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New culture war issue: the role of religion in public life

New culture war issue: the role of religion in public life

Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post writes:

Two new major polls out this week show Americans divided down the middle on questions such as whether they want clergy to speak more on public issues of the day.

I wrote about this Monday after the release of a poll by the Pew Research Center. But a subsequent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute released on Tuesday revealed an even starker divide on the issue.

The question: Are you more concerned with the government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion, or with religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others? The answer: 46 percent on one side, 46 percent on the other.

The groupings may seem somewhat predictable: White evangelicals, Republicans, tea partiers and older Americans are more concerned about freedom to practice their faith, while the unaffiliated, Democrats and people under age 30 are more concerned about others’ beliefs being legally forced upon them.”

It hasn’t always been this way.

“The twin principles of the separation of church and state and religious liberty have been pillars of American identity since the Bill of Rights,” says Robert P. Jones, chief executive of PRRI. “And that reflected a compromise. This hasn’t had a left-right tilt to it historically.”

In a country split down the middle, mainline Protestants (which include Episcopalians) are themselves split down the middle. In the PRRI survey (page 41) 46 percent are more concerned about the government interfering with people’s ability to practice their religion than they are about religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others. Forty-five percent feel the other way.

I don’t think our freedom of religion is in any danger, and I am disappointed that well-fed, well-educated, mostly white, mostly male religious leaders who know they will have access to whatever health care they need and a comfortable place to which to retire have succeeded in painting themselves as victims whose rights are in danger.

How about you?


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We are living in a more pluralistic society in which the Church no longer is deferred to as it once was, which can create some genuine concerns (say, the conflict between children’s soccer and church on Sunday mornings). As we see fewer people in our pews and start to worry about the future of the church, many will look for security by building up the walls of doctrine higher to keep out secular influences, or look for scapegoats. It won’t be easy for the Church to adjust to being one of many equal voices competing for attention in the public square. We have a lot of relearning to do. But yes, pining for a time when the Church could impose a certain moral order on society is not the same as a genuine concern for one’s religious freedom

David P. Kendrick

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