Keeping the Faith, But on Their Own Terms

Even before Sept. 11, reports abounded that the U.S. was experiencing a religious revival. And in the aftermath of that day, Americans were seen flocking to places of worship. One might infer from this that religious doctrine is transforming the way Americans live their lives. Instead, some polling data suggests it’s the other way around: Disinclined to submit to a will other than their own, Americans are transforming the practice of religion. The nation is experiencing a religious revival, all right, but one that plays only a modest role in shaping people’s views of right and wrong. Summing up its findings on this issue, Barna Research concludes that “few Americans turn to their faith as the primary guide for their moral and ethical decisions.” Of course, there have always been gaps between what people say and do with regard to religion. A Gallup poll last year found 59 percent of adults saying religion is “very important” in their lives, while 44 percent had attended a religious service in the previous seven days. An ABCNews/Beliefnet poll last month found 44 percent of women and 32 percent of men saying they do so each week. More strikingly, even those who say they’re actively religious feel free to pick and choose among doctrines. One recent instance: A Family Circle poll found religious adults more likely to believe in heaven(81 percent) than in hell (65 percent). In Barna’s polling, just 32 percent of adults who call themselves born-again Christians said they believe in “moral absolutes.” Asked to choose the main factor that guides them when they face a “moral or ethical choice,” nearly equal numbers cited the Bible (26 percent) and “whatever feels right or comfortable in thatsituation” (24 percent). Likewise, Gallup has noted “a sometimes startling openness to unorthodox ideas and practices” among believers—including the fact that one-quarter of born-agains also believe in astrology. In light of such doctrinal laxity, it’s little wonder Americans are puzzled when Osama bin Laden insists on calling them “the Crusaders.”