Trends in Attitudes Toward Religion and Social Issues: 1987-2007
The study of the public’s political values and attitudes by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press — the most recent in a series of such reports dating back to 1987 conducted Dec. 12, 2006-Jan. 9, 2007 — finds a reversal of increased religiosity observed in the mid-1990s. While most Americans remain religious in both belief and practice, the percentage expressing strong religious beliefs has edged down since the 1990s. And the survey finds an increase in the relatively small percentage of the public that can be categorized as secular. In Pew surveys since the beginning of 2006, 12% identified themselves as unaffiliated with a religious tradition. That compares with 8% in the Pew values survey in 1987. This change appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one.
In addition, political differences in levels of religious commitment are larger now than in years past. Republicans are at least as religious as they were 10 or 20 years ago, based on the numbers expressing belief in God, citing prayer as important, and other measures. By contrast, Democrats express lower levels of commitment than in the late 1980s and 1990s.
At the same time, the survey records further declines in traditional social attitudes. The poll finds greater public acceptance of homosexuality and less desire for women to play traditional roles in society. Both represent a continuation of trends that have been apparent over the past 20 years, and have occurred mostly among older people. The younger generations have changed the least, as they have consistently expressed more accepting points of view over the past 20 years.
Divides on some once-contentious issues also appear to be closing. In 1995, 58% said they favored affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs. That percentage has risen steadily since, and stands at 70% in the current poll. Gains in support for affirmative action have occurred to almost the same extent among Republicans (+8), Democrats (+10), and Independents (+14). The study also finds a pattern of rising support since the mid-1990s for government action to help disadvantaged Americans. More Americans believe that the government has a responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves, and that it should help more needy people even if it means going deeper into debt. Despite these favorable shifts in support for more government help for the poor, 69% agree that “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs,” although that number has declined over the past decade.
The following excerpt from the larger report provides further detail on trends in American attitudes toward religion and social issues.
America Remains a Religious Nation
Religion and personal belief continue to be important in the lives of most Americans. Large majorities say that they belong to a religious tradition and there is broad agreement with three statements about religious belief and practice. About eight-in-ten Americans say they have no doubt that God exists, that prayer is an important part of their lives, and that “we will all be called before God at the Judgment Day to answer for our sins.”
But the intensity of agreement with these indicators of religiosity has shown a modest decline in recent years, after increasing through much of the 1990s. While overall agreement with the three statements has remained fairly stable, the number of people who completely agree with each statement rose during the 1990s and has declined more recently. For example, the percentage completely agreeing that “prayer is an important part of my life” rose from 41% in 1987 to a high of 55% in 1999. It now stands at 45%, down 10 points from 1999 and six points from 2003. A comparable change is evident in opinions on the other two religious values items.
The survey also finds that the number of Americans who say they are atheist or agnostic, or choose not to identify with a religious tradition has increased modestly over the past two decades. In Pew surveys since the beginning of 2006, 12% have identified themselves as secular or unaffiliated with a religious tradition. That compares with 8% in the Pew values survey in 1987. This change appears to be generational in nature, with new cohorts coming of age with lower levels of commitment to a religious tradition. Among respondents born before the baby boom (that is, prior to 1946), only about 5% are secular or unaffiliated. But the number is more than double that (11%) among the Baby Boomers. The most secular Americans are those 30 and younger — those born after 1976 and sometimes called “Generation Y” — 19% of whom do not identify with a religious tradition.
Pew surveys taken over the past 20 years show that the size of the secular group has remained constant over time within each age cohort. In other words, the number of seculars within each generational group is about the same in 2007 as it was 10 or 20 years before. Thus it appears that people have not become less secular as they have aged. For example, 14% of members of “Generation X” (born 1965-1976) did not identify with a religious tradition in 1997, about the same as in 2007.
Wider Party Gap in Religious Belief
There also is a growing partisan gap in religious belief. As a group, Republicans are somewhat more religious now than they were 20 years ago, but Democrats are less so. This change is seen especially in the number expressing agreement with traditional religious beliefs.
Regarding the latter, an index of agreement with the three statements about religious belief shows that Republicans express greater religious commitment now than at any time in the past 20 years; 79% now agree with all three statements, compared with 71% in 1987. By contrast, Democrats now show less agreement (62%) than in previous years. Independents have tended to fall below both Republicans and Democrats on this measure of religious commitment, but that is not the case this year; comparable numbers of Democrats and independents (62% vs. 65%, respectively) agree with all three statements.
Democrats and independents also are less likely than Republicans to identify with a particular religious tradition, and the gap has widened over the past two decades. Currently, 5% of Republicans say they are atheist, agnostic, or decline to state a religious preference, which is the same percentage that did so in 1987. But the number of Democrats in this category is now 11%, up from 7% in 1987; currently 17% of independents are classified as secular, an increase from 9% in 1987.
While there are some signs of declining religiosity, other forms of religious activity do not appear to have changed very much in recent years. The number of people who report attending Bible study or prayer group meetings is about the same today as in 1999 (37% now, 34% in 1999). Southerners are especially likely to report this type of religious activity (48%, vs. no more than 34% in any other region of the country).
Social Values: Less Traditional, More Liberal
The survey also finds steady — if slow — declining support for traditional or conservative social values, in such areas as homosexuality and the role of women in society. This movement has been apparent on most of the six different measures of attitudes on social values, but is more evident when looking at the questions collectively (these values measures do not include opinions about abortion).
In 1987, about half of the survey’s respondents (49%) gave conservative answers to at least four of the six questions. In 2007, just 30% did so. This trend has occurred in all major social, political, and demographic groups in the population. While Republicans remain significantly more conservative than Democrats or independents on social values, they too have become substantially less conservative over this period.
The decline in social conservatism is being hastened by generational change, as each new age cohort has come into adulthood with less conservative views on the questions than did their predecessors. The biggest generation gap is between the Baby Boomers and those who came before them, and the gap has remained fairly wide even as both cohorts have become somewhat less conservative over the 20-year time span covered by the surveys.
Generation X came into adulthood less conservative than either of its predecessor cohorts, but has since tracked the Baby Boomers fairly closely. And the newest age cohort — Generation Y –expresses agreement with even fewer of the conservative values (an average of around 2.4 in 2007).
The largest individual changes have occurred on questions relating to sexuality. As many Pew surveys over the past several years have shown, the public is increasingly accepting of homosexuality. In the current study, only 28% of respondents agreed that school boards should have the right to fire teachers who are known to be homosexual; 66% disagreed. In 1987 when this question was first asked, a majority of 51% agreed with the statement.
Similarly, there has been a sharp decline through the period in the number of people who agree with the statement that “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.” Just 23% now agree with the statement; 72% disagree. When this question was first asked in 1987, public opinion was divided on the question, with 43% agreeing and 47% disagreeing.
Responses to both of these questions have become less conservative across the board: significant change has occurred in the views of conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, and religious and non-religious people. For example, in 1987, 73% of white evangelical Protestants agreed that school boards should have the right to fire homosexual teachers. Today, just 42% do so. And in 1987, 60% of white evangelicals believed that AIDS might be a punishment for immoral sexual behavior; today just 38% believe this. Similar changes have been seen in other religious groups as well.
The changes on longitudinal measures about homosexuality reflect a major shift away from highly negative attitudes toward gays and support for punitive actions against gays. In other surveys, Pew has found less dramatic movement on the broader question of whether homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society. In the mid-1990s, narrow pluralities said homosexuality should be discouraged by society; more recently, roughly half have said it should be accepted, compared with somewhat fewer who said it should be discouraged (49% vs. 44% in 2004).
Pornography and Censorship
Opinions about pornography have become slightly more conservative over the past 20 years. Currently 41% agree that “nude magazines and X-rated movies provide harmless entertainment for those who enjoy it”: 53% disagree with the statement. The number saying such material is harmless has fluctuated, declining from 48% in 1987 to 41% in 1990 and then varying no more than four percentage points thereafter. However, a new version of the question that refers to pornography on the internet — asked for the first time this year — finds greater public concern: 70% disagree with the statement that “nude pictures and X-rated videos on the internet provide harmless entertainment for those who enjoy it.”
The pattern is more mixed for other values related to freedom of expression. Since 1999, support for the idea of banning “books with dangerous ideas” from public school libraries has declined from 55% to 46%. It has now fallen to the lowest level of support of the past 20 years. But even in the early 1990s, as few as 48% had supported banning such books.
While there are relatively modest partisan differences in opinions about banning dangerous books, there are divisions within parties, especially among Democrats. Two-thirds of liberal Democrats (67%) disagree that dangerous books should be banned — and 52% completely disagree. By comparison, most conservative and moderate Democrats (56%) agree with the banning of dangerous books (and a relatively large proportion — 37% — completely agrees). Republicans are somewhat less divided, although 52% of conservative Republicans favor a ban on such books compared with 40% of moderate and liberal Republicans.
Changing Views of Women’s Roles
In every values survey since 1987, substantial majorities have disagreed with this statement: “Women should return to their traditional roles in society.” But the number disagreeing — especially the number completely disagreeing — has increased over the past 20 years. In the current survey, 75% reject the idea that women should return to their “traditional roles,” up from 66% in 1987. The percentage completely disagreeing has increased more dramatically — from 29% in 1987 to 51% currently.
As with attitudes about sexuality, opinions about the role of women have shifted among most demographic and political groups in the population. Women are somewhat more intense than men in rejecting this statement (55% completely disagree, vs. 47% for men). But the shift has been comparable among men and women since 1987.
The percentage of Republicans completely disagreeing that women should return to traditional roles rose by 16 points between 1987 and 2007 (from 25% to 41%), though the increase in this opinion among Democrats has been much greater (30 points).
Catholics and secular individuals express stronger resistance to the idea of women returning to traditional roles than do Protestants, with white evangelicals being the least liberal on this question. But even evangelicals have undergone significant change, with the number expressing complete disagreement rising 22 points over the past 20 years (from 20% in 1987 to 42% now). White Catholics changed even more, rising 34 points (from 30% completely disagreeing to 64%).
As with many other social values, a great deal of the change on this question is generational in nature. Baby Boomers were significantly more liberal than their predecessors in 1987 on the question of women’s roles, and Generation X was more liberal when they entered adulthood than were the Boomers. And the newest age cohort — those born in 1977 or later — is significantly more liberal than either Gen X or the Baby Boomers, with fully 63% completely disagreeing that women should return to traditional roles.
Fewer Have ‘Old-Fashioned’ Values
Most Americans continue to say that they have “old-fashioned values about family and marriage,” but the percentage endorsing this sentiment has declined in recent years. Currently, 76% say they have old-fashioned values, down from 85% a decade ago and 87% in 1987. Moreover, the percentage completely agreeing with this statement has declined significantly — from a high of 53% in 1999 to 41% in the current survey.
As might be expected, older Americans are more likely than young people to strongly concur that they have old-fashioned values. However, there has been a sizable decline since 1999 in the percentage of Americans age 50 and older who completely agree that they share such values — from 71% in 1999 to 49% in the current survey. By comparison, the decline among young people has been smaller. In 1999, 37% of those who were then below the age of 30 expressed complete agreement, compared with 29% currently.
Views of whether there are clear and immutable guidelines about good and evil have been more stable over time. Currently, 79% agree that “there are clear guidelines about what’s good and evil that apply to everyone regardless of their situation.” That opinion has not changed much in the past 20 years; nonetheless, as is the case with views on old-fashioned values, the percentage completely agreeing with this statement has fallen, from 47% in 1999 to 39% currently.
Opinions on Social Policies
Opinions on three contentious social issues have shown only modest change over the past several years. Majorities of Americans continue to oppose gay marriage and support the death penalty, but there also is a majority opposed to making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion.
Fewer than four-in-ten (37%) support gay marriage, while 55% are opposed. Support dipped to 29% in an August 2004 poll, after peaking at 38% in July 2003. Since 2004, support has fluctuated between 33% and 39%. Gay marriage is opposed by most groups in the population; exceptions include young people ages 18-29 (56% support), liberal Democrats (72%), and secular individuals (60%). Democrats continue to be divided on the question (49% support, 43% oppose); Republicans overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage (75% vs. 20% support), with 51% strongly opposed.
Opinions about abortion have also have changed relatively little over the past several years. A 56% majority opposes making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while 35% favor this. The level of support for making it harder to get an abortion has varied from 30% to 41% over the past 20 years, but there is little indication of a trend in either direction.
There is a sizable partisan gap on this question as well, with 53% of Republicans favoring making it harder to get an abortion, while just 24% of Democrats agree. There is a very large intra-party gap among Republicans, with fully 63% of conservative Republicans wanting to make abortions harder to get, compared with only 37% of moderate and liberal Republicans; moderate and conservative Democrats (30% favor) differ from liberal Democrats (15% favor) on this question as well, but the gap is not as large as among Republicans. There are no significant gender or age differences on this question.
Support for the death penalty for persons convicted of murder is somewhat lower now than it was in the late 1990s, but opinions have changed little since 2001. Currently, 64% favor the death penalty, while 29% oppose it. Support is higher among men (68%) than women (60%), and is substantially higher among whites (69%) than among African Americans (44%) and Hispanics (45%). More Republicans than Democrats favor the death penalty, but even among the latter, a small majority does so (56%, vs. 78% for Republicans).
Read the full report including the topline questionnaire at people-press.org.