Looking behind the numbers

Sunday, December 23, 2001

Is religion gaining influence in American life?

An astounding 78% of Americans say “yes,” up from a mere 37% only eight months ago, according to a new survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life. The last time a majority of us saw religion as a growing force in our nation was during the Eisenhower era some 45 years ago.

This surprising leap is just one more signal that Sept. 11 has changed the way many of us see the world.

What’s behind the poll results? The easy explanation is that it’s a temporary blip on the screen. People are simply responding to the very public outpouring of religious faith from the steps of the Capital to city hall in the aftermath of the horrific attacks on America.

And that may be partly true. Putting up “God Bless America” signs and holding prayer services in sports arenas doesn’t necessarily signal a lasting change in how Americans view religion. In fact, the survey tells us that about the same number of people view religion as “very important” in their lives now as they did before Sept. 11 (slightly more than 60%). Religious observance did increase this fall among the already religious — but those who weren’t religiously active prior to the attacks are no more observant now.

But that’s not the whole story. It’s also possible that in the aftermath of Sept. 11 Americans have become more aware of changes in our society that have quietly taken place in the past few decades. In other words, the terrorist attacks may not have altered the level of religious commitment in our private lives — but they may have uncovered just how important religion has already become in America’s public square.

Until Sept. 11, for example, how many Americans had focused on the exploding religious diversity that is re-shaping our nation? This fall people in all parts of the country are suddenly discovering Mosques in their town and Muslims in their neighborhoods. And with more awareness comes more acceptance. Almost 60% of the American people now view Muslim-Americans favorably — up from 45% last March. Interestingly, the survey reveals that the more familiar people are with Islam, the more positively they view Muslim-Americans.

Sept. 11 has also triggered widespread public discussion about deeply religious and moral questions. Religious issues are front and center. What is the nature of evil? What is a “just war?” Some religious leaders sparked a national controversy by suggesting that the terrorist attacks signaled God’s withdrawal of protection from the United States. (A view that 73% of the American people completely reject, according to the poll.)

But the re-entry of religion into American public life isn’t an overnight phenomenon. Religious voices have been heard with increasing frequency in the public arena for some time now. From debates about the death penalty and stem cell research to President Bush’s “faith-based initiatives,” religious perspectives are now prevalent in many of our most challenging public-policy debates.

For better or for worse (and Americans are divided about this), religion’s influence in our society will continue to grow in 2002, especially if the Supreme Court declares school vouchers constitutional and if the president’s faith-based initiative passes Congress.

What does this mean for the body politic? First and foremost, it means we’ll need the First Amendment more than ever. The key to negotiating religious differences in the public square is strong constitutional protections that allow all of us to express our faith in public debates, but keep the government from promoting one religion over another or religion over non-religion in deciding public policy.

It goes without saying, however, that a legal framework by itself isn’t enough to sustain a healthy democracy. We’ll also need to re-affirm the spirit of the First Amendment by agreeing to protect the rights of others — even those with whom we deeply disagree.

Of course, we should robustly debate our differences — and seek to persuade others to our view. But in the interest of holding this most religiously diverse of nations together, we must find ways to do so with civility and respect.