American Values Survey

Monday, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released their annual American Values Survey and yesterday, with the Brookings Institution, they held a panel discussion about the findings. My colleague Tom Roberts has already written about some items that caught his eye.


I would note one caveat at the outset. The use of social science data such as this survey is important for the Church. It tells us what the people in the pews are thinking and where more work needs to be done, etc. But, as Catholics, we must remember that taking a poll is not the same thing as determining the sensus fidelium. Just because some people reject a given teaching of the Church does not mean the teaching is untrue, or that the Church could consequently trim its sails. It may mean that we have to do a better job explaining the teachings. But, a sociological answer is not a theological answer. That said, sociological data is important and can help the Church – its leaders and its journalists certainly! – to understand the shape of belief and religious behavior at any given time.

So, what jumped out at me? 32% of those Americans aged 18-29 are now religiously unaffiliated, the now famous “nones,” not to be confused with “nuns,” those who when asked their religious affiliation reply “none.” The PRRI survey asked a very open ended question of those who were raised in a religious tradition and have since left about why they chose to leave. There were a range of responses. 23% said they left because they no longer believe in God or in the teachings of their religion. I am not sure how to get them back, but I do know that for the 8% who reported that they left because they perceived a conflict between science and religion, there is an obvious case to be made that there is no essential conflict between the two avenues of knowledge. 5% said they were too busy or simply uninterested in religion anymore. I confess, I do not want to ever be seated at a dinner party next to anyone who is so superficial that they think religion is uninteresting or that they are too busy for it.

Another interesting factor about the nones is that while 36% of them say they are atheistic or agnostic, and another 39% describe themselves as secular, 23% of the unaffiliated say they are religious people, and of that 23%, 69% agreed with the statement that God is a person with whom one can have a relationship and another 26% said God is an impersonal force. Zero percent of those who say they are unaffiliated but still religious aid there is no God. I suppose these are the “I’m spiritual not religious” folks whom no one to sit next to on an airplane. There is a potential for solipsism, a desire to craft a spirituality “just for me,” that misunderstands the nature of religion, or understands it but refuses the impulse to submit, which is at the heart of religion. I confess I would be suspicious of any religion if there was nothing in it that required me to change, yet in America today, there are volumes of spiritual books that promise just such a religion. There is the Prosperity Gospel crowd, too, who promise good change and big profit margins to boot. There is something entrepreneurial about religion in America, and always has been, and it is an ugly thing. Here, I stand with Joe Feuerherd who famously described himself as “religious but not spiritual.”   

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Tom Roberts has already called attention to one of the more interesting findings, namely, that 6-in-10 Catholics agree with the statement: “In its statements about public policy, the Catholic Church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life.” Only 31% agreed with the obverse statement that the Church should spend more attention on abortion and right-to-life issue than social justice issues. What was really interesting is that 51% of weekly Mass attendees, a group that usually registers more conservative political and theological views, also agreed with prioritizing social justice issues.

Of course, I am not happy with the way the question was framed because, for me, the right-to-life is a social justice issue and key social justice issues, such as supporting universal health insurance or foreign aid, have very real pro-life consequences. So, what should the leaders of the Church do with this data? Never, ever mention the right-to-life without calling it a social justice issue. Never, ever criticize budget cuts in programs that help the poor unless you have also looked at, and are prepared to explain, the pro-life consequences of those cuts.

Michele Dillon, from the University of New Hampshire, chastised the political leadership of the Democratic Party for their failure to capitalize on the clear evidence that the people in the pews at Catholic churches really are committed to social justice, evidence confirmed in this survey but found, too, in previous surveys conducted by Bill D’Antonio at Catholic University.  John Sides of George Washington University noted that the data demonstrates a lack of consistent theological orthodoxy and posed the interesting question: Do religious people think about politics religiously? I think the obvious answer is that most people start with their political leanings and then scamper off to find religious justifications for those leanings. Here is another challenge to the leaders of the Church: We must find ways to start with our theology, and then get to our politics. This is at the heart of Archbishop Chaput’s column I called attention to yesterday: We must be Catholics first and partisans second.

Melissa Deckman of Washington College looked at the Tea Party and how on issue after issue, they are even more arch than white, evangelical Protestants. For example, while 46% of white evangelicals support raising taxes on the rich, but 60% of self-identified Tea Party members oppose raising taxes on the rich. By contrast, every other religious demographic supports increasing taxes on the rich with 59% of white Catholics and 64% of Hispanic Catholics supporting such an increase. Deckman is doing more research on the Tea Party and its religious affinities and this should be fascinating. E.J. Dionne and Bill Galston, two of DC’s smartest – and nicest – human beings also offered key insights into the poll which they helped craft with PRRI and who contributed an analysis at the end of the report which I commend to all.  



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