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1/4/03 - RELIGION IMPORTANT TO AMERICANS - 2003-01-06


Many people around the world have the idea that Americans are not religious. But as a new survey shows, this is far from the case. In fact, a new survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center shows that religion ranks considerably higher in the priorities of Americans than it does among the people of other industrialized nations.

Nearly sixty percent of the Americans sampled said that religion was “very important” in their lives. This was far higher than in European countries or in Canada and Japan. The Pew survey found the people in predominantly Muslim countries place the most importance on religion. And across the African continent, religion is something that Muslims, Christians, and others take very seriously.

It should come as no surprise that Americans place a high importance on religion. Many of the people who founded the American republic had either fled religious persecution in other lands or were descended from those who had. With the ratification of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, the U.S. government could not restrict the free exercise of religion. State laws establishing churches and religious tests for public office, a legacy of the colonial period, were repealed one by one in the first decades of U.S. independence. Religious pluralism and tolerance became the rule throughout the U.S.

The U.S. government does not support religious orders. It does not mobilize religious participation or enforce church attendance. Freedom of religion is the birthright of every American. With this freedom and the religious traditions brought by immigrants, Americans enjoy a vibrant religious life -- in private prayer, communal worship, and organized charitable activities. More than one-half of the U.S. population participates voluntarily in religious activities. Their participation attests to the spirituality that millions of Americans profess. Their ability to do so is a fundamental right -- a right that no government that claims to represent its people can deny.

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, assaults on religious freedom cannot be justified in the name of any culture, creed, or country. And history has shown that it has been the denial of religious liberty rather than its exercise that has destabilized regimes. “We are blessed,” said Secretary of State Powell, “to live in a nation that offers each of us the freedom to live our lives, raise our children, and worship God as we see fit, under the protection of our law.”

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