NEW YORK, Jan. 9 (RNS) -- Most Americans believe religion can have a positive impact on individual behavior, but they are leery of mingling religionwith public life, according to a national survey released Tuesday.

"A majority of Americans recoil at the use of religion as a litmustest and have an almost instinctive wariness of injecting religiondirectly into politics or putting their faith on a pedestal aboveothers," said Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda, thenonpartisan public policy research group that authored the study.

"On the other hand, they believe religion has enormous power toelevate people's behavior and address many societal problems."

Some 70 percent of the 1,507 people randomly surveyed by telephonein November believed that religion--most said any religion would do--should have a greater influence on society. More than 60 percent saidcrime, greed and materialism would all decrease if more Americans becamereligious.

Most believed such an occurrence would also cause an increase involunteerism and charity work, and improve parenting skills.

Just 18 percent of respondents thought "society would do well evenif many Americans were to abandon their religious faith."

Respondents also said politicians would benefit from becomingreligious. Slightly more than half--52 percent--believed the countryneeds more religious politicians, with 47 percent believing that "ifmany more of our elected officials were deeply religious, the laws andpolicy decisions they make would probably be better."

Skeptics remained, however, as 39 percent of respondents thoughtreligious politicians would not make better decisions, and 11 percentsaid officials might make worse decisions if they became deeplyreligious.

Among the 254 elected officials surveyed, 74 percent agreed theywould be more likely to vote for candidates who use religion to makedecisions about policy. But more than half--63 percent--said theywould be less inclined to support candidates who rely on guidance fromchurch leaders about legislative policies.

Nearly half--44 percent--of all respondents believed churches andreligious groups that offered social programs such as helping thehomeless or drug addicts should receive federal funding "even if theseprograms promote religious messages."

Twenty-three percent supported government funding of such programsas long as "these programs stay away from religious messages."Thirty-one percent believed "it's a bad idea for government to befunding religious organizations."

Still, respondents were wary of combining religion and publicaffairs. Roughly six in 10 survey respondents said the personalreligious beliefs of deeply religious elected officials should notinfluence their votes on issues such as abortion and the death penalty.Religious officials should instead compromise with their counterpartswho support differing viewpoints, the respondents said.

But the approximately 361 self-identified evangelical Christianssurveyed disagreed. Most said that on issues such as abortion and gayrights, deeply religious politicians should not vote contrary to theirown religious convictions. Slightly less than half--46 percent--feltthe same way about the death penalty.

About 58 percent of all respondents said they believed voters shouldnot "seriously consider the religious affiliation of candidates whenthey decide whom to support."

Survey participants were equally wary of bringing religion into theclassroom. Though 74 percent thought "school prayer teaches childrenthat faith in religion and God is an important part of life," some 52percent believed that "school prayer embarrasses and isolates studentswhose religion is different or who are not religious at all."

About 53 percent of both evangelical Christians and the generalpublic thought public schools should permit a moment of silence. Butjust 6 percent of the public supported a Christian prayer mentioningJesus, and 20 percent supported a prayer that mentioned God but noreligion in particular. Among evangelical Christians, those figuresstood at 12 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

A greater wariness of including religion in schools was foundamong Jews and non-religious people.

More than half of both groupsthought neither a moment of silence nor spoken prayer should beincorporated into public schools, a view supported by just 19 percent ofthe general public surveyed. About three-quarters of Jews andnon-religious Americans thought school prayer may cause some studentsembarrassment or isolation, and slightly more than 80 percent of bothgroups agreed "school prayer is unfair to parents who think they shouldbe the ones to decide what to teach their children about religion, notthe schools.


Both groups were also less optimistic about whether religion wouldhave a positive impact on society in the United States. Some 59 percentof Jews and 68 percent of non-religious people believed that if moreAmericans became religious "there would be less tolerance toward peoplewith unconventional lifestyles."

The study's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.