- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

Most Americans say the United States is a Christian nation and religious faith is the basis of the nation's strength, according to a new poll.

The survey, released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, also found that Americans were worried religion might be losing influence in the nation, while Southerners were most likely to agree that the United States enjoyed "special protection from God."

While Americans strongly believe in the importance of religion, they are also tolerant 84 percent say religious belief isn't necessary to be a good American citizen.

"Many Americans see religion as a source of strength," said Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum, which conducted the survey in conjunction with the Pew Research Center. "But Americans try to be open-minded and accept and embrace the kind of religious freedoms that we've typically had in our country."

Tolerance extends to all religions, the survey finds. Despite the September 11 terrorist attacks and recent Palestinian bombings in Israel, most Americans (54 percent) have a favorable opinion of Muslim Americans and a majority (51 percent) do not believe that Islam encourages violence.

"Those findings were interesting, in the wake of what we've gone through," Ms. Rogers said. "We've seen an effort on behalf of the American people to be open-minded toward Islam and to see the difference between radical Islam and the Islam practiced by so many Americans."

Indeed, rather than view September 11 as proof of religious extremism, 51 percent said the terrorist hijackings showed there was "too little religion in the world," as opposed to 28 percent saying the attacks were a result of "too much religion in the world."

Among the survey's findings:

•Two-thirds 67 percent of Americans say the United States is a Christian nation, and 58 percent say America's strength is based on religious faith.

•A plurality of Americans (48 percent) say the United States has "special protection from God," versus 40 percent who disagree. America's "special protection" by God was supported by majorities of blacks (58 percent), Hispanics (56 percent), women (55 percent), Republicans (57 percent), Southerners (57 percent) and white evangelicals (71 percent).

•Though 75 percent say "many religions can lead to eternal life," 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of atheists. The Northeast was the most tolerant of unbelief, with 43 percent holding favorable views of atheists, while 66 percent of Southerners disapproved of atheists.

•A majority (52 percent) say religion's influence on American life is declining and, by more than an 8-1 margin, Americans indicate they want religion to have a greater influence.

Responses to many questions showed what the Pew pollsters described as a "commitment gap" devoutly religious people tended to share certain beliefs, regardless of their religious denominations. The Pew survey used such factors as frequency of church attendance as measures of religious commitment.

For instance, 87 percent "of those who are highly observant say children raised in a religious faith are more likely to grow up to be moral adults," the Pew survey found, while 38 percent of "those with weak religious commitment" agreed.

Young people view religion as less important to public life and morality than do older Americans. While 66 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 say religious faith is important to the moral training of children, 47 percent of those younger than 30 agree.

The South retains its Bible Belt reputation, with 70 percent of Southerners saying religion is important in raising moral children and that religion is the basis of America's strength.


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