Whenever I hear those three little words -- "the latest poll" -- I generally tune out. Pollsters and survey-takers seldom ask the right questions, I've found, so the responses they get are less than reliable. One exception is the surveys conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and the organization's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, released Monday, June 23, proves why.
The Pew survey not only asks highly specific and carefully worded questions but also asks participants to provide detailed information about themselves. Demographic breakdowns go well beyond, say, the evangelical/mainline divide to subgroups such as Baptists in the evangelical tradition, the mainline tradition, or the historically black church traditions; mainline Christians who pray daily and regularly attend church services; and Catholics who consider religion to be very important in their lives.
So we know who Pew talked to, and that makes the results of this survey particularly compelling -- and encouraging to those of us who stubbornly hold on to the hope that we can effect political and social change by building on the common ground that unites us as Christians. And the meticulous wording of the survey enabled Pew analysts to recognize such nuances as the indirect influence of religion on political life.
Here's what I see in the survey as cause for hope:
- Seventy to 87 percent of all Christians expressed dissatisfaction with the political system and the direction the country is taking. Imagine what we could accomplish if we turned that level of dissatisfaction into action.
- Even though 48 percent of evangelicals prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services, 57 percent believe the government should do more to help the poor, even if it means going into debt. That may seem incongruous, but I don't think it is. To me, it indicates that evangelicals place a higher value on helping the poor than on some other governmental services.
- Fifty-four percent of evangelicals believe stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. That's compared to 64 percent of mainline respondents, which dispels the long-held myth that mainliners and evangelicals are clearly divided on this issue.
- While only 48 percent of evangelicals favor diplomacy over military strength as a means of ensuring peace, I have to believe that's an improvement. (38 percent favor military might over diplomacy, with 16 percent responding "neither," "both," or "don't know.")
- The gap between evangelicals and mainline Christians is also much narrower than was once the case with regard to foreign affairs. Fifty-four percent of evangelicals and 52 percent of mainliners believe we should pay more attention to domestic problems than to international problems.
That last question is one of the few I think could have been better worded. The alternative response was, "It's best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs." Given that wording, I would have also opted for paying more attention to problems at home. But the question makes no distinction, for example, between involvement in Iraq and involvement in Darfur. If it had, the responses likely would have been different.
In any event, the survey results indicate, among many other things, that Christians of all stripes are far more united on some social and political issues than our politicians and religious leaders would have the American public believe. And that's good news -- no, great news -- for everyone who favors working together to solve problems over battling it out along partisan or denominational lines.
Marcia Ford is the author of We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter.