Poll: Americans Want More Religion in Government

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A new poll by AP/Ipsos finds that 40 percent of Americans think religious leaders should influence public policy — a much higher number than most other Western countries. Madeleine Brand talks with Daniel Conkle, a law and religion teacher at Indiana University, about how the poll results reflect American attitudes, and what they could mean for U.S. relations with other, more secular nations.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, mystery writer Walter Mosley's new book. This one's for young readers.

But, first, the debate over how much religion should shape public policy has come up a lot recently, whether the issue was stem cell research or gay marriage or the Terri Schiavo case, and just a few days ago Texas Governor Rick Perry caused a furor by signing anti-abortion legislation at an evangelical Christian school. A new poll this week by the Associated Press and the research company Ipsos indicates that America is an intensely religious country compared to its allies, and that many Americans think there should be more religious influence over policy.

Here to deconstruct the numbers with us is Daniel Conkle. He teaches law and religion at Indiana University. And he joins us from the campus in Bloomington.

And welcome to the program.

Mr. DANIEL CONKLE (Indiana University): Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: What did the poll say about Americans, specifically, this idea that there should be more religious influence over public policy?

Mr. CONKLE: Well, the poll says a number of things. In terms of personal religiosity, it suggests that the United States, if not the most religious country of the countries surveyed, it's certainly one of the most religious, with only 2 percent, for example, of Americans, indicating that they clearly do not believe in God. At the same time, the poll also indicates that American citizens, to a much greater degree than other countries, believe that religious leaders should, in fact, attempt to influence government decisions.

BRAND: But, still, we do have this tradition, this bedrock tradition in this country of the separation of church and state. So does that surprise you?

Mr. CONKLE: It doesn't surprise me, to be perfectly honest. Similar polls in the past, I think, have suggested not only that Americans are much more religious, certainly, than Western Europeans; at the same time, Americans do tend to believe that religion should have some influence in public policy. I think there's an important distinction between what might be described as the separation of church and state and the separation of religion and politics.

The separation of church and state requires that the institution of government be formally separated from the institution of religion. Historical establishments involved the intertwining, formal intertwining, of religion and government so that, in fact, you would have a church that was the government. One step beyond that is the notion that the government itself, as government, should not be involved in acts that are themselves explicitly and inherently religious.

BRAND: But still there's a marked difference when you read the question. `Do you think religious leaders should or should not try to influence government decisions?' Under the `should' category, in the US, it's 37 percent; then you go down to France and it's 12 percent. There's a big difference there.

Mr. CONKLE: A huge difference, and I'm glad you mentioned France. In the case of France, you have a long-standing sense of freedom from religion, freedom from intrusive and dominant religious hierarchy. Conversely, the United States, our founding was about religious freedom, more in the sense, I think, of freedom of religion, but it's sort of a different sense of religious freedom that includes a much stronger role for religion in public life, social life and political life.

BRAND: Well, do you think that lately there has been more religion in public life, that public policy has, indeed, been informed more these days by religious concerns?

Mr. CONKLE: I think it clearly has, and I think that, historically, one can trace this pattern in the United States, in many respects, back to 1973, when the Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade. The energizing of religious conservatives that has since taken hold and grown to the point that you now have a quite openly religious president. You have consistent invocations of religion in various contexts by political figures and officials. So I think you do have, certainly compared to many historical periods in the past, a much greater and more prominent role for religion today in American public life, and most of the most prominent part of that is coming from the conservative side of the spectrum.

BRAND: You know, some people in Europe look at America as a burgeoning theocracy, that religion plays such a role in politics that it's overshadowing non-religious beliefs, and people are alarmed by that in Europe.

Mr. CONKLE: If you look at the numbers from this poll, you can see that there is, indeed, a huge gulf. That, certainly, I think, is a contributing factor to some of the estrangement, if that's not too strong a word, between parts of Western Europe and the United States with respect to certain issues of general concern.

BRAND: Daniel Conkle teaches law and religion at Indiana University. Thank you very much.

Mr. CONKLE: Thank you.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY, including a review of the British band the 22-20s, next.

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