- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Two-thirds of Americans do not know the religion of President-elect George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore, and nearly as many reject such issues as a "serious" basis for picking lawmakers, a new study released yesterday says.

The finding is just one illustration of how Americans balance "fervent" support for religion with a reluctance to probe personal preferences, said a study by Public Agenda, a research group that conducted the survey.

"In short, people equate religion with personal ethics and morality," said Deborah Wadsworth, the group's president.

"They want Americans to be more religious, but [they] hold an almost intuitive aversion to letting religion take too great a hold on political or other areas of life," she said.

Under the same equation, Americans like lawmakers to have religious beliefs but expect them to compromise those beliefs from time to time in lawmaking.

Most Americans also believe religion has some place in the schools and can improve student morals.

But most prefer the least overt ways of incorporating religion. When asked about school prayer, the majority (53 percent) favored a moment of silence, while 20 percent accepted a spoken nondenominational prayer and 6 percent wanted a Christian prayer. Nineteen percent of respondents rejected all these options.

Also, the vast majority (90 percent) support teaching courses in world faiths.

In the realm of social relations, just 14 percent of Americans felt it was "almost always appropriate" to talk about religion at a party. That dropped to 9 percent for the workplace.

The study, titled "For Goodness' Sake" and funded by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, portrays wider acceptance of diverse beliefs, even though Americans claim to know little about faiths outside their own.

Forty-three percent of respondents felt they knew about Catholicism. Fewer understand evangelical movements. Familiarity with Judaism (17 percent) and Islam (7 percent) was paltry.

The sharpest disagreement arose over the question of whether more religion produces better behavior or more prejudice. Most Americans think it benefits society.

Nearly nine in 10 said religion motivates volunteering and charity and 69 percent say it fights greediness.

This sentiment bodes well for both Republican and Democratic advocates of faith-based ministries using federal funds to operate welfare and rehabilitation services under a new "charitable choice" provision in the 1996 welfare reform law.

The poll found majority support for such a policy. Forty-four percent would let groups using federal dollars "promote religious messages"; 23 percent would draw the line on that.

While 70 percent of Americans say a religious extremist could never take political control in America, nearly a third held that an increase in "deeply religious" people in everyday life would increase prejudice. A quarter hold that more religion would cause women to "lose some of their personal freedoms."

Two groups are most polarized in this debate, the study said.

American Jews and nonreligious people tend to see more religion in society as a threat. Evangelicals stand out as the least willing group in society to compromise on beliefs and morals or let lawmakers do likewise.

Yet Ms. Wadsworth said the survey findings do not give ammunition to either wing of this debate.

Americans "believe fervently that religion is important and are disturbed by civil libertarians who appear to be busily eradicating religion from every sector of public life," she said. "But neither do they give much comfort to those who would inject an intrusive, judgmental, sanctimonious faith into the public sphere."

Though professions of faith by political candidates are seen mostly as vote-getting strategies, the nation easily accepts the right of religious groups and leaders to speak out.

The study says the public generally takes "a laissez-faire approach to political participation by religious groups and leaders."

The poll of 1,507 U.S. adults taken in November has a three-point margin of error.

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