Religion's Positive Influence

for the week of January 22, 2001
by Rubel Shelly

Most Americans believe this country needs the positive influence of faith. "For Goodness' Sake: Why So Many Americans Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life" is a nationwide telephone poll of just over 1,500 adults done last November by a nonprofit research group.

The goal of the study was to test whether the public was as concerned about the impact of evangelical faith and strict church-state separation as certain liberal pundits are. So how much religious influence do Americans want in our politics and schools, workplaces and neighborhoods?

Survey results released January 9 show that most of us think there would be less crime, greed, and immorality if people took their faith seriously. On the other hand, a majority said they preferred a nonsectarian moment of silence over mandated prayer in schools. And a still larger majority said they were skeptical of political candidates putting their religious beliefs at the forefront and voiced the opinion that they "are just saying what they think people want to hear."

My opinion is that the survey yields two basic insights one disturbing and the other encouraging. The disturbing thing I see is that we want an outcome (i.e., nobler behavior) without really understanding how directly it is tied to a process (i.e., living faith). We want the Golden Rule and the honesty, integrity, and other principled behaviors it promotes. But we don't really want to talk about God (58%) and don't really care what religion is involved (76%). Hmmm. I suspect "faith in faith" is a bit too content-neutral to have any significant effect.

The positive thing I see is that people are likely to pay more attention to deeds than words, to upright behavior than pushy witness. But this seems to be a hard thing for Christians to accept. Maybe that's because talk is cheap. Maybe it's because handing someone a tract is easier than helping her through a really serious crisis in her family or personal life.

If you model an authentic Christian commitment at work, in class, and with your family, the time will come when speaking of Jesus is appropriate. And it will be well-received because a foundation for your words has been laid by your life.

"Let me tell you why you are here," said Jesus. "You're here to be salt- seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?" (Matthew 5:13, The Message).

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