The Public Broadcasting System’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly TV show recently commissioned a poll on faith and family that demonstrates “a gap between belief and reality,” according to the pollster.1
Surveys like this, if done properly, can be valuable diagnostic tools, showing us where we’re strong and where we need to do more. What does this poll tell us?
In terms of the mission of Christian Reconstruction, it tells us that too many Christians in America don’t take God’s laws as seriously as they should — particularly in regard to cohabitation, divorce, and schooling.
According to the survey, almost three quarters of all Americans, regardless of their own life circumstances, agree that “God’s plan for marriage is one man, one woman, for life.”
Despite this belief, 49% of the respondents said cohabitation — a man and a woman living together with no intention to marry — is an acceptable way of life. (Oddly enough, only 40% endorsed cohabitation as a trial period before marriage.)
A majority (52%) agreed that divorce is acceptable when a husband and wife can’t resolve their marital problems — a stand that can sometimes be Biblical (in cases of adultery, consanguinity, fornication or illicit sex in general, or desertion by an unbelieving or apostate spouse),2 but in the survey, “marital problems” is not defined. Certainly “problems” like money, boredom, or “falling out of love” are not Biblical grounds for divorce — although they are frequently cited as “reasons” for getting a divorce today.
Only 22% agreed that divorce is a sin. Again, the survey question didn’t go into specifics.
Although the Bible makes the family responsible for educating its children (as in Deuteronomy 11:19), only 23% said they would remove their child from a class if the instruction included “controversial materials, contradicting your values.” Most favored responses that would leave their children in the school: “voice your concern” with the teacher, 90%, or “explain to your child why the material is wrong,” 75%.
Changes in the Family
We already know from US Census Bureau figures, and other surveys, that the American family has changed much in recent years. In 1970, 40% of all American households consisted of a mother and father with dependent children. By 2000, this description applied to only 25% of households in America.
But the survey reports that most Americans, three out of four, still believe in the Biblical ideal of the family — even if there is a significant “gap” between what we believe and how we live.
Rather than interpreting this gap as evidence of a deep national hypocrisy, we might look to these idealistic beliefs as a foundation upon which to reconstruct American life. Said the survey designer, “Many people who are not in traditional religion or in traditional families nonetheless have very vibrant spiritual lives. They pray; they have family devotions; religion is important to them.”
In answer to the survey question, “How important is religion in your life?”, 62% said “very important” and another 25%, “somewhat important,” a total of 87%. But only 49% described themselves as “religious,” while 35% described themselves as “spiritual” — whatever that means.
At least the hunger for God has not passed away from the soul of America. These figures show us what we have to build on.
The Role of Government
Any campaign to reconstruct America along Biblical lines will fail if it’s done from the top down. The survey clearly shows that hardly anybody wants the state involved in faith or family: 80% said the government “should stay out of it.”
Reconstruction therefore must be from the bottom up — first the individual, then the family, then the church, the local community, and so forth. This has always been Chalcedon’s message.
Data vs. Spin
The nationwide survey of 1,130 adults was taken this past summer (2005), designed by John Green of the University of Akron and conducted by Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. The survey questions, more than 100 of them, are available on the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly website, www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics.
The survey itself deserves high marks for transparency. Its questions, methodology, and demographics can all be examined on the website. We applaud it as a good-faith effort.
But PBS’ reporting of the findings leaves much to be desired. By now we should be used to PBS spinning the news to the left, and its reporting of this survey is more of the same.
For example, the actual findings of the survey (as seen in Question No. 27, “[H]ow do you define a family?”) show 79% of the respondents defining a family along traditional lines. But when Religion and Ethics Newsweekly went to a “man in the street” format, nine of 15 interviewees — 60% — opted for “any set of people who love each other”-type definitions, and Religion and Ethics Newsweekly gladly announced that “love is what makes a family.” That ought to keep PBS in good standing with its donors on the Irreligious Left.
We can ignore the spin and concentrate on the data.
2 R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. I, (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), 401–415.