A major new national survey of Americans' views on religion and its role in society and the nation's public life has produced results that would surprise only the most casual observer of the current American religious scene.

The survey, "For Goodness' Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life," sponsored by the nonpartisan Public Agenda group, reveals that America continues to be a place where religion is important to the lives of significant numbers of people. They further believe that religious values can, and should be, a major factor for good in American society, although they are wary of government being given the authority to determine which, if any, religious views receive preference.

In other words, most Americans believe that religion, in its various pluralistic American manifestations, possesses enormous resources to improve society's besetting ills by impacting people's behaviors. The survey found that approximately four out of five Americans believe that a more religious nation would mean improved parenting, increased volunteer and charity work, and less crime.

Consequently--for reasons of personal consciences and for that most American of reasons, the utilitarian argument that it works--Americans increasingly oppose, and even resent, those groups and individuals who they feel seek to marginalize religion from every sector of America's public life in the supposed name of religious freedom.

At the same time, the survey reveals an America that is extremely uncomfortable with those who would seek to use the government to impose religious views or to favor one religious viewpoint over others. Clearly, a majority of Americans have abandoned the idea that dominated an earlier era of one religion (the majority faith) being given preference, or even a monopoly, in public school observances. They also appear to have grave misgivings about the purely secular model that has dominated the decades since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the early 1960s to limit public prayer and Bible-reading.

Frankly, the public seems to have had enough of the wholesale remake of public schools--and much of the rest of the public square--into "religion-free" zones where individual religious expressions are restricted, censored, or suppressed.

Public Agenda's findings concerning school prayer provides a clear illustration of this line of thinking. When given a range of options concerning school prayer, 20% of the general public supported a nonsectarian prayer that mentioned God but not Jesus, and 53% preferred an organized moment of silence as the best public school prayer option. In other words, let us acknowledge the role religion plays in our lives, but let us each do so in a way of our own choosing and that intrudes minimally upon others.

This accommodationalist model holds great hope for our future in what is clearly a religiously diverse, but not secular, society. This model requires the government to protect the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs according to the dictates of their own consciences in the public square. Conversely, the government does not take sides for or against one religion over another, or attempt to silence all in deference to those who prefer no religious expression.

As Stephen Carter, of "The Culture of Disbelief" fame, has noted in his equally superb new book, "God's Name in Vain": "The separation of church and state, in its contemporary rendition, represents little more than an effort to subdue the power of religion, to twist it to the ends preferred by the state. The separation of church and state is, in its way, an establishment of religion, for it allows paid state functionaries--we happen to call them judges--to define what religion is and assign it to the sphere in which it is permitted to function. If religion will not remain in the sphere assigned to it those same functionaries are paid to hold it back, and the police and armed forces of the state are paid to help them do it."

Carter's observation is both accurate and apt. Too often in recent decades, Americans of religious conviction have been pressured by the state and the liberal cultural and media elites to segregate themselves and their views from the public sector. And if they don't, and their religious convictions are unacceptable to the gurus of political correctness, they are savaged publicly and often hounded by the legal system as well.

Just compare the treatment of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's expressions of his deep religious faith with the treatment accorded attorney general designate John Ashcroft. Ashcroft has been openly derided as a fanatical Bible-thumper.

But no one accused Lieberman of either fanaticism or Torah-thumping. Why? Because the arbiters of what may be approvingly espoused in the public arena include Lieberman's Orthodox Jewish beliefs, but adamantly exclude Ashcroft's Pentecostal convictions.

Is it any wonder that the Public Agenda survey found that 68% of evangelical Christians believe there is a significant amount of prejudice toward them in America? I wonder whatever gave them that idea?

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