Overall, the study commissioned by the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly and the United Nations Foundation found that Americans, including majorities of religiously involved citizens, think the country should be involved on the world scene.
But researchers found that 79 percent of Americans feel that U.S. involvement abroad sometimes does more harm than good, and 44 percent feel that view strongly.
“I think it’s a fascinating look at our combination of idealism and realism,” said Bob Abernethy, host of the weekly television show. “We think our blessings from God require us to be active around the world but we also acknowledge that we sometimes do more harm than good.”
Almost seven in 10 (68 percent) of people who attend services at least weekly said the country has a moral obligation to take part in world affairs, compared with 54 percent of less frequent attenders.
Researchers found that people who strongly believe that America is blessed by God and should set an example as a “Christian nation” are also more likely to see the country’s worldwide involvement as a moral obligation.
Just more than two-thirds (67 percent) of those with strong beliefs about God’s unique blessing on America said the U.S. has a moral obligation to be a leader in world affairs, as did 72 percent of those who thought the U.S. should set a Christian example. In comparison, a smaller percentage — 60 percent — of Americans overall thought the country had such a moral obligation.
Sixty-one percent of respondents said they believed God has uniquely blessed America.
Michael Cromartie, vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said Americans’ simultaneous belief in God’s blessing on the U.S. and criticism of its global engagement reflect the challenges of addressing world problems, such as genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region.
“The world is complicated,” he said. “Foreign policy is deeply complex. Foreign countries are deeply complex. Foreign cultures are deeply complex. … These things are not fixed quickly.”
Despite an overall religious consensus on committing to international affairs, researchers found differences over some foreign policy issues.
For example, Americans divide along religious lines about the so-called Mexico City policy that prohibits federal funding for international organizations that might offer abortions. Slightly more than 50 percent of evangelical Christians, traditional Catholics, and weekly churchgoers support that policy. Young evangelical Christians are more strongly supportive, with 69 percent in favor, while 58 percent of those not affiliated with a religion oppose it.
Global warming is another example of religious differences on foreign policy. While more than 80 percent of non-Christians, mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics favored an international agreement to reduce global warming, 70 percent of evangelicals favored such an agreement.
Younger evangelicals, those 18-29, were more likely than their elders to support an international agreement to stop global warming, with 79 percent in favor compared to 70 percent of older evangelicals.
The survey was conducted by Washington-based Greenberg Quinlan Rosner with a total of 1,400 adults, including an oversample of 400 evangelical Christians. One thousand adults were interviewed by phone. One quarter of the evangelical oversample was interviewed by phone and the rest were surveyed through a nationally representative Internet panel. The overall survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.