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Religion in public life: Americans yearn for a middle way

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Concerned about the moral state of their country, many Americans have long said they desire more religious influence in public life. They still feel that way, but they're also growing wary about the forms it is taking.

A national survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on Aug. 24 shows ambivalence about the relationship of religion to politics and social issues, and unhappiness with extreme positions. The public is not polarized into liberal and conservative camps, the poll suggests, but yearns to find middle ground on contentious social issues.

There is distress about both ends of the political spectrum: 49 percent of American adults say conservatives are too assertive about trying to impose their religious values on the nation, yet 69 percent say liberals go too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government.

"Americans value religion, and attempts to remove it generically from the public square bother a lot of people," says John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum, which cosponsored the survey with Pew Research Center on People & the Press, both in Washington, D.C. "But they start getting worried when religion becomes highly politicized," he says. "They don't want it to be too far to one side or the other, or too much in favor of one particular group."

Indeed, the poll shows that relatively few people say they belong to either extreme – the "religious right" or "religious left." Only 11 percent identify with the religious right, a slight drop from the 1990s, Dr. Green says, perhaps reflecting the decline of the Christian Coalition. The right includes about one-quarter of conservative Republicans and 20 percent of white Evangelicals.

Only 7 percent of Americans identify with the "religious left," yet that is an increase over previous years. Since the 2004 election, considerable foment has arisen within religious circles over the political agenda of the right, with new groups forming to present alternative views on values.

Perhaps surprisingly, the survey found stronger affiliation in these categories among African-Americans and younger adults. Fourteen percent of blacks identify with the religious left; 19 percent say they belong to the religious right. Among adults under 30, 14 percent choose the religious left, while 13 percent choose the right.

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