ABC, CBS Journalists Celebrate Acceptance of All Religions as Path to Salvation

Are Americans better off being “open-minded” about faith than believing their religion teaches the absolute spiritual truth?  Katie Couric and Dan Harris apparently think so.

CBS anchor Katie Couric described as “good news” a new survey reporting that most Americans don't believe their religion is the only path to salvation.  ABC correspondent Dan Harris contrasted American “open-mindedness about faith” to the “divisive role played by religion” in debates over homosexuality and abortion.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study Monday that found 70 percent of Americans believe more than one religion leads to eternal salvation. All three networks ran stories on the poll Monday night, but only CBS provided perspective on why uncertainty in religious belief may not be beneficial for society.

The study also found that of Americans:

    92 percent believe in God or a universal spirit 58 percent pray daily 60 percent believe in a personal God 25 percent believe in an impersonal God 

CBS correspondent Chip Reid interviewed two Christians, one an Episcopalian Bible study leader and the other a member of the same study, who stated their belief that there isn't just one path to salvation.  Anchor Katie Couric followed by speaking with Father Thomas Williams, a CBS News Faith and Religion analyst, and Reverend Floyd Flake of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York.  While Couric toed the typical media line celebrating tolerance, she did allow both men to speak about the greater implications of this study, providing a perspective the other two network packages lacked. 

COURIC: Tom, let me start with you if I can. This survey seems to have a lot of good news. People think prayer and faith is very important in their lives and they don't think it's a their way or the highway when it comes to salvation. But you think there might be a flip side to this. What is it?

FR. THOMAS WILLIAMS: Well, I think that organized religion could find this also a little bit threatening in the sense that when dogma and doctrine become less and less important it doesn't really matter belonging to one church or another. And religion has always been considered to be in the truth business and when it's no longer about truth but just feeling good and fitting in, then I think that is threatening.

COURIC:  And may threaten their membership ranks.

WILLIAMS: And may threaten their membership as well.

COURIC: Meanwhile, Reverend Flake, do you think this means in some ways spirituality has become more important than religion in this country?

REV. FLOYD FLAKE: Well, I think, I don't know that you can separate them exclusively. I think spirituality is a motivating force that drives people to a sense of trying to find themselves, trying to find their relationship to God. And so I don't think spirituality exclusively represents an entity that does not become a part of how we see God and where we find God, but I think it is an important piece of one's ability to have that indwelling spirit within them...

COURIC: But that seems to transcend organized religion in many ways, according to some of these people.  Or at least they're more open to other faiths.

FLAKE: But I think that is new. I think that's a lot of what we call post-modernism where people move toward that individualistic choice. But I do think-- and according to your survey, this is correct-- that most people still believe in God.

COURIC: You do believe that people still believe in God?

FLAKE: Oh absolutely.

COURIC: And Tom, are you surprised that 60 percent of those people believe God is a personal force but a quarter of them, 25 percent believe that he or she is an impersonal force?

WILLIAMS: Well, I'm not surprised. I think that goes hand in hand with the rest of the study in the sense that a personal God is a God that you pray to, that you have a relationship and you believe who listens to you and will answer you where as impersonal God is more about empowering you to become your best self, that it's almost subordinate to you.

ABC correspondent Dan Harris provided a balanced look at the survey findings, but he couldn't help throwing in a few digs at evangelicals:


HARRIS: Good evening. As you know in this country, religion has sometimes played a divisive role. Especially in debates over visceral issues like abortion and gay marriage. But today's new poll numbers show Americans are actually very open-minded about faith. Given the fiery religious rhetoric yielded in the so-called culture wars this is a counterintuitive notion that the vast majority of religious Americans say many faiths, not just their own, can lead to eternal life.

Later in the segment when citing the breakdown of the findings across denominations he noted that evangelicals are “sometimes the loudest voices in faith-fueled debates,” which while true, could have been said less snidely. 

NBC's short segment included a statement by a minister who observed that Americans aren't terribly theologically literate, an obvious conclusion of the survey results.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: There is new information tonight, as we mentioned, about faith in this country, how Americans view their faith and that of their fellow citizens. It comes from a survey of 35,000 adults from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And some of the findings might surprise a lot of Americans. Here's NBC's Rehema Ellis.

REHEMA ELLIS, correspondent: It's a new and complicated picture of the nation's religious beliefs. 92 percent of Americans profess strong faith. 74 percent believe in life after death. 63 percent say their sacred texts are the word of God. But according to the Pew report, 70 percent of Americans who identified with a religious organization say their faith isn't the only way to eternal life. 56 percent of Muslims share that view. 57 percent of evangelicals, 79 percent of Catholics, 82 percent of Jews. Researchers say these beliefs are likely different from a generation ago.

JOHN GREEN, Pew Forum Senior Fellow: This may be part of the fact that the United States is such a religiously diverse society, and most Americans regularly run into people that they respect, maybe even people they're married to, that have a different faith. So there's a kind of pragmatic respect that's developed between the religions.

ELLIS: Reverend Eugene Rivers.

REVEREND EUGENE RIVERS, Azusa Christian Community, Boston: In some cases because the American public is not terribly theologically literate, they hold contradictory views because they haven't thought deeply or been taught deeply about their faith's traditions.

ELLIS: The survey also reveals that more than 25 percent of different Christian groups express some doubts that God even exists. As did a slight majority of Jews and Buddhists. Still, the survey shows more than half of Americans say religion is very important, and they pray every day. Signs of a nation keeping the faith. Rehema Ellis, NBC News, New York.  

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.