Will pop culture destroy religion — or vice-versa?

There’s a brand-new poll out called “American Attitudes on Religion, Moral Values and Hollywood.” Its main findings, according to a press release, are that a majority of Americans (61 percent) believes that their religious values are “under attack.” A similar majority (59 percent) believes the people who run TV and the movies “do not share the religious and moral values of most Americans.”

If that’s all I told you about the poll, you might have assumed it was commissioned by Focus on the Family or a similar Christian “family values” group and that its leadership was feeling validated by the findings.

In fact, its sponsor is the Anti-Defamation League. And as a Jewish defense organization, the ADL is worried.

“The belief that religion is under attack underlies the drive to incorporate more religion into American public life,” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman in a release. “Disturbingly, 43 percent of Americans believe there is an organized campaign by Hollywood and the national media to weaken the influence of religious values in this country.” Nearly 40 percent support the notion that “dangerous ideas should be banned from public school libraries.”

Why “disturbingly”?

“It shows that in this age of pervasive media and the widening availability of the Internet, many Americans still maintain a very parochial view toward the information age, and even believe in censorship to ‘protect morality,’ ” Foxman said. “If anything, it points to the need for a greater awareness of the fundamental role that the First Amendment has played in helping religious freedom in America to be sustained and, indeed, to flourish.”

My first thought on hearing about the study was, this again? The “war on Christmas” seemed so 2006, and the “Hollywood vs. America” trope was stale even when Michael Medved released a book with that title in 1992. I had hoped America had put this kind of religious warfare behind it on Election Day; Sarah Palin in particular had seemed to make little headway beyond the evangelical “base” with her talk of the “real America” vs. the “elites.”

But the poll was taken in October, which suggests that the sense of national grievance is still with us.

America, by measures of church attendance and belief in God, may be the most religious country in the West. No politician with real ambition would dare acknowledge that he or she is an atheist. The Establishment Clause by and large gives individual faiths virtual immunity when it comes to worshiping when, how and where they please.

And religion is under “attack”?

I guess it is if you spend a lot of time watching television, or going to the movies, or playing video games. It’s a violent, promiscuous, narcissistic world inside the cable box or on the big screen. And it would be a particularly bold and insidious attack if there were no way to escape it (the way that, say, theocracies enforce conformity).

But if you are talking about “religion, moral values and Hollywood,” there is always an alternative. You can change the channel or turn off the television. You can create alternative media, from movies to DVDs to rock music to literature (evangelical groups in particular have done this expertly and extensively). You can guide children to entertainments that promote your values — or, my choice, you can consume mainstream entertainments while engaging your kids in conversations about how these works mesh or clash with what their own traditions tell them about living a good and proper life.

Religion, in fact, is meant to be a “counterculture” — that is, a way of life that stands in opposition or protest to brutish society, our basest instincts, our least controllable impulses, our biological appetites.

I’m intimate with two groups of people who are flourishing in these types of countercultures: literary types and observant Jews.

Folks who write, read and discuss great literature do not find a lot of reinforcement at the multiplex and, like the Jews, often predict the demise of their culture. But great books get written, read and reviewed because a minority cares enough about literature to keep the flame burning. And, like the Modern Orthodox, they have found a way to converse with pop culture without compromising their values. It’s a question of confidence.

Observant Jews do not, for the most part, ask mass culture to mirror their values — it’s enough that the government leaves them alone to do their own thing and protects them from discrimination. There’s the occasional First Amendment lawsuit, but the goal is usually to allow Jews to do something within the established culture — wear a yarmulke in the Army, for instance, or change a zoning law to establish a synagogue. Orthodox Judaism is a growth industry in part because it has created a viable way of life apart from Main Street.

The American majority need not go as far as Orthodoxy in creating a counterculture — the fabric of America would soon shred if, for example, each religious group were to retreat into its own parochial schools. But the majority should appreciate the judicial and civic climate that sustains so many cultures, and indeed, allows each to flourish.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, where this column previously appeared.