Those Immoral, Religious Americans


April 27, 1991|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Is America morally bankrupt? Recent evidence arrives to support opposite answers.

There has been scandal, or at least reports of it. Was there scandal in Palm Beach? At Nancy Reagan's lunch table? In John Sununu's travels? To those who maintain we're on a slippery slope it's all part of the fabric of moral erosion.

Just consider crime, drugs, promiscuity, illegitimacy, divorce and homosexuality, to begin a long list that conservatives will happily provide. Liberals give the morality lecture with a different spin: We had a decade of unspeakable greed presided over by a dunce. And, next year, for the seventh consecutive time, ''values'' will be a big election issue. Depend on it.

However, there is the matter of religion. Some years ago, emblazoned on the cover of Time magazine, was the question ''Is God Dead?'' Now we know: Not in America, He isn't.

A new survey shows 90 percent of Americans identifying themselves as religious. Ninety is a lot of percents. Scholars say the American rate of religiousness is a third to a half higher than in other modern nations.

The study, from the City University of New York (by Professor Barry Kosmin and Dean Seymour Lachman), was based on a massive sample of 113,000 adults. It confirms earlier research, but because of its large sample offers insights about small groups in America, as well as large.

For example:

* Most Asian-Americans are Christians, typically Catholics or Baptists.

* One-third of Hispanic-Americans are not Catholic.

* Most Americans of Irish descent aren't Catholics, but Protestants of Scotch-Irish and Northern-Irish ancestry.

* More than half the Arab-Americans are Christians. There are fewer Muslims, about 2.2 million in all, than had been estimated. Only 2 percent of blacks are Muslims, but 40 percent of Muslims are black.

* About 11 percent of the 6.8 million ''ethnic'' Jews -- are religiously Christian.

And there is one overwhelming number: 86 percent of Americans are Christians. Roman Catholics are the largest single denomination (26 percent), followed by Baptists (19 percent).

Strange. Americans are immoral. Americans are religious. What's going on?

Perhaps our religion is not very religious and we are morally corrupt. Perhaps our corruption is not very corrupt and we are religious. Perhaps we are both.

Religious intensity does seem to have diminished, or changed. There is talk of religion of convenience, cafeteria Catholicism, pick-and-choose piety.

The CUNY survey shows Catholics about as likely to be divorced as other Americans. Other polls show Catholics at roughly national norms regarding birth control and legal abortion. Yet all that conflicts with the teachings of Catholicism.

The officialdom of some mainline Protestant denominations puts Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador high on the altar. The chairman of a Presbyterian national church committee says his joyless pTC co-religionists ''all look as if they were weaned on pickles'' and that it's time to ''affirm eros.'' His committee's report is said to ''question the importance that Americans place on marriage,'' but endorses it for gay and lesbian couples.

Of course, we can be both weak and religious. But leaning which way?

I would argue that our moral decline has been overstated. Scandal, greed and sex are not new. Violence and drug use seem to be higher than earlier, but it wasn't a bowl of cherries earlier.

The surveys show Americans still believe that ''family'' is the most important thing in their lives, by far. That our politics has focused on values says we still care about them a great deal.

Better than surveys was what we saw when we turned on television during the Gulf War.

The American young people who came into our living rooms were mostly nice specimens indeed: disciplined, well-spoken, polite, patriotic, energetic and also better educated than those high-falutin' experts have been telling us.

In short, moral, doing both good and well.

Ben Wattenberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation.''

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