Americans Conflicted Over Bush's Faith-Based Initiative

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Are Americans falling in line behind the Bush administration's faith-based charity initiative? Well, sort of.

According to a poll published this week by the independent, nonprofit Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Americans like the idea of federal money supporting religious charity groups, but they aren't so sure they like the practical aspects of setting the plan in action.

On the surface, support for the Bush plan is overwhelming. Of the 2,041 adults surveyed over two weeks in March, 75 percent favor the purpose of the Bush plan, versus 21 percent who oppose it. But when pollsters asked about participation by non-Judeo-Christian religious groups, respondents' enthusiasm sloped off pretty quickly. If Catholic churches, for example, were to receive government funds, for example, 62 percent of respondents would approve. Likewise, support for mainline Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues hovered around 60 percent. But when it came to whether Scientologists or the Nation of Islam should receive funds, approval dropped to below 30 percent.

Kim Parker, research director at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., spoke with Wednesday about the poll — and what Americans are ready for. Why did you decide to take this poll?

Parker: We'd looked at a lot of what's in the poll — asking people about the roles of religion and government — back in 1996. But this year we decided to focus in on questions raised by Bush's faith-based program proposal. We also decided to concentrate on the role religion plays in people's lives.

Q: Were there any major surprises in the poll results?

Parker: We saw what's considered a pretty classically American response: The population supports an idea in theory, but specifics tend to cause problems. A full three-fourths of the public supports the concept of Bush's faith-based charity proposal. Interestingly, a lot of those same people felt strongly that groups outside the Judeo-Christian tradition should not be provided funding, while at the same time, 78 percent of respondents said that groups should not be able to turn away applicants who don't share their religious beliefs. So you have these vaguely conflicting ideas about inclusion.

Q: Were any specific population groups more enthusiastic about the faith-based initiatives than others?

Parker: Secular types are not thrilled about the proposal, but are more willing to apply the program across the board, rather than limit who gets the money. Older people, aged 65 and older, are much less enthusiastic about the program than younger folks, and they're also very concerned with separation of church and state. Some researchers theorize that this fear makes sense; older Americans come from an era when a majority religion was much more evident in every aspect of public life. People who lived through that era could, I'm sure, imagine state-sponsored religion becoming an issue. Younger respondents, on the other hand, tend to be more aware and more accepting of religious diversity, and less fearful of the role of religion in general.

Q: The faith-based charity plan is on hold for the moment, while the White House works out a few kinks. As they're retooling, what should the architects of Bush's initiative take from this poll?

Parker: I certainly don't think the administration should look at the poll results and assume that faith-based initiatives won't work. On the contrary — the broad support in theory could be bolstered by getting someone out there to make the case for the program. The American people are very religious, and believe it can be used to help others. I think it really depends on the details of the finalized plan, how it comes together, and what kind of sales job the White House is able to deliver.