Study: American Public Thinks Religion’s Influence is Waning

The Story: According to a new Pew Research Center study released yesterday, a growing number of Americans think religion is losing influence in American life — and they want religion to play a greater role in U.S. politics.

The Background: Since 2006, Pew had registered declining support for religion in politics, notes the Wall Street Journal. But this year, something changed. “To see those trends reverse is striking,” said Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research. One reason for that could be that a growing majority of Americans—72 percent, according to the study—say religion is losing its influence in American life, Mr. Smith said, “and they see that as a bad thing.”

“It could be that as religion's influence is seen as waning, the appetite for it moves in the other direction,” he said.

The Takeaways:  Some of the more interesting findings from the survey include:

Religion in Politics

• The public is now evenly divided on the question of whether churches and other houses of worship should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions: 49 percent say they should do this, while 48 percent say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters. 

• Two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants (66 percent) now express support for having churches speak out on social and political issues, up from 56 percent in 2010. Nearly six-in-ten black Protestants (58 percent) also say churches should express their political views, as do roughly half of Catholics (48 percent) and white mainline Protestants (49 percent).

• Most of those who have no religious affiliation say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics (65 percent), with just 32 percent saying churches should speak out on political matters.

• Currently, 41 percent say there has been too little religious talk from political leaders, while 30 percent say there has been too much and 23 percent say there has been about the right amount of religious speech from politicians. Most white evangelical Protestants (68 percent) say there has been too little expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders. 

• Most Americans continue to oppose the idea of churches endorsing particular candidates during political elections, with roughly twice as many people saying churches should not do this as saying they should (63 percent vs. 32 percent). 

Religion’s Influence on American Society

• Nearly three-quarters of Americans (72 percent) now say that religion is losing influence in American life, with 56 percent of the public as a whole saying it is a “bad thing” that religion is losing sway in the U.S.

• The concern is most pronounced among white evangelical Protestants, 77 percent of whom say religion is losing influence and that this is a bad thing, but is shared by majorities of white mainline Protestants (66 percent), black Protestants (65 percent) and Catholics (61 percent).

Which Institutions Are Friendly Toward Religion?

• Roughly half of adults (47 percent) think the Republican Party is friendly toward religion, with 30 percent saying the GOP is neutral toward religion and 15 percent saying it is unfriendly toward religion. Far fewer (29 percent) see the Democratic Party as friendly toward religion, with 39 percent describing the Democratic Party as neutral toward religion and 25 percent describing it as unfriendly toward religion.

• The share of Americans who rate the Obama administration as friendly toward religion has declined sharply in recent years. Currently, 30 percent say the administration is friendly toward religion, down from 37 percent in 2009 and 39 percent in 2012. Nearly three-in-ten (29 percent) see the Obama administration as unfriendly toward religion, up from 17 percent in 2009 and 23 percent in 2012.

• Half of the public views the Supreme Court as neutral toward religion, with roughly equal shares describing the high court as friendly (21 percent) or unfriendly (22 percent) toward religion.

Perceptions of Discrimination

• Nearly six-in-ten Americans (59 percent) say they think Muslims face a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today. Far fewer think other religious groups – including Jews (32 percent), evangelical Christians (31 percent), atheists (27 percent) and Catholics (19 percent) – face a lot of discrimination.

• About two-thirds of Americans think gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today (65 percent), and half or more say this about blacks (54 percent) and Hispanics (50 percent). 

• Among religious groups, fully half of white evangelical Protestants (50 percent) say evangelical Christians face a lot of discrimination compared with 31 percent of the public overall saying this. 

• eight-in-ten African Americans (82 percent) say there is a lot of discrimination against blacks, compared with 61 percent of Hispanics and 47 percent of whites who say this.

• Seven-in-ten Hispanics (71 percent) say there is a lot of anti-Hispanic discrimination (as do 64 percent of blacks), but just 42 percent of whites agree. 

• Most religious “nones” say it has become easier (31 percent) to be a person with no religion or that it hasn’t changed much (60 percent).

• One-third (34 percent) of evangelicals say it has become more difficult to be an evangelical Christian in the U.S.

Social Issues

• Half (49 percent) of Americans say that wedding-related businesses should be required to provide services to same-sex couples just as they would to all other customers, while 47 percent say that these businesses should be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples for religious reasons.

• Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants express the strongest support for allowing businesses to refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings (71 percent).

• Among those who say homosexual behavior is a sin, six-in-ten say that businesses should not be required to provide services for same-sex weddings. But among those who say homosexual behavior is not a sin, two-thirds say businesses should be required to service same-sex weddings.

• The number of people who view homosexual behavior as sinful has ticked up in the past year, from 45 percent in 2013 to 50 percent in the current poll.

• The view that homosexual behavior is sinful is most common among white evangelical Protestants (82 percent) and black Protestants (77 percent). By contrast, nearly three-quarters of religious “nones” (72 percent) say that homosexual behavior is not sinful. White mainline Protestants and Catholics are more evenly divided about whether homosexual behavior is sinful.

• Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants express the strongest opposition to abortion; two-thirds say it should be illegal in all or most cases. By contrast, three-quarters of religious “nones” (75 percent) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (65 percent). Catholics and black Protestants are more evenly split on this issue.

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