Daniel Yankelovich

Religion in America

VTR Date: March 14, 2001

Guest: Yankelovich, Daniel


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Daniel Yankelovich
Title: “Religion In America”
VTR: 3/14/01

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and if today’s program should seem to you to be a tad more laid back than usual, I suppose that’s because we’re recording it in Southern California at the television facilities of UCSD-TV at the University of California in San Diego. The reason is that my guest today Daniel Yankelovich, long one of our nation’s foremost diviners of public attitudes is in residence here in La Jolla, and I want to beard him in his den, lovely as it is. For the Public Agenda, which social scientist Dan Yankelovich founded in 1975 with former United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, has now published another in its long series of distinguished reports designed to help our leaders better understand the public’s point of view and to help average citizens better understand critical policy issues.

It’s title, “For Goodness Sake, Why So Many Want Religion To Play A Greater Role in American Life”. And I would ask Dan Yankelovich first to lay out for us some its most salient points, reminding him of his answer to me in June 1975, when he and Secretary Vance had just formed The Public Agenda, and when here on The Open Mind I asked whether he thought it fair for anyone to take the position that he knows what we as a people think”. His reply, and I quote from our Open Mind transcript of 26 years ago … “I think it’s not too difficult to learn what people say, but that’s really not always the same as knowing what they really think”. Well, Dan …


HEFFNER: … what do you say about the reasons for the comments that are made here in this report.

YANKELOVICH: Well, one of the comments being that there is a real resurgence in religious sentiment. The reason for it seems to be, at least what … again what people say … has to do with the perception that our morality has declined in the United States. There’s an almost universal feeling that we’re living through an era which makes people feel very uneasy about our social morality. And in people’s minds they … equate … strengthening social morality means strengthening religion. If you strengthen religion, you strengthen social morality along with it. So that’s a primary driving force behind what we see as this multiplicity of religious expressions.

HEFFNER: Do you find them to be the same things? Social morality and religion?

YANKELOVICH: Well, I’m talking not about my personal views …


YANKELOVICH: But about what, what people find … and I, I think I am a little bit surprised about the closeness with which social morality and religion are identified in people’s minds, but there’s no question that they are very strongly linked. I mean the attitudes of Americans toward religion is apparently rather pragmatic in the sense that nothing is as good for our restoring social morality as religion. Therefore it’s a very good thing that we … are a religious people and the Americans would like to see us be even more religious in that point of view.

HEFFNER: Well, Dan I was interested in that in the Report itself … you’ll forgive me if I shift glasses in this … at its very end, when a summary is given, the statement is made … let me find it here … that this study, and this is Deborah Wadsworth, who wrote the afterword: “This study and opinion research do suggest that many Americans have not thought very carefully about the implications and potential downsides of many of their views. Do you think it means, too, that they have perhaps “used” the notion that it is religion that they’re talking about, when really they’re talking about public morality.

YANKELOVICH: Well, it is true … I think that Deborah who is President of The Public Agenda made that observation that people probably haven’t thought through the downside. In the study of the oversamples, people who don’t have a religious affiliation and also Jews because so much of the sample is Christian. And they’re … we’ve lost both of those groups, are a little bit less sanguine about the rise of religion. For most Americans the rise of religion is almost entirely good. It’s associated with stronger family life, with greater charity, with less greed, with less crime, with being good for kids. The only downside that the majority of the public sees is that it isn’t quite as sympathetic to people with alternative lifestyles as it might. But you, you don’t have, among the public any real widespread fear of intolerance or of rigidity or certainly of the kind of sectarianism and ideology that characterizes the Taliban, for examples, or the views of our own more rigid Fundamentalists.

HEFFNER: What about those Fundamentalists? What about the extremists and there are extremists in the Christian Right, for instance.

YANKELOVICH: Well, the … in the sample about 24% identified themselves as Evangelical Christians. And it would not be fair to say that the views of that 24% are all homogeneous, or are more intolerant. There are varying degrees. But, it’s within that quarter of the population that you have people who do express less tolerant points of view. But what this study helps to do is to put that voice in perspective because there has been some tendency to equate religion with the voice of the Religious Right and when you look at the attitudes of most Americans … they’re very much at variance with the more rigid extremes of the Right.

HEFFNER: You used the concept of “tolerance” and I gather that is what runs through this study … the sense that you do not have an intolerant America, essentially.

YANKELOVICH: That’s right. The … 96% of Americans … 96% of Americans agree on almost nothing … but 96% of Americans endorse the view that religious freedom is an transcendent … a value of transcendent importance. An inseparable aspect of our liberty, of our fundamental freedoms. And they try to live that. They try to realize that. And in doing so, they find all kinds of ways of balancing the demands of religion … the sectarian demands of religion with a tradition of tolerance. For example, Americans feel that religion is very good, but not necessarily my religion. It’s sort of a positive attitude toward religion in general. Let me give you an example of the way we try to finesse the tensions that religious belief creates. On an issue like prayer in the schools. A majority, about 53% of the public … we would rather see a moment of silence in the schools. They want prayer in the schools, but in the form of a moment of silence. Another 20% would like to have God mentioned, but in no particular sectarian context. You add those two together you have three out of four Americans who, on an issue like prayer in the schools would like to see it, but would try to find that form of compromise which respects religion but doesn’t offend any particular religious groups. And it’s that kind of jockeying and looking to avoid the invisible red lines of intolerance that characterize the, the American perspective.

HEFFNER: How does that perspective which is so broad as you describe it, get translated in the media into something that frequently seems much less tolerant?

YANKELOVICH: Well, the media the go to the extremes. The media have a conception of what’s interesting and dramatic. What’s interesting and dramatic are people who are opposed to one another. So, Americans are always startled by what they perceive on the media and what they perceive when they have an opportunity to compare notes with other people. Let me give you an example. Whenever we do focus groups on an issue like abortion … almost everybody in the room is surprised to find how tolerant and accepting the other people in the group are because their impression is that the country is divided into pro-life, pro-choice … inalterably opposed to one another. Whereas in fact that probably describes like 5% of the population on other either end. So the media present this sort of 10% of the two extremes as if it were the country, and the 90% in the middle just don’t have those points of view.

HEFFNER: Okay, question … how do we deal with that tendency of the media?

YANKELOVICH: Well, we’ve lived with it for so long. You, you would know as, as …

HEFFNER: You mean as an old, old man …

YANKELOVICH: … as being in this field on the media side as long as I’ve been on, on the research side of public opinion. But you just learn to live with, with the distortions of the media. The media don’t change.

HEFFNER: Do you think the people who are watching us would accept that “you just learn to live with it?” Don’t, don’t you … now talking about what do we …


HEFFNER: … what do we think …


HEFFNER: … don’t we, as a people more and more come to feel that the media do us in in just about the way you described … by taking the extremes rather than the means.

YANKELOVICH: Yeah, of course they do. I mean people get very angry about the media. But after a while, this pragmatic attitude, it seems to be the one institution that you can’t do anything about with the First Amendment being this wonderful protection from everything. Then the media seem inviolable. You know what amuses me of all of these television shows where the media get together to criticize themselves, there never is anybody from the outside there. It’s always people from the media … they criticize themselves in a gentle and then by the end of the show they decide to forgive themselves. So, you know you have this closed world. And, and Americans are used to it.

HEFFNER: Are you so used to it that are very tolerant of it?

YANKELOVICH: Oh, resigned would be a more accurate phrase than tolerant.

HEFFNER: Well, in the moments when resignation isn’t primary in your thinking and in your feeling, do you have any sense that we’ve reached the point, here in the 21st century when perhaps there needs to be a re-assessment of what we have, at least thought the First Amendment makes us do.

YANKELOVICH: Of course. I mean I think most Americans have that … have that point of view. But since it seems not to be actionable than people … let me put it this way … we’re so used to not be able to influence the media, the people are in a stage of semi-resignation. But if anything was every mounted that seemed to show that it could effectively reach the media, it would get overwhelming, instant support throughout the country.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s likely … well, no, let me strike that … because you’ve said it isn’t likely to happen …


HEFFNER: … given our contemporary attitudes. Do you think it’s possible that that will happen at some point in the future, we will have been shoved too far to these extremes that the media like to wrap themselves around?

YANKELOVICH: Ah, it … you know, it could very well happen. I think it, it isn’t going to happen, I don’t think on this issue, because I don’t think the media are really as bad on, on the religion issue as on most other issues. So that at some point, probably in relation to politics, in some way, that you’re going to get a … you’re going to get a, a revolt.

HEFFNER: Well, Dan, let me, let me ask you this … I’m so fascinated by the title of the Report: “For Goodness Sake”. And then the sub-title which in a sense seemed to me to be … I was going to say unnecessary, and perhaps misleading: “Why So Many Want Religion To Play A Greater Role In American Life”. Suppose the sub-title were, “Why So Many Want Goodness and Morality To Play A Greater Role In American Life”. Would that have been more of a reflection of what Public Agenda discovered in its focus groups and in its polling.

YANKELOVICH: No, no. I don’t think so. And I don’t think so for this reason, because the … given the pragmatism of the United States … of Americans, if they’re concerned with more respect for one another …


YANKELOVICH: … with reversing a decline in social morality. There’s no sense that you can do it by preaching. There’s no …

HEFFNER: Preaching in a religious sense.

YANKELOVICH: No, I mean by …

HEFFNER: Teaching.

YANKELOVICH: Teaching. Other exhortation, of various sorts. It’s only about a quarter of the public thinks that that’s possible. The vast majority think if you’re going to get a reversal of the decline it’s going to come though religion. So it is … it has to do with religion as the proven tool for resuscitating and re-vitalizing morality.

HEFFNER: You know, I, I wonder, as I read the Report … I wonder why I felt so strongly that in a sense it was the document, and it was Public Agenda and it was the inquiry that was doing a great deal to reinforce the notion that what we’re talking about is religion, when the people examined … whose ideas were examined, seemed not to be talking about their feelings about God, their feelings about what I used to call religion, but talking only about public morality.

YANKELOVICH: Well, It may be that you and other people compartmentalize your religion and there’s one part of your life that’s religious and the other part that’s secular. Most people have a more all-encompassing, all-embracing notion. And religion for most people does not have to do with public life. It has to do with private life. It has to do with what kind of person you are, what kind of individual you are. Your, your uprightness, your fairness to other people, your sense of social justice. So that it isn’t something that if you have a set of beliefs about legal constraints, or something, you have those compartmentalized. Religion has an all-pervasive aspect. I think there’s another source of the revitalization of religion that is not emphasized in the report that is very powerful. The report emphasizes what people say which is that it is moral revitalization to which they look to religion. But there … but in our other studies there are other sources of this resurgence of religion that have to do with a change in conception of the self. In the sixties, seventies, eighties, even nineties, you had this conception of the self as sort of an enclosed, encapsulated individual who had a lot … lots and lots of needs and like an ice cube tray the more needs you filled the more self-fulfilled you were. It was a funny kind of conception of a self-contained self. And Americans began to become dissatisfied with that in the eighties and nineties and began to shift toward a conception of the self as relationships, as relatedness … relatedness to others. So the relatedness goes not only between “I” and “thou” … “you” and “me” … to the family, to the community, it goes to the society and it seeks to transcend the self, to reach out beyond the self, to something larger than the self. And it leads, therefore, to a religious belief in the form of a vague kind of transcendence. So if you have, if you look at these two well-springs of religious faith, both of them are bubbling up from beneath the surface, you have something very powerful. And it’s not just about social morality and it’s not a conversation simply about how to strengthen it in other ways, it’s a deep fundamental conviction that we have to find our way back to this source of our humanity.

HEFFNER: I mean this transcendence that you speak of … is there evidence that it is a transcendence that involves the Godhead, rather than social well-being, rather than social action … a society?

YANKELOVICH: Well I think once you begin to reach out beyond the self you just don’t stop at that point.

HEFFNER: You don’t stop with society.

YANKELOVICH: You don’t stop with society. You, you reach toward the unknown. You reach toward the spiritual. And it was much more difficult to be spiritual when you have this self-encapsulated conception of the self. Because everything was “satisfying me”. But when you begin to reach out beyond the self and beyond the nation … and you, you … the relatedness moves out and it moves in a spiritual direction.

HEFFNER: Dan, in the short time that we have left I want to ask you about politics and what the study indicates about Americans attitudes towards religion and politics.

YANKELOVICH: Americans feel that religion … most Americans feel that religion is private rather than public. And apprehensive about religion playing too strong a role in public life, such as legislating morality. In the Clinton impeachment we saw that point of view defeated. So there’s an exquisite feeling that when it comes to touch political subjects like abortion, like the death penalty, like gays … our political leaders should compromise. They should not take a dogmatic, sectarian position. That’s part of this juggling, part of this tolerance. But, and also there’s an optimism about our political life.

HEFFNER: Optimism?

YANKELOVICH: Optimism in the sense that we ask people explicitly “do you think our society can withstand those kinds of tensions where you get very strong, strongly opposed religious views?”. And the bulk of the feeling was we have that flexibility, we … we can do that … we’re not going to become the Taliban and we’re not going to become Algeria. We’re not going to go in a fundamentalist, intolerant direction. So, there … Americans are a little bit relaxed about the role of, of religion. They’d like to see more of it, they’d like to see more charity, more people reaching out, helping one another through faith communities. And they’re not too worried about … that it might lead to intolerance.

HEFFNER: Just continuing for a moment on the political question … what was the response to Senator Lieberman’s candidacy for the Vice Presidency? And to his continuing reference to his own religious beliefs?

YANKELOVICH: It was a very positive response, and it was positive across the board. The Religious Right also felt that they could endorse Leiberman where a … say, another kind of secular Jewish candidate would not have gotten that kind of support. So that comes under the heading of religious leaders having the right to speak … politicians having the right to express their points of view as long as they don’t try to impose them on the private life of other people. We now … Lieberman’s attitude toward trying to set up some rules for Hollywood … that’s generally supported because it has to do with children, it has to do with our public institutions, and the rules of the game. So I think that Americans were comfortable with Lieberman, when he was a Vice Presidential candidate, and they’re comfortable with him in the Senate as Spokesman for his particular point of view.
HEFFNER: Do you think there’s any indication that this coming together of traditional religious points of view, the Religious Right, Senator Lieberman’s concern about Hollywood and social morality, that they pose for us any kind of problem that you see.

YANKELOVICH: Well I … that’s my .. my personal view would be “Yes”, because the, the invariable law that I see in politics is that “abuse breeds abuse”. So that if you have Hollywood has been abusive, you should not expect a finely nuanced, subtle response. You’re going to get a crude, abusive response. And … ‘cause that’s the way … probably, it’s too bad … but that’s the way our politics go.

HEFFNER: But there’s no indication in the study that, that’s …

YANKELOVICH: That’s correct. The, the … that’s why I want to emphasize …


YANKELOVICH: … that … I’m stealing a minute to express a personal point of view every once in a while. We know the public in general is relaxed about it and feels that the voice of reform and of revitalization of our social morality will come through religious expression.

HEFFNER: And there seems to be, when you say“nothing, nothing very intemperate about this … that’s so fascinating when one is aware of all the concerns there have been for the Religious Right and what it’s doing.

YANKELOVICH: Yeah. Absolutely. You know that’s what surprised me. If I had to characterize, summarize the report in a couple of words … I would say “tolerant, pragmatic, private”, those three words. Tolerant rather than sectarian and intolerant. Pragmatic rather than ideological, and private rather than public. And those are the three words … the stereotype is the opposite of those three words. So that the study does through light … casts a different light than you would get from the media and from certain strong voices in our society.

HEFFNER: Which, after all is the purpose of the Public Agenda, which you so wisely …


HEFFNER: … set up. Dan Yankelovich, thank you so very much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

YANKELOVICH: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: I hope I can come visit you in California again.


HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time on The Open Mind. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.