Accessibility links

Americans Flexible on Faith

  • Faith Lapidus

The United States is a religious country. Most Americans say religion is important to them, and that they pray daily. But a new report shows that Americans take a flexible approach to matters of faith. Faith Lapidus has more on the survey, which was conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The Pew study indicates that religion remains a powerful force in the private and public lives of most Americans. But Greg Smith, one of the lead authors, says there is an openness to a range of religious viewpoints. "Most people who are affiliated with a religion say that many religions, not just their own, can lead to eternal life. And it's also true that most people say that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their own faith."

He says what is notable about the findings is the consistency with which members of a great variety of religious traditions take this point of view. "Really, with very few exceptions, majorities of many different faiths take this non-dogmatic approach."

That finding doesn't surprise religion scholar Martin Marty, a prolific writer on religion who taught at the University of Chicago divinity school for 35 years. Marty points to the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits an official state religion. "That's the rules of the game, that's the charter," he says, explaining, "There is to be legal equality among the groups who are here, and that is a great barrier against the holy wars that people coming from Europe and Africa and Asia wanted to avoid."

A second reason for this openness, he says, is immigration. "There's always somebody new down the block. And so I think the average believer says, 'My doctor is a Muslim, the people I go to concerts with are Jewish, the person at the computer near me is from India and is Hindu. And frankly, an awful lot of them are better neighbors, better citizens, better friends, better thinkers, more generous people than a lot of people with whom I share my existential truth.' What sense are we going to make of that?"

Marty notes, however, that religious prejudice remains a part of American society, even if less blatant than in the past. He points to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. His campaign for the Republican presidential nomination this year prompted concern among some voters, because he is a member of the Mormon Church.

But Pew researcher Greg Smith says the survey shows that religion is not just a source of division in U.S. politics. On certain issues there is something like a consensus among a number of different religious groups. "We see that on questions like, Should the government do more to provide aid to poor? Should the United States be more active in world affairs or should it concentrate more on problems here at home? What's the role of the government? Should we have a larger government providing more services or a smaller government providing fewer services? What about environmentalism? Are environmental laws worth the cost?" On those kinds of questions, he says, most religious traditions are on the same side, in support of more aid to the poor and in support of environmental regulations.

The Pew survey, conducted last year, includes data from more than 35,000 respondents. This is the second report based on those answers.

XS
SM
MD
LG