Two-thirds of Americans say bin Laden's in hell

May 12, 2011

(RNS) 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 Wednesday (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 Laden.

The Rev. 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 evil."

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:

-- A 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.

Support 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 (42 percent).

-- Younger 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).

-- Religiously 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.

-- Majorities 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.

-- A 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 revenge?"

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 percentage points.