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Public Agenda survey: If you're "churched," you're less tolerant

Ruth A. Wooden, president of Public Agenda, released the poll. The findings came from a telephone survey of 1,507 adults made in 2000 and a second similar survey of 1,004 adults done during the summer of 2004 that tracked the same issues. Corwin E. Smidt, of The Henry Institute, says 40% of Americans go to church each week.

Look at the various slants of these media outlets on this story, based on the headlines. (Google):

Interesting, eh? All except the Philly story are using the same Reuters report Survey Finds Church-Going Americans Less Tolerant, and just added their own headline. I went with the Reuters link because 1) most outlets regurgitate wire service reports anyway; 2) AP and Reuters don’t require registration; and 3) while the wire services are not immune from bias, generally you get a straghtforward, no frills report. I just thought the contrast in headlines this time was pretty stark.

Church-going Americans have grown increasingly intolerant in the past four years of politicians making compromises on such hot issues as abortion and gay rights, according to a survey released on Saturday. At the same time, those polled said they were growing bolder about pushing their beliefs on others — even at the risk of offending someone.

The trends could indicate that religion has become “more prominent in American discourse … more salient,” according to Ruth Wooden, president of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization which released the survey.

It could also indicate “more polarized political thinking. There do not seem to be very many voices arguing for compromise today,” she said in an interview. “It could be that more religious voices feel under siege, pinned against the wall by cultural developments. They may feel more emboldened as a result.” The November U.S. election saw voters in a number of states back gay marriage bans, and President Bush won re-election with heavy support from fellow religious conservatives.

…About 40 percent of Americans claim to be weekly church-goers, according to Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Michigan. Some surveys have placed the figure at 25 percent.

Other stats (the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points):

  • Those surveyed were nearly all Christians (82 percent of the U.S.considers itself to be Christian according to a 2002 Pew poll)
  • On the question of whether elected officials should set their convictions aside to get results in government,
  • 2000: 82 percent agreed (weekly churchgoers)
    2004: 63 percent agreed (weekly churchgoers)

  • 32 percent of weekly churchgoers were willing to compromise on abortion issues, a 19-point drop from 2000.
  • 39 percent agreed compromising beliefs on gay rights was acceptable, down 18 points from 2000.
  • 37 percent overall felt that deeply religious people should be careful not to offend anyone when they “spread the word of God,” a decline from 46 percent four years earlier.
  • 41 percent felt that committed faithful should spread the word “whenever they can” rose to (up 6 points).

I’m no regular churchgoer, but I don’t recall, in my years of attendance in the Episcopal church that I received a message of intolerance or the kind of closed-minded thinking that this survey suggests. One has to believe that this is reflective of the growing influence of evangelical forms of Christianity, which sees the world in black and white terms, with the bible as a holy document to be taken literally.

This reminds me of a short clip of an interview by Carlos Watson (I think this was a promo for his show, Off Topic, which airs at 10PM tonight) with a black minister whom he asks about Mary Cheney and homosexuality. Watson asks him, “Do you think it was a choice for her?” The minister answers no. So Watson continues, “Then do you think she was born gay?” The minister answers no. So Carlos, looking curiously at him, then queries the minister for an explanation for why Mary Cheney is gay. The minister just gives Watson this blank stare, and pregnant pause, and then says that he interprets the bible as the word of God and doesn’t know the answer.

It was one of those “la-la-la-la-la”, fingers-in-the-ears moments of denial you see in some fundamentalists when confronted with issues they cannot easily reconcile or find a quick bible reference to explain things. He was clearly trying to find a way not to come off as the one of the hellfire and brimstone crowd, but he was struggling internally and intellectually with the subject.

The minister’s response reminded me of the Bennett Marco character (Frank Sinatra) in The Manchurian Candidate, knowing that he has been programmed to say “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life,” even though he’s keenly aware at some level that he can’t stand the man. But he cannot control the words from coming out of his mouth when someone asks him about Raymond Shaw.

I guess the minister’s response is better than the knee-jerk Dobson/Falwell damnation answer (at least homosexuality is worth thinking about on this level to him), but it’s dangerously lame. I mean, this man is obviously a leader in his community, his church, and he cannot figure out what to say about homosexuality in a public forum? We’ve got a lot of work to do here, and this survey (and the findings of the Implicit Association Test) suggests it’s going to be seriously hard work.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding