Emerging religious issues as we move to 2012

Three religious issues are emerging as significant as we march toward the 2012 election: Obama’s “faith dilemma,” perceptions of Islam, and attitudes about American “exceptionalism.” These findings come from a new nationwide poll, conducted in both English and Spanish from November 3-7, 2010 by the Public Religion Research Institute.

People’s perception of Obama’s religious beliefs are strongly related to the way they rate them as President. More than half say that his religious beliefs are different from their own (somewhat different: 16%, or very different: 35%). Only 40% say he has beliefs similar to theirs.

But the survey never probes what the respondents mean by that. How many of them still think (mistakenly) that he is a Muslim? Or think he is (horror of horrors!) an advocate of social justice? Or do these views simply reflect the fact that he is a Protestant Christian and they are some other tradition? The survey leaves us hanging.

Whatever the case, Obama probably needs to communicate his actual religious values more strongly in the coming two years.

But most alarming are the public perceptions of Islam, especially among Republicans. 75% of Republicans and 76% of Tea Party members say that the values of Islam are at odds with American values. In stark contrast, less than 30% of Democrats, and 43% of Independents, say that.

These numbers testify that interfaith education is sorely needed, the sooner the better. And we’re not talking about classroom education only, but television, radio, and new media. And how about some accurate homilies or parish discussions with Muslims that deal with interfaith tolerance and Islam?

Equally alarming is the fact that a majority of Americans (58%) believe that God has granted America a special role in human history. Tea Party people (76%) and Republicans (75%) are much more like to believe that than independents (54%) or Democrats (49%), but all these numbers are high. Belief in that “special role” is directly related to attitudes favoring military strength over diplomacy as the best way to “ensure peace,” and to attitudes approving the use of torture.

As one of my friends put it in the face of attitudes like this: “Who do we think we are anyway?”

If Catholic bishops and clergy had any desire to probe the emerging issues and dilemmas facing our society, these findings provide a lot of material.

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