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The People's Religion: American Faith in the 90s.

The People's Religion: American Faith in the 90s The People's Religion: American Faith in the 90s. George Gallup Jr., Jim Castelli. Macmillan, $19.95. Religious faith has remained remarkably stable throughout the past 50 years. Although American culture today is vastly different than it was on the eve of World War II, basic religious beliefs are very much the same. Nine Americans in ten still say they have never doubted the existence of God. Eight in ten still say they believe they will be called before God on Judgment Day to answer for their sins. Seven in ten still believe in life after death. The Gallup Poll results assembled in this book indicate that Americans have remained rather orthodox in their beliefs over a half century of tumultuous social change.

The United States embraces religious belief like no other developed nation in the world. When surveys were taken in the U.S. and Europe in 1981, Americans ranked at the top in rating the importance of God in their lives. The U.S. placed second behind Ireland in the category of belief in a personal God with 66 percent, but it was still way ahead of Norway (40 percent), Great Britain (31 percent), West Germany (24 percent), and Denmark and Sweden (19 percent each). Still, this high level of belief does not necessarily translate into vigorous religious practice: only four Americans in ten attend church or synagogue in a typical week, and only about two in ten believe that attendance at religious services is necessary for a person to be a good Christian or Jew.

Clearly, Americans favor independence in their approach to religion. Such an attitude is not surprising in Protestant circles, where emphasis has always been placed on having direct, personal interaction with God. But it is unusual to see such individualism in Roman Catholic populations, where the church has traditionally mediated the divine-human relationship.

According to Gallup data, 58 percent of the Catholics surveyed believe that premarital sex is not wrong, a stand that contradicts the official teachings of the church. Surveys also reveal that more than half of all Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in certain cases, although the church strongly condemns the practice. While mainline Protestants (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians) have long been "pro-choice" in moral decision-making, stressing the importance of following one's own conscience, rank-and-file Roman Catholics are apparently now choosing to make up their own minds as well. Three out of four say they tend to rely on their own consciences rather than the teachings of the pope when they face difficult moral questions.

There are two dangers in reading this book: first, having your eyes glaze over from looking at so many numbers; and second, taking those numbers too seriously. One must always be conscious of the fact that survey results are directly related to how particular questions are asked. For instance, 62 percent of all Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in certain cases, such as rape, where there is danger to the mother's life, or deformity in the baby. But this does not mean that a majority of Catholics are pro-choice about abortion. About 50 percent would support a constitutional amendment to bar legal abortion except in the case of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life.

Another puzzling set of statistics has to do with Americans and their presidential preferences. Polls indicate that Americans are less likely to vote for a candidate who describes himself as "born-again," but they are more likely to vote for a candidate who says that Jesus is his "personal savior." Now, from a theological perspective, there is not much difference between the two. But in a cultural sense, being born-again is associated with a threatening kind of zealousness, while having a personal savior is considered rather benign. You've got to look carefully at the questions in these polls as well as the results. As the musician Jimmy Lunceford might have said, "It ain't watcha ask, it's the way atcha ask it!"
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Author:Brinton, Henry G.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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