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Public found wary of religious fundamentalists

(ran NT LT CT CTI COM CI editions)

Careless writers sometimes get religious descriptions mixed up, lumping together people described as "born-again," "fundamentalist" or "cult member."

But the public knows better, according to a recent Gallup poll. Americans not only are able to differentiate among members of the three groups, but they hold quite different opinions of them.

Most people polled in late March said they had unfavorable opinions of religious cults. Although the survey preceded the April 19 inferno at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which left David Koresh and dozens of his followers dead, it was taken nearly a month after the beginning of the long standoff between federal agents and the heavily armed sect. Just three weeks earlier, four agents had been killed.

When it comes to religious fundamentalists, many regard them as extreme (55 percent) and intolerant (57 percent), although many agree that their zeal stems from principles.

One person in three (33 percent) believes religious fundamentalists are highly principled, and an additional 28 percent believe this description is somewhat true. Among the remaining populace, 25 percent feel they are not at all principled, and 14 percent are unsure about their intentions.

Born-again Christians, however, often are viewed favorably, if for no other reason than because many people now say the description fits their own religious experience. The term has been widely known since Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, describing himself as a born-again Christian. All told, three persons in 10 (31 percent) in this country say they are born-again Christians.

Just over one-fourth of the people interviewed said their view of born-again Christians is very favorable (27 percent) or mostly favorable (37 percent). One person in four (25 percent) has an unfavorable view of born-agains, while 11 percent have no opinion.

Religious fundamentalists do not enjoy the same level of approval. Only about one person in three (36 percent) has a favorable opinion of them, while 45 percent say their opinion is unfavorable.

The great majority of the public holds mostly unfavorable (31 percent) or very unfavorable (55 percent) attitudes toward the members of religious cults or sects.

Only about one person in 11 (9 percent) has a favorable attitude toward them.

1993, Princeton Religion Research Center

How poll was taken, limitations

The results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,003 men and women, 18 years and older, conducted March 22-24, 1993. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be plus or minus 3 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, the reader should bear in mind that question-wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

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