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