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

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

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

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

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

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

Respondents also said politicians would benefit from becoming religious. Slightly more than half--52 percent--believed the country needs more religious politicians, with 47 percent believing that "if many more of our elected officials were deeply religious, the laws and policy decisions they make would probably be better."

Skeptics remained, however, as 39 percent of respondents thought religious politicians would not make better decisions, and 11 percent said officials might make worse decisions if they became deeply religious.

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

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

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

Still, respondents were wary of combining religion and public affairs. Roughly six in 10 survey respondents said the personal religious beliefs of deeply religious elected officials should not influence their votes on issues such as abortion and the death penalty. Religious officials should instead compromise with their counterparts who support differing viewpoints, the respondents said.

But the approximately 361 self-identified evangelical Christians surveyed disagreed. Most said that on issues such as abortion and gay rights, deeply religious politicians should not vote contrary to their own religious convictions. Slightly less than half--46 percent--felt the same way about the death penalty.

About 58 percent of all respondents said they believed voters should not "seriously consider the religious affiliation of candidates when they decide whom to support."

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

About 53 percent of both evangelical Christians and the general public thought public schools should permit a moment of silence. But just 6 percent of the public supported a Christian prayer mentioning Jesus, and 20 percent supported a prayer that mentioned God but no religion in particular. Among evangelical Christians, those figures stood at 12 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

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

More than half of both groups thought neither a moment of silence nor spoken prayer should be incorporated into public schools, a view supported by just 19 percent of the general public surveyed. About three-quarters of Jews and non-religious Americans thought school prayer may cause some students embarrassment or isolation, and slightly more than 80 percent of both groups agreed "school prayer is unfair to parents who think they should be the ones to decide what to teach their children about religion, not the schools."

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

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

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