DECEMBER 10, 2001
--Martin E. Marty
Last Thursday the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released data on a sure-to-be-noticed-poll. It assesses American attitudes to matters religious after September eleventh. To the degree that one trusts such polls, one can walk away with much interesting data.
As all but the starry-eyed foresaw, attendance at worship did not increase after a one- or two-week spurt in September. Respondents worry more, care more, pray more, talk about religion more, honor those who talk and sing about God more, and welcome the invoking of God in public places. But if the sanctuary is the place where people are to take worries and cares, to refine God-talk, to sing praise, and gather communally for tasks, those who lay abed lie abed, those who read the papers and watch talk shows, still read or watch. If people have not made commitments or have not the habit of public worship, they are not going to be stirred to it by the attacks of September eleventh.
They show good sense by disagreeing -- all but eleven percent of them -- with the idea that the terrorist attack signals that God is no longer protecting the U.S. as much as in the past. Their eyes and ears are open to the ever more public presence of religion. From 1957, when the Gallup folks found sixty-nine percent seeing the influence of religion growing (in the "Eisenhower era revival" and the Cold War), never more than forty-five percent saw growth until this autumn past. Now almost eighty percent believe they see such growth. (We used to have to seek and squint to do "Sightings" of religion in public life. Now it shows up on billboards and wherever crowds gather.)
Tolerance of the other, perhaps a weak virtue but a health-giving one in a time when prejudice could increase, is apparent in the general public's increasingly positive view of the religionists about whom they are said to be most suspicious: Muslims. Three-fourths of those polled have favorable views of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, but three-fifths of them regard their Muslim neighbors in their religious groups favorably. We had expected a short-term down-turn in expressions of favor, followed by longer-term acceptance. The longer-term view arrived early. Have we been oversold on stories of snubs and harassment? Always to be regretted, these stories do not seem to be standard.
We non-Muslim citizens confess to poll-takers that we do not know much about Islam, but many indicate that they are learning quickly. In typical American "we're-all-in-different-boats-heading-to-the-same-shore spirit, forty-eight percent of those who "know a lot/some" about Islamic faith, see them as having "a lot in common" with their own religious beliefs. Some elements of public attitudes are constant.
Editor's note: The results of the poll are available through the web-site of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: http://www.pewforum.org/publications/reports/religionreport.pdf