field. The Pew Forum is nonpartisan and does not take policy positions. It is supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to Georgetown University.

For a copy of the survey report, a transcript of the press briefing, or more information about the poll or the Pew Forum, please contact Heather Morton at (202) 955-5078.