National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At war
Issue Date:  April 11, 2003

Minority of churchgoers say religious beliefs shape view of war


Although most Americans who attend church regularly said they have heard about the war in Iraq from the pulpit, only a small minority said their religious beliefs have been the biggest influence on their own thinking about the war, according to a national survey.

The survey released March 19 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life also showed that only one-fifth of Americans said their clergy had taken a position on the war. Most white Catholic and African-American churchgoers usually heard an antiwar message, while white evangelical Protestants tended to get a pro-war viewpoint.

The poll of 1,032 adult Americans was conducted March 13-16, before President Bush’s March 17 speech on Iraq and before the commencement of bombing two days later. The margin of error for the survey was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

“On balance very few people say their religious beliefs are shaping their views on Iraq, unlike the relatively large percentage who report this about social and moral issues like gay marriage, abortion or the death penalty,” said a Pew report on the survey findings.

“Compared with other religious groups, more black Protestants and white evangelicals said religious leaders were influencing their thinking; 58 percent of black Protestants and 46 percent of evangelicals reported at least some influence, compared with 29 percent among Catholics and 18 percent among mainline Protestants, ” it said.

Nearly one-third of Americans -- 32 percent -- said they thought religious leaders had said too little about war in Iraq, while 34 percent said they had said the right amount. Only 15 percent said religious leaders had said too much about war, while 19 percent said they didn’t know.

Forty-two percent of those who oppose the war, however, thought religious leaders had said too little, while 39 percent of those who favor military action said the comments by religious leaders had been about right.

Among those who attend religious services at least twice a month, 57 percent reported that members of the clergy had spoken about the prospect of war from the pulpit, although 34 percent said the clergy had taken no position on the war.

The poll found that those who did speak out generally followed the guidance of the national leaders of their denominations. For example, 14 percent of white Catholics reported that the priest had expressed opposition to war and none said they had heard a pro-war message. Among white mainline Protestants, 7 percent heard antiwar messages, and 1 percent heard pro-war messages.

But 15 percent of white evangelicals said their clergy had expressed support for the war, while only 3 percent said they had heard antiwar messages.

Asked what influences their thinking on the war, 41 percent cited the media, 16 percent personal experience, 11 percent their own educational background, 10 percent religious beliefs and 7 percent friends and family. The remainder cited other reasons or said they didn’t know.

Even among regular churchgoers, only 17 percent gave religion as the biggest influence in their thinking on Iraq.

More than three-quarters of the respondents -- 77 percent -- said that, in general, war is sometimes morally justified, while 19 percent said war is never justified.

Nearly half -- 47 percent -- said their biggest worry about the war was that the United States would not go far enough to achieve military victory, while 32 percent said they were more concerned that the United States would not do enough to avoid civilian casualties.

Catholics -- 34 percent -- and those with no religious affiliation -- 37 percent -- were more likely to cite civilian casualties as a concern compared with mainline Protestants at 25 percent and white evangelicals, 23 percent.

The report found that rising gasoline prices attract the attention of some 52 percent of U.S. citizenry, while only four in 10 said they consistently pay close attention to the changing state of the country’s economy.

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 2003

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