The big news out of the polling world concerns the second installment of the three-part survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In the first part, released earlier this year, more than 80 percent of all Americans identified themselves as affiliated with one faith or another, principally Christianity. This new survey illustrates that these Americans are willing to concede that theirs may not be the only way to salvation and further, that there may be more than one way to interpret the teachings of their own religion. However, we aren’t all that flexible; more than half of those affiliated with a faith favor preserving religious traditions over adjusting to new circumstances or adopting modern beliefs and practices. Still, I guess we should celebrate the fact that our country is adapting to its diversity and practicing a degree of tolerance unknown in other highly religious societies, like Saudi Arabia or Iran.
I was more interested in a poll that caught my eye last week, yet another one of those in which a majority of Americans think we’re on the wrong track. This is the latest of a plethora of polls (couldn’t resist) taken by media outlets left, right and center. The June AP/Ipsos poll indicates 8 in 10 think this country is “headed in the wrong direction” and assesses that “the general level of pessimism is the worst in almost thirty years.” This particular poll has been conducted since 2003; other similar surveys are older. The latest New York Times/CBS poll, which began asking Americans to assess our success in the early nineties, shows a similar slide towards the dark side.
The state of affairs appears bleak, to be sure. Not much good news on the international scene (global warming, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, civil strife in countless African nations, it seems) and bad enough at home where the rising food and gas prices and record numbers of mortgage defaults are driving us crazy. Everything our government does – make that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government – seems to make it worse or at least not very much better and for better or for worse, we expect better from our government. Hard to say whether we’re in worse shape than when air raid drills and bomb shelters were de rigeur but we Americans think so at any rate – or we’ve got short memories.
The ever-so-slight upside of all this horrible downside is I’m noticing people prioritizing, that is, understanding what needs to matter most to them and to their fellow travelers, which is key. For all Dobson’s yelling and the creationists’ ranting, we seem less concerned with whether we’re reading Genesis literally than with how we’re going to get through tomorrow. That’s actually good; I’d like to put the “cultural wars” on the back burner for awhile while we deal with real problems. With the Supreme Court’s insane ruling that all of us genuinely frightened, understandably pissed off and sometimes indulgently “entitled” folks have a right to bear arms, we’re going to need the equivalent of a group hug. More guns in more hands – oh the thought of it! Steady nerves must prevail; otherwise we haven’t got a prayer.