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June 26, 2008
Column #1,400
America's Religious Beliefs & Practice
by Mike McManus

A major new report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on America's "Religious Beliefs and Practice: Diverse and Politically Relevant" could not have been better timed from my personal point of view, because this is my 1,400th weekly column that I call "Ethics & Religion."   For 27 years I have been writing about the remarkable paradox that we are the most religious modern nation, yet often the least ethical.

The Pew Forum notes, for example, that 54 percent of Americans attend religious services once or twice a month and 39 percent worship weekly. By contrast, according to Gallup Polls, in most European countries only a tenth attend services weekly.

Yet the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world. The marriage rate has plunged 50 percent since 1970. Why? Cohabitation has diverted tens of millions from getting married.  There were 21 million never-married Americans in 1970, but 60 million in 2006.

The most surprising conclusion of the Pew report is that "A strong majority of those affiliated with a not believe their religion is the only way to salvation."  In fact, seven in ten say many religions can lead to eternal life. One would expect that of Mainline Protestants, but even 57 percent of Evangelicals assert that "many religions lead to eternal life, and more than half say "There is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion."

That is not how Jesus viewed his mission: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14.6)."

Richard Cizik, Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals, cited this Scripoture verse, adding, "I believe that Jesus is not just the Way, the Truth, and the Life for me, but for everybody. Evangelicals have always had a exclusivism that no longer exists for a substantial percent of the population, unfortunately."

The Pew Forum's director, Luis Lugo, not surprisingly, has a different view, "The fact that most Americans are not exclusive or dogmatic about their religion is a fascinating finding."

Baptists and other evangelicals are alarmed by the report, while some dismiss it. However,  Pew interviewed 35,000 people in English and Spanish, 35 times larger than the typical national poll. It must be taken seriously.

Barack Obama was quoted this week from a 2007 speech: "Whatever we once were, we're no longer a Christian nation. At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."

Pew disagrees, noting that 78.4 percent of Americans said they are Christian. Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus account for only 2.4 percent; the unaffiliated are 16 percent.

Pew reports that 92 percent of Americans believe in God, but disagree on His nature. While eight of ten evangelicals believe in a personal God who answers prayers, only 60 percent of Catholics and Mainline Protestants agree.  Jews and Buddhists disagree by a 2-1 margin, and assert that God is an "impersonal force." Three-fourths of Americans believe in life after death, and an equal number believe in heaven. However, only 39 percent of Jews believe in an afterlife and 48 percent of the unaffiliated. Hell's existence is more controversial.  Eight of ten Evangelicals, Muslims and members of black churches believe in hell, but only half of Mainliners, 60 percent of Catholics and a quarter of Jews and Buddhists.

Nearly six in ten Americans of all faiths pray daily, but only a quarter of Jews and the unaffiliated. About four in ten Christians meditate weekly vs. 61 percent of Buddhists and  and 72  percent of Jehovah's Witnesses.

"Politics and religion in the United States are intertwined," Pew reports.  For example, those who attend services weekly and say religion is important in their lives, are much more likely to call themselves conservatives. For example, weekly attenders of all faiths believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Only three in ten of infrequent worshipers agree.

Religious participation has no influence on other issues.  People of all faiths or no faith agree that there should be stricter environmental standards and more government aid for the poor.

Pew's report is evidence that America's faith is vibrant and healthy, unlike that of many nations where it can lead to war.

* * *
On a personal note, I want to thank the newspapers that publish this column, and you the readers, who read it.  I can be reached with comments, questions or suggestions by writing this newspaper.


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