Poll shows Americans value the right of religious liberty

Sunday, January 14, 2001

According to a poll released this week, the vast majority of Americans greatly appreciate the religious freedom and diversity of our nation, even though they don't know much about religions other than their own.

The survey, conducted by Public Agenda, reports that only 28% of the
general public say they “understand very well” evangelical Christianity. The
numbers are even lower for Judaism (17%) and Islam (7%).

That may be because most people don't talk much about religion to
people of other faiths. Sixty percent haven't had “an in-depth conversation
about religion” with a Jewish person in recent years. Eighty percent haven't
had such a conversation with a Muslim.

Many Americans are hesitant to bring religion up in encounters with
other people. Sixty percent say it should be brought up in the workplace “only
with care,” and 30% think it's “best to avoid it if you can.” Only 9% think it
is “almost always appropriate” to talk about religion.

At the same time, Americans do seem interested in learning more about
other faiths. For example, a large majority of those polled for the Public
Agenda survey think that high schools should offer an elective course in the
world's major religions.

However hesitant Americans may be to talk about religion, they're
convinced that society needs more of it. More than 80% believe that Americans
would be more charitable and parents would do a better job if more of us became
“deeply religious.” Some 70% say that more religion would mean a decrease in
crime and materialism.

What about religion in schools? On the issue of school prayer, 53%
support a “moment of silence” rather than a spoken prayer in the classroom.
Twenty percent want a prayer that “refers to God but no specific religion,”
while 6% prefer a Christian prayer which “refers to Jesus.” Only 19% think that
schools should have none of the above.

It's worth noting that evangelical Christians support the moment of
silence option at the same level as the general public (53%). That challenges
the media stereotype of evangelicals as people who want prayer in school only
if it's their prayer.

Most people seem to support “celebrating Christmas” in the schools.
But 66% think that a Jewish holiday ought to get the same attention, and 56%
would give equal time to a Muslim holiday as well.

Of course, it's hard to tell from the poll what people think
“celebrating” means. Learning about these religious holidays in public schools
is constitutional, but promoting them is not. It's nice that people want to be
inclusive. But two or three constitutional wrongs still wouldn't add up to a
constitutional right.

In spite of their differences on many specific issues, it's clear from
this survey that religion matters to most Americans. Fully 74% agree that it's
a bad idea for families to raise children without any religion.

But when asked if religion is the “most important influence” in their
life, only evangelicals answer yes in high numbers (53%). Among other
Americans, only 20% say “yes.”

No matter how religious, non-religious or conflicted about the role of
religion in public life they might be, almost all Americans are grateful for
our nation's commitment to religious liberty. It's heartening to note that
fully 96% of us agree that freedom to choose in matters of faith is “one of the
greatest things about this country.”

A complete text of the survey is available online at

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