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Summary of Public Agenda Survey

by Kevin Courcey


Public Agenda, a national polling company, has just compiled an interesting set of data on religious belief and politics. They interviewed 1500 people on their views about the role religious belief should play in society, in the workplace, in politics, and in schools. As stated in their introduction,
[I]n the recent presidential election, religious views provided an undercurrent to the debates over school prayer, faith-based charities, abortion, school vouchers, the death penalty and even the presidential candidates themselves. (all quotes are from the Public Agenda web site,

Indeed, the candidates seemed to be engaged in a bidding war to see who could win the title of most religious. Especially in light of the recent political campaign, and the promises made by George Bush to pursue school voucher plans, this survey warrants attention.

This is one of the few surveys that specifically included the views of “non-religious” and atheists. In contrast to a Gallup poll done in August 2000 which reported that 8% of the general population was “non-religious,” almost 14% of the respondents in this survey answered “none” when asked about their religious preference. Since Gallup has been “deflating” the number of non-believers since the mid-1970’s by changing the format of the questions asked, it is not surprising that this survey found closer to 14% denying any religious involvement.

The “Blessings” of religion

“For most Americans, a preeminent benefit of faith is its capacity to improve individual behavior and personal conduct. If more Americans were more religious, people believe crime would go down, families would do a better job raising their children, and political leaders would make better decisions. Indeed, most Americans fear that the country would decline if people lost their religious faith.”

The public seems to have an overly optimistic view of the power of religion. Interestingly, they do not feel that women would lose ground or that prejudice toward religious minorities would increase if more Americans “got” religion. However, a majority do realize that there would be less tolerance toward “unconventional lifestyles.” What was meant by this was not specified, but one could easily imagine this could represent less tolerance toward the homosexual and non-religious households.

A majority ARE concerned that opening the door to religion in education and government could lead to “religious extremists” taking over. So there would appear to be a fine balance in the public mind about just how much religion is a good thing, and where it belongs.

Public Agenda actually asked its survey participants to evaluate the statement: “Our society would do well even if many Americans were to abandon their religious faith.” This is interesting because the question frames a lack of belief in a positive manner. However, only 8% of the population endorsed this statement as representing their views. 80% said this was not how they felt.

Finally, 70% said they felt that religion’s influence on American society should grow.

Religion in the Schools

“While many Americans seem to feel the nation has gone too far in removing religion from public schools, only 6 percent call for a school prayer tailored to the Christian majority.”

A slim majority (53%) want a moment of silence in the schools. Clearly, this is their solution to wanting to increase religiosity in their kids while still respecting religious diversity. A whopping 72% would favor either no prayer at all or only a moment of silence. So those who DO want prayer in school are in the minority (26%).

74% agreed that school prayer would teach kids that religion and God are important. 56% believe it would improve the values of young people. However, 57% acknowledge that prayer in school would be unfair to parents who want to decide what to teach their children about religion; 52% acknowledge that it would embarrass or isolate students whose religion is different; but amazingly, only 37% realize it would be unconstitutional.

Religion in the public sphere

When asked whether it is appropriate to bring up personal religious beliefs at, say, a party or social gathering, the vast majority (85%) feel this could be a problem, and suggest either avoiding it altogether or bringing it up “only with care.” Even more believe it is inappropriate in the workplace, with 30% opting for avoiding it entirely and 60% bringing it up only with care. When asked to evaluate the statement “Deeply religious people are being inconsiderate when they always bring up religion when they deal with other people,” 61% said that was either very close or close to the way they felt. So while they want people to be more religious, they want them to keep it to themselves.

Religion in Government

“But the public’s views on the role religion should play in political life are subtle, and the public seems almost intuitively wary of religion determining the substance of today’s political debate.”

For example, a significant majority feel that “deeply religious” elected officials should compromise with other elected officials whose views are different on issues such as abortion, gay rights, the death penalty, and welfare reform. They want religious politicians, but they don’t want them to vote based solely on their religious views. When electing officials, 58% of the public thinks it is “wrong” to base their decision on the religious affiliation of the official. In fact, religious affiliation means so little to the voters that 2/3 did not know the affiliation of either Al Gore or George Bush. Of course, they did know they were “religious.” However, when the question was posed a different way, the public showed a real schism. When asked which statement they agreed with more, a) “If more politicians were religious, they would be more likely to be honest and have integrity” or b) “The nation needs more politicians who are honest and have integrity--it does not need more politicians who are religious,” the public split right down the middle at 49% and 48%. So it would seem that while the public views religion as a positive influence on society, they are less enthusiastic about its influence on their politicians.

The role of religious leaders in politics

85% of the sample basically agreed with the idea of religious leaders having “as much right as anyone else” to participate in the political process. Since this is a cornerstone of American democracy, it would be hard to imagine them responding differently. However, when pushed further, 31% feel our system of government could be threatened if religious leaders and groups became “a lot more involved” in politics.

The idea of religious leaders scolding politicians on issues of morality apparently has little appeal. When asked how religious leaders should have responded to the Clinton-Lewinski scandal, only 23% chose “condemnation” while fully 2/3 thought they should have stayed clear of the issue or preached forgiveness.

Government funding of religious “charity” organizations has the public worried also. While 44% said they supported such government funded proselytizing, the majority (54%) said it was either a bad idea, or should only be allowed if the organization “stayed away from religious messages.” Once again showing how fickle, or how poorly reasoned, these opinions are, when asked if they supported giving government money to religious groups “to help the poor,” 63% said they either strongly or somewhat supported this idea. This is probably why voucher proponents have targeted the poor “who are stuck in inner city schools” for their proposals. Clearly the public has a soft spot for “the poor” and wants to do more for them. Of course, this question is in the context of asking people about their religious beliefs, and they might be more generously inclined in this context than if the survey had been about, say, wasteful government spending.

The majority of those polled also believe religion does not get a fair shake in the press. A full 56% believe that “too many journalists have a built-in bias against religion and religious people.” To atheists, who are constantly confronted with blatant pandering to religion in our media, this seems a ridiculous statement. However, it simultaneously explains why the media goes out of its way to try to assuage this misconception.


The report took a special look at the views of evangelical Christians. The majority of this group agrees with the statement that “there’s a lot of prejudice in this country toward evangelical Christians.” They, on the other hand, feel like they are going out of their way to be tactful about their religious beliefs. How successful they are at being tactful should be evaluated in light of the fact that 61% of this group stated they should “spread the word of God” at every opportunity. Only one-third expressed a concern about offending others, compared to 46% of the general public.

In some respects, the views of evangelicals are closely aligned with those of the public in general. On school prayer, for example, 53% of evangelicals think a moment of silence is the most appropriate, identical to that of the general public. They differ, however, in how they expect their elected officials to vote. While a majority of the general public feels religious legislators should compromise with those who have opposing viewpoints, evangelicals want their officials to vote according to their own religious beliefs. They also think that if legislators were deeply religious, they’d make better policy decisions. The general public does not share this view of mixing religion and politics. Some beg to differ

“There are strong concerns among American Jews as well as nonreligious Americans that introducing more religion into public life could backfire…Majorities of both groups are wary of religion in politics, social life and the public schools.”

While only 31% the general public are concerned that if more Americans became deeply religious there would be an increase in prejudice toward religious minorities, 67% of the non-religious and a majority of Jews feel this would be the likely outcome. Since these two groups might be more aware of existing prejudice toward religious minorities, their views should carry more weight, and the survey does devote a section to their concerns (possibly due to the co-sponsorship of Bill and Melinda Gates).

When questioned about the separation of church and state in the American system of government, 62% of the general public agrees that it is one of our most important concepts. Those who are non-religious and Jews are far more enthusiastic, at 80% and 87%. Clearly, these two groups have serious concerns about the effects of mixing religious belief and politics. Only 11% of the general public feels that if more politicians were deeply religious the effect would be negative, while three times that number of Jews, and four times that number of the non-religious think the policies and laws passed by such legislators would be worse. While a surprising 44% of the general public state that they would be less likely to vote for someone who turns to religious leaders for advice on how to vote on specific legislation, the numbers skyrocket for Jews and atheists. A full 69% of Jews, and 73% of the non-religious would be less likely to vote for such a politician.

Journalists, elected officials, and Christian leaders

The final chapter in the survey looked at the views of these three divergent, yet influential groups. Christian leaders were probably the most predictable in their responses. They worry about children “losing something important” by taking religion out of the schools; a bare majority believe in the importance of separation of church and state; and 66% admit you may have to put your religious convictions aside to get things accomplished in government. Seventy-three percent feel that if “many more elected officials were deeply religious” the laws and policies decisions they make would improve; a whopping 86% feel the media is biased against them; and the majority of Christian leaders would, predictably, vote for elected officials who sought their advice about legislation.

A majority of journalists do not believe children lose something important by taking religion out of the schools, probably because 72% of them recognize that separation of church and state is one of the most important reasons our political system has been so successful. The vast majority of them feel that even deeply religious politicians must compromise to achieve results in office, with only 37% thinking that more “deeply religious” politicians would be a good thing. None of the three groups, including journalists themselves, feel the media does “a very good job” of reporting on religion or religious groups; indeed, a majority of politicians, and even 46% of journalists, feel this is due to a “built-in bias” against religion and religious people.

Some further questions

People frequently claim to want a more religious society; however, they are probably thinking about someone else’s family being more religious. They probably feel their level of religiosity is just fine. A question that could have gained insight into this subject would have been: How close does the following statement come to your own view about your religious involvement? “I feel that my personal level of religious involvement is just about right?”

In many of these categories, it seems that the public has an overly optimistic view of the value of religion on morals. When the questions tend toward vague generalities, they say they want more religious involvement. However, when pressed into a more specific context, i.e. school prayer, or more religious involvement in politics, they are far more wary.

For atheists, this survey is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that we represent a fairly small portion of the population, and our negative views about religion are not shared by many. The good news is that the general public is not overly naïve about religion, and recognize that fanatics can easily take over the process. They are wary of school prayer, religion in politics, and religion in social situations. They seem to feel that religion is best when it is kept to one’s self. And with that we can all agree.


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