Skip to site content

Americans Mixed on Church-State Separation, Poll Says

Seven out of 10 Americans think it is OK to display the Ten Commandments in a public school or government building, but nearly two thirds would oppose a similar display containing a verse from the Koran, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll.

The poll suggests Americans hold a muddled view on the role of religion in public life and the meaning of the twin First Amendment clauses upholding the free exercise of religion while banning its establishment.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Only 10 percent of Americans believe it is acceptable to display only Christian symbols in public places or government buildings, according to the survey, while 58 percent said it is acceptable to display them as long as others are displayed, too. Twenty-nine percent said religious symbols have no place in public displays.
 
But Americans seem to hold a double standard when it comes to accommodating majority and minority faiths. Sixty-four percent in the survey approved of using federal funds to support Christian-run social programs like day care and drug rehabilitation, but only 41 percent said they would favor giving government funds to similar charities run by Muslims.
 
Seventy percent approved of displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools or government buildings, while 29 percent disapproved and 1 percent had no opinion. Asked how they would feel about display of a monument with a verse from the Koran, the holy book of Islam, in a public school or government building, 33 percent approved, 64 percent disapproved and 3 percent had no opinion.
 
The findings come after weeks of high-profile media coverage of a standoff between Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and federal courts over a 5,200-pound granite monument to the Ten Commandments that Moore had installed two years ago in the rotunda of the state judicial building in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Montgomery.
 
While gaining less media play, similar disputes have cropped up across the country, where thousands of Ten Commandments monuments are displayed on public grounds. Moore, the self-styled “Ten Commandments judge,” has become symbolic of a grassroots struggle pitting conservative Christians against supposed secularist forces seeking to remove God from the public square.
 
But other religious leaders say there are better ways to honor God than seeking to impose religious beliefs on stone.
 
“There’s a particular irony in the fact that so many Americans support the display of the Ten Commandments in public places but routinely fail to honor them in their own lives,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, quoted Tuesday in USA Today. “We say we’re a religious people—we just don’t care enough to show it,” Parham said.
 
Parham observed in an interview that while many religious people expressed outrage at a federal court order removing Moore’s Ten Commandments monument, a major Christian bookstore chain announced it would begin opening its stores on Sundays to accommodate shopping on the Sabbath, violating the Fourth Commandment.
 
Parham told USA Today that instead of fighting constitutional battles over establishing religion, Christians ought to be more concerned with living their lives according to Scripture. “The most important place for the Ten Commandments to be displayed is in churches, not in the public square,” he said.
 
As numbered by Protestants, the Fourth Commandment says to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” adding an admonition to work and labor six days of the week while establishing the seventh as a day of rest.
 
While tightening restrictions on the roles of women in churches and homes in revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000, however, the Southern Baptist Convention relaxed instructions concerning the Lord’s Day.
 
The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message said the day should be marked by exercises of worship and devotion, as well as “by refraining from worldly amusements, and resting from secular employment’s, work of necessity and mercy only being excepted.”
 
Article 8 of the current Baptist Faith and Message says Sunday should “include” public and private devotion and that activities on the Lord’s Day “should be commensurate with the Christian’s conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.