Anna Greenberg and Jessica Keating
Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly and the United Nations Foundation


Executive Summary

Since 9/11, America’s role in the world has taken on an increasingly important part of our political discourse. Questions about the use of military force, commitments to nation building, the war on terrorism, humanitarian disaster relief, women’s rights around the world, as well as our relations with other nations have sparked heated debates from the halls of Congress to college dorm rooms. People’s views are informed by their values and personal experiences, as well as international events. While these values and experiences are relatively well understood, the influence of religious identity and engagement has not been explored in-depth.

In this first major study of religion and international affairs, we explore the role that religious worldviews play in shaping views about America’s role in the world and foreign policy priorities.

Key Findings

  • There is relative consensus about the role of the United States in the world; most believe that America has a moral obligation and responsibility to act as a leader on the world stage. Despite increasing religious diversity, a majority agree with the notion that our nation is blessed and that it should set a Christian example to the world.
  • At the same time, Americans express ambivalence about whether or not we have a positive influence around the world and most agree that sometimes our involvement does more harm than good.
  • The religious landscape has shifted with evangelical Christians now expressing the greatest support for an interventionist role, while more moderate religious groups like mainline Protestants and Catholics take a more isolationist posture.
  • America’s foreign policy priorities cannot be separated from the events of the past eight years. Concerns dominated by violence, conflict and preserving our nation’s security take on greater priority than other international engagements.
  • There is less consensus around the ideologically charged areas of foreign policy, particularly women’s rights and environmental policy. While most support efforts to improve maternal health, people are more divided on lifting the “global gag rule,” which would free up resources to organizations providing a full range of women’s health services including abortion. Similarly, while most Americans support signing international treaties to combat global warming, the current economic crisis and gas prices produce some division regarding the urgency of the problem.
  • Generational change may ultimately transform the public’s views about the world. Younger evangelicals, for example, are different from adults in that they are more ecumenical in their view about America’s influence, adopt a more inclusive definition of what it means to be “pro-life” and are more supportive of efforts to combat global warming. We also see a rise of people without any religious preference at all; this group, understandably, is more skeptical on whether or not America should set a Christian example in the world and less convinced of the nation’s exceptionalism.


Based on a national survey of 1400 adults, including an oversample of 400 young evangelical Christians ages 18 to 29, conducted for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly and the United Nations Foundation. The survey was conducted September 4-21, 2008, and carries a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent. This study explores how religion shapes people’s perspectives about America’s role in the world, both reactions to current policy and to future priorities and commitments. Broadly, we examine whether or not the US should take an interventionist or isolationist posture and rank a range of different forms of involvement around the world. We explore perceptions of the nation’s “moral” responsibilities and gauge whether people see America as different than other nations in the world. Finally, we explore whether people’s religious experiences and their engagement with the world lead to a different view of America’s role and priorities