A lot of public-opinion surveys cross this desk, but the most intriguing and important one I have seen in a long time came from an unusual source. It was done by Research and Forecasts, Inc., a New York survey firm, for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company in Hartford, and the results flabbergasted the people who took the survey, officials say.
As a company whose sales pitch must be tuned to the attitudes of millions of Americans, Connecticut Mutual had an understandable interest in what it calls "American values in the '80s."
What the survey found -- and demonstrated more clearly than anything I have seen -- is that there is not a "Moral Majority" in America, but that our politics and government, along with other institutions, are being increasingly shaped by an intensely religious minority with a penchant for activities that make them politically influential.
On an eight-point scale of religious commitment (ranging from prayer to Bible-reading to church attendance and religious proselytizing), 26 percent of those surveyed scored high -- meaning they frequently did at least five of the eight things. Older people, southerners, blacks, women and less-educated and lower-income people are more likely to be intensely religious than their opposites.
As you also might expect, the intensely religious also make up most of the morally militant minority. Large majorities believe that adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, teen-age sex, pornography, abortion and marijuana are morally wrong. More than 40 percent condemn pre-marital sex or cohabitation by single people. But only 24 percent of those surveyed found all of those activities morally objectionable.
But what the survey clearly shows is that the quarter who are intensely religious and strongly moralistic are also the ones who are the doers, the talkers, the joiners and the voters in their communities. Therefore, they "extend their influence far beyond that which their numerical strength alone would suggest."
Compared with those with the lowest degree of religious commitment and moral concern, this minority is twice as likely to believe that voting is the main thing that decides that way things are run in this country, seven times as likely to attend community or neighborhood meetings and twice as likely to feel they can influence the way their community is run. They are 28 percent more likely to vote in local elections.
As the report says, these findings "illuminate the political successes of such groups as the Moral Majority and suggest that it may be the intensely religious who may well be the most vocal group in the Eighties, just as it was the disenchanted who were the most vocal in the Sixties and Seventies."
That possibility is increased by two other findings documented in the study in far greater detail than I can summarize. One is that "moral issues" are becoming the most controversial in American politics, as traditional questions of the welfare-state, the scale of government, defense and foreign policy fade into gray consensus. The second is that behind the "Moral Minority" is a large mass of the "latently religious," who themselves judge leaders and issues increasingly in moral dimensions.
"Our findings," the report says, "suggest that the increasing impact of religion on our social and political institutions may be only the beginning of a trend that could change the face of America."
"It appears," the report says, "that out society is at a transition point and that the public may be willing, under almost imperceptible influences, to throw its entire weight behind a leader who strikes the correct 'moral' or 'reaffirming' tone.
"This new trend is both heartening and potentially frightening. Since the injection of faith into politics via religion is capable of creating a single powerful voting bloc, this suggests the opportunity for a truly visionary leader, or a dangerous demagogue, who, by striking the appropriate religious-moral notes, could be swept into a position of awesome power."
To which the only comment is, obviously: Amen.