While Americans have debated whether Osama bin Laden’s body belongs
at the bottom of the Arabian Sea, most agree on the
final destination of his soul: in hell.
A new poll released May 11 reports that most Americans (82
percent) believe bin Laden distorted the teachings of Islam to suit his own
purposes, and nearly two-thirds (65 percent) agree he will be “eternally
punished for his sins in hell.”
Evangelical Christians, at 80 percent, are most convinced
bin Laden will spend eternity in hell, according to the poll conducted by
Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service a few
days after the al-Qaida founder was shot by U.S.
troops in Pakistan.
In contrast, only about two-thirds of Catholics, white
mainline Protestants and minority Christians — and less than half the religiously
unaffiliated — agree that bin Laden’s in hell.
(The PRRI/RNS poll didn’t yield representative samples of
Muslims or other minority faiths.)
Stephen Prothero, a Boston
University religion professor and
author of “God Is Not One,” said the numbers struck him as low, particularly among
evangelicals. But the “eternally” part of the question may have prompted
hesitation among some respondents, he said, compounded by questions about hell
raised by megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s recent book, “Love Wins.”
Americans are more conflicted over whether Christian values
are consistent with the raucous celebrations that broke out after bin Laden was
killed. About 60 percent of respondents — ranging from seven in 10 minority
Christians to just over half of white mainline Protestants — believe the Bible’s
message, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,” applies to the death of bin
Clark West, an Episcopal chaplain at Cornell University, said
the Bible sends mixed messages on such celebrations — examples of rejoicing
over an enemy’s downfall, as well as the admonition from Proverbs.
“Scriptures can be found both supporting and critiquing such
celebrations,” he said. “There can be healing for a trauma survivor in recovering
a joyful sense that evil will not have the last word, but human events like the
killing of bin Laden should not be confused with the divine vanquishing of
But for 9/11 survivors and victims’ families, “quiet prayer
and attentiveness,” rather than raucous celebration, may provide a greater sense
of healing, he said.
In other findings:
slim majority (53 percent) of Americans say the U.S.
should follow the Golden Rule and not use any methods on our enemies that we would
not want used on our own soldiers — down from 2008, when 62 percent agreed.
for the Golden Rule principle was strongest among minority Christians,
Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans (all with majorities above 52
percent), but less so among evangelicals (47 percent) and mainline Protestants
Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 (69 percent) are more likely to believe
the Bible passage about not celebrating “when your enemies fall” applies to bin
Laden than do those age 65 and older (47 percent).
unaffiliated Americans (57 percent) are significantly more likely than
Christians to say the use of torture against suspected terrorists can never be
justified. Catholics, at 53 percent, are the Christian group most likely to say
torture can never be justified.
of white evangelicals (54 percent) and minority Christians (51 percent) believe
God had a hand in locating bin Laden, compared to only a third of white
mainline Protestants and 42 percent of Catholics.
slim majority (51 percent) of Americans believe God has granted America
a special role in human history, led by two-thirds of evangelicals and nearly
as many (63 percent) minority Christians, compared to 51 percent of Catholics
and white mainline Protestants.
Prothero said he was most surprised by the Golden Rule
responses, which indicate that half the country is willing to disregard Christianity’s
most commonly expressed teaching — at least, when it comes to wartime.
“There is this sense that America
is supposed to be a Christian nation … but that tends to be more of a slogan
than a reality,” he said. “Are you willing to think about the Bible when it
comes to torture and terrorism and bin Laden, or are you just throwing biblical
principles out the window and going with your gut and your anger and your
But even if Americans seem conflicted on this fundamental
Christian teaching, the widespread agreement across religious and political
lines that bin Laden “distorted the teachings of Islam” indicates a growing knowledge
about Islam, he said.
“There’s an awareness out there about the distinction
between Islam and Islamic extremism,” Prothero said. “It’s an important
conversation that we’ve having right now.”
The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll was based on telephone
interviews of 1,007 U.S.
adults between May 5 and 8. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3
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