Notes from the President: Hard Facts (Fall 2008 Trust Magazine)

Data-based information is the fuel of democracies, providing the means by which we as a nation can address problems. Our founding fathers understood that principle. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance,” said James Madison, “and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge brings.”

This tenet guides The Pew Charitable Trusts as we use the power of knowledge in two distinct ways. In our work to improve public policy, Pew supports specific, nonpartisan solutions based on compelling evidence. When our aim is to fill information gaps in public discussions, we produce facts and analyses that policy makers and the public will find useful. Our goal—in advocating or informing—always starts with clear and defensible facts and is guided by impeccable research.

From the start, American civic life has had a broad religious component. The connection was recognized some 175 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, who identified a strong strand of our national DNA: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions,” he wrote. “This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”

That observation might be even truer today. Most Americans call themselves religious, more faiths are being practiced in this country than ever before, and the intersection of religion and public life is dynamic, often contentious. On any given day, we are likely to read about, among other topics, challenges to the doctrine of the separation of church and state, the religious convictions and alliances of politicians, the funding of faith-based organizations, and religious-based considerations of abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage, foreign policy, national security or scientific issues from stem-cell research to climate change.

Since 2001, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has been promoting a deeper understanding of religion’s place in American affairs, and this year, it released The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, a comprehensive look at the role of religion in the personal and public lives of many Americans. This landmark study documents just how diverse and religiously committed—though not dogmatic—Americans are, and confirms the close link between Americans’ religious affiliation, beliefs and practices and their social and political attitudes.

The information and insights will prove valuable in today’s public discussions and in serving as a baseline for subsequent surveys—starting with a follow-up later this year on life in a religiously pluralistic society and on religion and political identity.

Hard facts are also fundamental to Pew’s advocacy work. The Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining seeks reform of the General Mining Act of 1872, which gave prospectors incentives to develop terrain rich in gold, silver and other hardrock minerals by offering public lands royalty-free at $5 per acre or less. With the pioneer-era law still in place, corporations have been snapping up the bargain, resulting in an 81-percent jump in mining claims over the past five years, including more than 1,100 claims on lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon.

The campaign’s fact sheets explain why, for the sake of future generations as well as our own, it is high time to reclaim our public lands through responsible reform: ending the land and mineral give-away, protecting national parks and other sensitive grounds, creating 21st-century environmental standards and financial-responsibility requirements and accelerating the cleanup of abandoned mines.

Hard facts have also brought to light changes in animal husbandry. Gone is the family farm, with herds of cattle on the open plains or chickens and pigs feeding contentedly in the barnyard. The reality is that most market-bound livestock spend shortened lives in concentrated, or confined, animal feeding operations.

But, as the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production confirmed in a major report released this spring, the mechanized process has serious impacts on public health, the environment, animals and rural communities. For instance, animals routinely receive antibiotics to prevent illness, but this indiscriminate use of medicine is contributing to antibiotic-resistant strains of disease, a clear threat to human health. The commission has issued practical recommendations for reform while simultaneously assuring American consumers that quality food products at reasonable prices will continue to be available.

“Facts,” said Winston Churchill, “are better than dreams.” Churchill had his dreams, of course, but knew he could reach them only by gathering rock-solid information to inform his decisions and guide his leadership. For Pew as well, the first step to serving as a credible and compelling voice, either in pursuing policy reform or in public discourse on an issue of moment, is to gather the hard facts. Our work must always begin with using the power of knowledge to best serve the public interest.

Rebecca W. Rimel
President and CEO

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