Vitriolic rhetoric from both left-wing and right-wing media outlets might give alien observers the impression that the United States is divided into two distinct camps when it comes to religion: 1) Wild-eyed religious fanatics who are aghast at the secularization of society and see everyone who disagrees with their point of view as dangerous to the fabric of American life; and 2) Wild-eyed secularists who have nothing but contempt for religion and see everyone who disagrees with their point of view as dangerous to the fabric of American life.
Data from Gallup's 2004 Religious Tolerance Index* reveal this caricature is patently untrue. The vast majority of Americans are at least tolerant of other religious points of view, and the percentage of individuals who fall into the "integrated" category -- that is, very positive toward other faith traditions -- has actually increased in the last year, from 37% in 2003 to 42% in 2004.
The Religious Tolerance Index
Gallup developed the Religious Tolerance Index in 2002 as a way to measure Americans' attitudes toward religious faiths different from their own. The Index is based on agreement with the following five statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree):
- I always treat people of other religious faiths with respect.
- Most religious faiths make a positive contribution to society.
- I would not object to a person of a different religious faith moving next door.
- People of other religions always treat me with respect.
- In the past year, I have learned something from someone of another religious faith.
From the combination of their answers, Gallup places respondents the following three categories:
Isolated. Isolated individuals tend not to be members of any particular faith group, but if they are members, they tend to believe in the truth of their perspective above all others. They do not want to know about other religious faiths, and they neither respect nor feel respected by those of other religious faiths. The 2004 data indicate that 13% of the public fell into this category, the same as in 2003.
Tolerant. The tolerant have a "live-and-let-live" attitude toward people of other faiths, and generally feel that they treat others of different religious faiths with respect. However, they are not likely to learn from or about other religions. The percentage of individuals in the tolerant category was 45% in 2004, down slightly from 50% in 2003.
Integrated. Religiously integrated people go beyond a "live-and-let-live" attitude and actively seek to know more about and learn from others of different religious traditions. They believe that most other religious faiths make a positive contribution to society, and not only do they feel they respect others of different traditions; they also feel respected by them as well. Forty-two percent of Americans were integrated in 2004, up from 37% in 2003.
Members and Nonmembers
Americans who are members of congregations tend to be more integrated in their attitudes toward other religious faiths than those who are not members of any congregation. Forty-six percent of members have an integrated perspective of religion, as do only 34% of nonmembers. Members are also somewhat less isolated than nonmembers; 12% vs. 17%, respectively. This evidence helps debunk the notion that religiosity (implied here by church attendance) tends to make people less accepting of beliefs outside their own faith.
Tolerance and Spiritual Commitment
What's more, Americans with a deep level of individual spiritual commitment are more likely than others to be classified as "integrated." To measure spiritual commitment, Gallup asks nine questions that measure both attitudes and behaviors (see "How to Measure Spiritual Commitment" in Related Items). Individuals who "strongly agree" with all nine items -- about 16% of the general population -- are "fully spiritually committed."
Fully spiritually committed Americans are far more likely to have an integrated perspective than those who are not fully spiritually committed -- 70% vs. 37%, respectively. In addition, those who are fully spiritually committed are less likely to fall into the "isolated" group -- 15% vs. 5%. There appears to be a clear relationship between one's own spiritual development and the way one views people of other religious traditions.
Tolerance and Congregational Engagement
Not only does membership in a faith community make a difference in levels of religious tolerance, but the extent to which a member is actively engaged in his or her faith community also makes a difference, and a quite dramatic one at that (see "Congregational Engagement Ascends" in Related Items). Among members who are engaged in their congregations (that is, feel a strong sense of belonging toward, and ownership of their congregations), 61% are integrated and 7% are isolated. In contrast, among actively disengaged members, only 27% are integrated and 29% are isolated.
Americans may be polarized politically, but when it comes to religion, they seem to be growing more integrated in their attitudes, not less. People who are strongly connected to their religious congregations and deeply spiritually committed are the most likely to be religiously integrated. The American religious fabric is a rich tapestry woven from many threads to produce a complex work of art, and those who are active participants are also those who seem most likely to appreciate its complexity.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, and 500 nonmembers, conducted in October 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2.6 percentage points.