Religion `Influence' Soars. (News)

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, December 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Religion `Influence' Soars. (News)


Dart, John, The Christian Century


WHEN THE Gallup Poll first asked the question in 1957--in the clean-cut, churchgoing days of the Eisenhower administration--a whopping 69 percent of Americans said they thought "religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life," and only 14 percent thought religion was losing influence. By the end of the 1960s' social revolutions, those figures had dramatically reversed: in 1970, 75 percent thought religion's influence was decreasing and only 14 percent thought it was on the rise.

Only in the mid-1980s did more people again think that religion's influence was going up rather than down, but the figure never topped 50 percent. The televangelist scandals of the late '80s handed the lead back to the "decreasing" view. When the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked the same question in March 2001, the public response was roughly the same ratio found by Gallup since 1995--37 percent say "increasing," 55 percent say "decreasing."

Then came September 11 and its aftermath.

By November, the Pew pollsters found that 78 percent believed that religion was increasing its influence and a mere 12 percent saw it as having a declining impact. Another major shift ocurred in the U.S. public's view of Muslim Americans, 59 percent holding a favorable opinion of them--up from 45 percent six months earlier.

Those changes did not, however, alter private practice. Church attendance returned to near-normal following a surge after the attacks, and most Americans generally resumed their preattack spiritual lives, according to most indicators in the survey of 1,500 adults sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "It is largely those already highly religious who are saying they have increased their religious activity even further," said the report released on December 6.

The swing in views about Muslim-Americans indicates just how swiftly public opinion can turn, said Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based center. In the days after September 11, Arab-Americans and Muslims were the targets of verbal and physical assaults for their suspected ties to Islamic extremists. Not only did favorable views of Muslim-Americans rise 14 percent in the November poll, but the greatest jump was among conservative Republicans--from 35 percent in March to 64 percent in November.

President Bush led off in helping the nation make distinctions between the radical extremism of a few versus the peaceful nature of the religion," Rogers told Religion News Service, referring to Bush's public remarks and a visit to a mosque. …

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