polling

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

The way President Donald Trump sees things, his big tax-bill win on Capitol Hill was a giant -- maybe even huuuuge -- Christmas present for America.

"Remember I said we're bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before," he said, speaking in Utah earlier this week. "We're bringing Christmas back and we say it now with pride. Let me just say, to those here today and all across the country: Merry Christmas to everybody."

That's good rhetoric for a political rally, as long as most of the cheering people think of Christmas as a cultural season built on gifts, travel, fun, food, festivities and activities with friends and family. And that turns out to be true for 43.1 percent of those polled in a new survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute. Only 3.9 percent viewed Christmas exclusively in religious terms and another 11.4 percent as "mostly religious."

"It's important to realize that the commercialization of the season doesn't appear to be the driving factor in what's creating the cultural Christmas we see today," said Marc Pugliese, who teaches religion and theology at Saint Leo University in central Florida.

Many Americans, in fact, are "tired or fed up" with the tsunami of advertising and materialism they see every December, he added. "So you can't just say that the shopping mall has won. … But the reality is that almost everything that's going on is defined by the culture's secular calendar -- what's happening at school, at work and in the media."

The bottom line, he said, is clear: "Christmas is about parties and get-togethers with family and friends."

On the other side of the equation, 42.4 percent of those surveyed picked the "commercialization of the season" as the most annoying American Christmas "tradition," with 38.3 percent saying that the "early start for the Christmas season" got the nod in that department.

Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

A week after 9/11, President George W. Bush told a hurting nation: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

Faced with a tsunami of hellish news about the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama updated that soundbite this past fall: "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents. ... ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple."

The problem, of course, is that Islamic State leaders keep serving up quotes such as the following, part of the judgments rendered by the leader of recent rites to behead 21 Coptic Christians, filmed on a beach in Libya.

"The sea you have hidden Sheik Osama Bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood," said the executioner, as he pointed his knife at the camera. "Oh, people, recently you have seen us on the hills of as-Sham and Dabiq's plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time. ...

"Today, we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

No wonder many Americans remain uncertain when asked questions about Islam -- such as whether the Islamic State represents one approach, or even the dominant approach, to Islam today. 

Foggy faith in 'mushy middle' of American religion scene

Crack open a traditional hymnal and most American Protestants will be able to belt out the classic hymn, "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!"

The last verse states: "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity."

Also, most practicing Catholics will be familiar with these Catechism lines: "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. ... The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the 'consubstantial Trinity'."

The language is mysterious and ancient. Yet according to a new survey probing what Americans believe on crucial theological issues, a majority of those polled -- 71 percent -- believe in the Trinity.

But what about that whole "God in three persons" thing? Not so much.

Searching for Catholic sins

One tough challenge that Catholic shepherds face, Pope Benedict XVI said this past Lent, is that their flocks live in an age "in which the loss of the sense of sin is unfortunately becoming increasingly more widespread."

The pope has consistently described the forces at work as "pluralism," "relativism" and "secularism."

"Where God is excluded from the public forum the sense of offence against God -- the true sense of sin -- dissipates, just as when the absolute value of moral norms is relativized the categories of good or evil vanish, along with individual responsibility," he told a group of Canadian bishops, early in his papacy.

"Yet the human need to acknowledge and confront sin in fact never goes away. ... As St. John tells us: 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.' "

But there's a problem at pew level. Many American Catholics who regularly attend Mass simply do not agree with their church when it comes time to say what is sinful and what is not. In fact, according to a recent survey by Ellison Research in Phoenix, if the pope wanted to find large numbers of believers who share his views on sin he should spend more time with evangelical Protestants.

For example, 100 percent of evangelicals polled said adultery is sinful, while 82 percent of the active Catholics agreed. On other issues, 96 percent of evangelicals said racism is sin, compared to 79 percent of Catholics. Sex before marriage? That's sin, said 92 percent of the evangelicals, while only 47 percent of Catholics agreed.

On one of the hottest of hot-button issues, 94 percent of evangelicals said it's sinful to have an abortion, compared with 74 percent of American Catholics. And what about homosexual acts? Among evangelicals, 93 percent called this sin, as opposed to 49 percent of the Catholics.

The Catholics turned the tables when asked if it's sinful not to attend "religious worship services on a regular basis," with 39 percent saying this is sin, compared to 33 percent of the evangelicals.

In this survey, a Catholic was defined as "someone who attends Mass at a Catholic parish at least once a month or more," said Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research. The goal was to focus on the beliefs of active members, as opposed to ex-Catholics and "cultural Catholics" who rarely, or never, go to Mass.

The researchers also collected data on church-attending Protestants and this group -- mixing mainline Protestants and those in conservative churches -- tended to give answers that were more conservative than those from by Catholics, but more liberal than those given by evangelicals. Sellers said his team sifted evangelicals out of the larger Protestant pool by asking participants to affirm or question basic doctrinal statements, such as, "The Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all that it teaches" and "Eternal salvation is possible through God's grace alone."

The split between Catholics and evangelicals jumped out of the statistics.

"It's hard to talk about what could have caused this without doing in-depth research that would let us move beyond speculation," he said. "But you can't look at these numbers without asking: Why are American evangelicals more likely to have a Catholic approach to sin than American Catholics?"

It's clear that most Americans are operating with definitions of sin that are highly personal and constantly evolving, said Sellers. These beliefs are linked to faith, morality, worship and the Bible, but are also affected by trends in media, education and politics. For example, 94 percent of political conservatives believe there is such a thing as sin, compared to 89 percent of political moderates and 77 percent of liberals.

The declining numbers on certain sins would have been even more striking if the Ellison researchers hadn't added a strategic word to its survey. The study defined "sin" as "something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective."

Note that linguistic cushion -- "almost."

"We had to put that 'almost' in there," said Sellers. "Most Americans do not believe in absolute truths, these days. So if you present them with a statement that contains an absolute truth, people are immediately going to start challenging you and looking for some wiggle room. ... They just can't deal with absolute statements and that messes up your survey."

Democrats, faith and Roe

Talk to Democrats at church and you will usually find citizens who yearn to find middle ground on America's most painful social issue, to find ways to restrict or even ban most abortions.

Talk to Democrats as they exit voting booths and you will almost always find voters who pulled levers to elect candidates who oppose these compromises.

The vast majority of Democrats want change on abortion. That's one of messages in a new study on politics, faith and social issues produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Yet harsh political realities make it almost impossible to find middle ground.

"If you ask Democrats, 'Would you like to see some compromises on abortion?', you will see high numbers" of people saying "yes," said veteran researcher John C. Green of the University of Akron, who is working at the Pew Forum during this election year. "But if you ask them if they want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, you will get a totally different set of numbers."

For millions of Americans it is "impossible to reconcile their emotional attachment to Roe with what they believe about finding middle ground on abortion," he said.

The Pew report provides plenty of evidence that Americans are hard to pin down. They lean right on gay marriage, but are beginning to lean left on embryonic stem cell research. On abortion, small camps of true believers dominate both parties, while millions of average Americans say they want compromise.

"Abortion continues to split the country nearly down the middle," according to the Pew team. Still, "majorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%) favor a compromise. So do majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives. More than six-in-ten white evangelicals also support compromise, as do 62% of white, non-Hispanic Catholics."

It's hard to define "compromise" in terms of legislation, said Green. Study participants were asked if abortion should be "generally available," "allowed, but more limited," "illegal, with few exceptions" or "never permitted." As expected, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats.

Nevertheless, 10 percent of "liberal" Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which Green said might include a "partial-birth" abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions.

"Many of those liberals are black Democrats who are frequent church goers," said Green. "But those Democrats are still out there."

Meanwhile, 12 percent of "moderate" and "conservative" Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be "illegal, with few exceptions," the choice that Green called a "modern pro-life stance." Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

However, the modern Democratic Party is led by liberals who lean left on abortion and hot social issues, according to Peter Steinfels, the veteran religion columnist of the New York Times. But this creates a problem, since the centrists make up 67 percent of the party and the liberals only 31 percent. "The ideologically dominant group -- certainly on abortion, less so on same-sex marriage -- is the numerical minority," he noted.

The Republican Party has internal rifts of its own on religious and cultural issues. For example, 44 percent of white evangelicals now support embryonic stem-cell research, which is a 12-point increase over the past year alone. Democrats are split over whether to push gay marriage, but Republicans are split over the issue of whether to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban it.

Green stressed that most Americans, especially those who frequent pews, want to affirm what they believe are "traditional," even conservative, positions on these kinds of moral issues.

"But they also want to affirm personal freedom and the right of individuals to make their own choices," he said. "So they are not so sure how to put all that together, when it comes to deciding what to do about an issue like abortion."