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Religion and America's Role in the World


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Religion and America's Role in the World

Since 9/11, America’s role in the world has taken on an increasingly important part of our political discourse. Questions about the use of military force, commitments to nation building, the war on terrorism, humanitarian disaster relief, women’s rights around the world, as well as our relations with other nations have sparked heated debates from the halls of Congress to college dorm rooms. People’s views are informed by their values and personal experiences, as well as international events. While these values and experiences are relatively well understood, the influence of religious identity and engagement has not been explored in-depth.

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In this first major study of religion and international affairs, this report explores the role that religious worldviews play in shaping views about America’s role in the world and foreign policy priorities. The following report is based on a national survey of 1400 adults, including an oversample of 400 young evangelical Christians ages 18 to 29. The survey was conducted September 4-21, 2008, and carries a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent.

Key Findings:

  • There is relative consensus about the role of the United States in the world. Most believe that America has a moral obligation and responsibility to act as a leader on the world stage. Despite increasing religious diversity, a majority agree with the notion that our nation is blessed and that it should set a Christian example to the world.
  • At the same time, Americans express ambivalence about whether or not we have a positive influence around the world. When thinking about America’s international role generally, nearly 8-in-10 Americans acknowledge that the United States’ involvement sometimes does more harm than good. Overall, Americans are equally split on whether the United States has a positive or negative impact on the world.
  • The religious landscape has shifted with evangelical Christians now expressing the greatest support for an interventionist role. More moderate religious groups, like mainline Protestants and Catholics, are taking a more isolationist posture.
  • Americans view the United States as a blessed country that should be emulated. Six in ten Americans believe that God has uniquely blessed America and a similar number believe that the United States should set the example as a Christian nation to the rest of the world. Finally, a substantial minority of Americans, 41 percent, say they consider America’s culture to be better than others, agreeing with the statement, “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.”
  • Americans’ foreign policy priorities cannot be separated from the events of the past eight years. Only one-quarter of Americans say recent relations are headed in the right direction, compared to two-thirds of Americans who say our relations are off on the wrong track. A majority of Americans want to begin bringing troops home from Iraq (59 percent agree), while only 39 percent advocate a “stay-the-course” strategy.
  • Concerns are dominated by violence and conflict, and preserving our nation’s security takes on greater priority than other international engagements. Top policy priorities include controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons and fighting global terrorism. Preventing global disease, stopping genocide and international relief for humanitarian disasters are nearly as important. But it is hard to find support for objectives that would require a significant, long-term investment of resources, such as improving the standard of living in developing countries or promoting democracy around the world.
  • There is less consensus around ideologically charged areas of foreign policy, particularly women’s rights and environmental policy. While most support efforts to improve maternal health, people are more divided on lifting the “global gag rule,” which would free up resources to organizations providing a full range of women’s health services including abortion. Similarly, while most support signing international treaties to combat global warming, the backdrop of an economic crisis and soaring gas prices deflate the sense of urgency about the problem.
  • Generational change may ultimately transform the public’s views about the world.  Younger evangelicals, for example, are different from adults in that they are more ecumenical in their view about America’s influence, adopt a more inclusive definition of what it means to be “pro-life,” and are more supportive of efforts to combat global warming. We also see the rise of people without any religious preference at all; this group, understandably, is more skeptical of whether America should set a Christian example to the world and less convinced of the nation’s exceptionalism.

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