The Answer to Our Prayers

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Do Americans believe religion is our saving grace? On the one hand, a recent survey shows, they think more religion would help eliminate drug abuse, fight crime, improve child-rearing, and make more people want to help one another. On the other, they say religion has little power to bring peace and harmony to the world. And while the majority of Americans say they favor prayer in school, most would prefer a moment of silence over any kind of prayer — even if it's nondenominational. Those are just a few of the paradoxical findings of a recent survey by Public Agenda, entitled “For Goodness' Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life.�

For the study, the organization surveyed more than 2,600 respondents about their opinions on religion in politics, schools, and social settings. A full 70 percent of those surveyed claim they want religion to play a greater role in society, but they also say the most important influence needs to be at a more personal level. Sixty-two percent say it's most important for religion to influence how people behave in their personal lives, whereas 14 percent say it is most important for religion to influence public schools, and a mere 5 percent believe its most important role is in penetrating government. In fact, 69 percent of respondents say more religion is the best way to strengthen family values and moral behavior in America. Just 25 percent say a reliance on religion isn't necessary, and 4 percent say there's nothing wrong with family values and moral behavior as they are.

Puppy Lovers

Demographics of pet owners.

Male 19%
Female 81%
Under 25 10%
25-34 19%
35-44 24%
45-54 27%
55-64 12%
65 and older 7%
Married 64%
Single 25%
Widowed 3%
Divorced 8%
Without children under 18 72%
With children under 18 28%
Source: American Animal Hospital Association

However, not everyone agrees that greater religious conviction would help make the world a more peaceful place. Fifty-four percent of Jews, for instance, say it's likely there would be increased prejudice toward religious minorities if more Americans became deeply religious, and 59 percent of this group says it's likely that people with unconventional lifestyles would be less tolerated. This attitude may stem from the fact that many in this group already feel such intolerance. Sixty-four percent of Jews say maintaining a Jewish identity is a constant struggle in today's society, and 80 percent agree that they are constantly on guard to fight anti-Semitism. Opening the door to more religious influence in public life, they fear, could lead to more of the same.

Part of the problem may be that Americans remain relatively uninformed about religious teachings and practices other than their own. Only 43 percent of the general public say they understand the basic beliefs of Catholicism; 28 percent understand Evangelical Christianity; 17 percent Judaism, and 7 percent Islam. This may be because the majority of people still consider religion a taboo subject. Sixty-three percent say the subject “should be brought up only with care� with friends at a party, 22 percent say it's “best to avoid it altogether,� and just 14 percent believe religion is “almost always appropriate� to discuss.

Despite the debates over the years, a majority of Americans view public schools as a proper venue for instilling religious beliefs. Sixty percent of respondents disagree with the statement that “school prayer violates the Constitution and the idea of separation of church and state.� Nearly three in four respondents agree that school prayer “teaches children that faith in religion and God is an important part of life,� and 56 percent agree that school prayer is one of the most effective ways to improve children's behavior. Yet the majority (53 percent) favor a moment of silence over a spoken non-denominational prayer (20 percent) or a Christian prayer referring to Jesus (6 percent). Just 19 percent think that schools should skip prayer altogether.

Yet, while most respondents favor prayer in school, they are aware that it might be offensive to some. Fifty-seven percent agree that it's unfair to parents who want to teach their own children about religion and 52 percent say it embarrasses and isolates students whose religion is different or who aren't religious. These views are especially pervasive among religious minorities. Sixty percent of Jews and 56 percent of the nonreligious feel “that public schools should keep prayer or a moment of silence out of the schools entirely.� In fact, 78 percent of Jews and 72 percent of nonreligious adults agree that school prayer violates the Constitution and the separation of church and state.

Speaking of state (government, that is), nearly half of Americans (47 percent) say that if more elected officials were deeply religious, their decisions about laws and policies probably would be better. Yet Americans are more inclined to vote for candidates based on the issues, not on their religious affiliation. Some 58 percent believe it's wrong for voters to “seriously consider the religious affiliation of candidates when they decide whom to support.� Instead, Americans say they seek out candidates with honesty and integrity. Yet they also say religion is the path to living a more moral life. Forty-eight percent say we need more politicians with honesty and integrity, not more who are religious; and 49 percent say if more pols were religious, they would be more likely to be honest and have integrity. Politicians take note: If you can divine the conundrum that is religion in America, you just may have a prayer of holding public office.

Divine Intervention

Seventy-nine percent of the general public believes crime would likely decrease if more people became deeply religious.

If Americans were to become deeply religious…

Volunteer and charity work would increase 87% 10%
Parents would do a better job of raising their kids 85% 11%
Crime would decrease 79% 17%
Greed and materialism would decrease 69% 26%
Tolerance toward people with unconventional lifestyles would decrease 52% 39%
Prejudice toward religious minorities would increase 31% 62%
Women would lose some of their personal freedoms 24% 69%
Source: Public Agenda

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