By the Numbers Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 30 June 2008

Last week, the Pew Forum, that very useful surveyor of public opinion, released a study showing that American believers are generally tolerant, and all the more so the more important religion is in their lives. It found, among other things, that 70 percent of us believe people of other faiths than our own may be saved – a much higher percentage, I’d wager, than would concede as much to members of the opposite political party. These numbers don’t necessarily tell us very much, and the people at Pew, who are careful analysts, were measured in drawing conclusions from them. But it’s not much of a surprise. The Catholic Church, for instance, has long considered cases of the virtuous pagan, the invincibly ignorant, and baptism of desire, and maintained that in such instances people may, indeed, still find salvation. The Church arrived at this view not as a result of American tolerance, but in its pursuit of theological truth.

Still, it’s good to have the data, if only because, if anyone were really paying attention, the figures might correct the standard media image of the fervent American Christian as in a permanent state of ignorance, judgmentalism, and bigotry. Of course, no one is really paying attention and we can be sure, particularly in an election year, that we will soon be back with the old stereotypes, perhaps with a dose of the bitterness that Barack Obama believes he has detected among the traditionally religious.

In most respects, all this is old news. But I noticed this little gem in The New York Times story about the Pew survey: "The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are, scholars who reviewed the survey said."

Now, it would be interesting to know the names of these authoritative scholars, who, until just the other day, subscribed to the “conventional wisdom.” Somehow they did not notice the 70 percent of American believers who don’t fit their preconceptions – what they themselves might call prejudice. As any student knows, if you only get 30 percent right on a test, you get an “F,” and you deserve it. Have prestigious papers like the Times been consulting F students, whatever their academic credentials, for all these years when it comes to the “conventional wisdom” about American religion?

About 70 percent of American believers also oppose gay marriage and homosexuality, on various grounds. That has long contributed to the perception in certain circles that Christians are irrationally intolerant, as they are presumed to be on abortion as well. But don’t expect to read any stories in the Times about the moral sophistication of believers who are generally tolerant yet draw sharp lines at certain behaviors. That, too, is hard to square with the conventional wisdom.

I was passing through London the other day and saw two new reports in that country that I cannot help think are related to the American study. As we have been hearing for years, sex education and the general availability of contraception were supposed to stop unwanted pregnancies, especially as people overcame their earlier prudery about discussing sexual matters. By now, every schoolchild knows about condoms and where to get them, as well as a host of other contraceptives, abortifacients, and abortions. But a British health study just concluded that contraceptives are too hard to use and it would save the British taxpayers the costs of about 70,000 pregnancies a year if women would go on long-term contraception.

Say what? All this time we’ve been hearing about the ease with which pregnancy could be prevented if the Puritans would just get out of the way, stop preaching abstinence, and let the health professionals give practical, sound advice. Now, we’re told contraceptives are too hard for normal people to use and we need the ultimate weapon against nature’s tendencies to produce babies after sex? It’s been an open secret for sometime that ever since contraceptive use became legal and widespread in the West, out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed and abortion rates, though down a bit in recent years, also grew enormously. Why should we listen to the people that brought us all those heartaches as they start singing this new tune?

Speaking of heartaches: The contraception story appeared in The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, of all places. Just a few pages later, another story reported that certain mental health professionals have discovered that women feel used and cheap after one-night-stands. In spite of years of women’s sexual liberation and the broad decline of Christianity and Christian sexual mores in Britain, there seems to be something built into many women that finds this sort of sexual contact degrading and, in the reporter’s own words, saddening.

Whenever the Church brings up contraception, abortion, the degradation of women, the cheapening of sex, she’s thought of as retrograde -- and of course intolerant. But the tabloids are more truthful than the Times in this area. Not only is Christian “intolerance” a myth, the hard moral lines that the Church draws would make a lot of people a lot happier than the demonstrably failed advice of the alleged experts.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.”

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