July 18, 2016

Are churches key to solving social problems? Fewer Americans now think so

Religious leaders and institutions have taken part in efforts to address important social issues throughout American history, from slavery to civil rights to today’s advocacy in areas such as reducing poverty.

But Americans appear to be growing more skeptical of how much of a difference churches and other houses of worship make in tackling social concerns. A majority of U.S. adults still say religious institutions contribute either “a great deal” (19%) or “some” (38%) to solving important social problems. But the combined figure of 58% has fallen significantly in recent years, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. About four-in-ten Americans (39%) now say religious institutions make little to no contribution in this area.

When the same question was asked in July 2012, roughly two-thirds of respondents (65%) said churches and other houses of worship played at least some role in solving society’s dilemmas. Four years before that, in August 2008, fully three-quarters of Americans (75%) said religious institutions contributed “a great deal” or “some” in this way.

Not surprisingly, people with no religious affiliation (atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is “nothing in particular”) are less likely than others to see churches as key problem-solvers in society. A minority of religious “nones” (38%) say religious institutions contribute at least some help to solving social problems, compared with, for example, 65% of Protestants and 63% of Catholics who say the same.

One explanation for the changing views of Americans overall on this topic is the recent growth of religious “nones” as a share of the U.S. population. But it is not the only explanation. Even among U.S. adults who do affiliate with a particular religion, the view that churches help solve social problems has become less widespread.

Among white evangelical Protestants, for instance, seven-in-ten now say religious institutions contribute “a great deal” or “some” to solving important social problems, down 16 percentage points from 2008. And among white Catholics, 61% take this view, down 18 points over this eight-year span.

Older and younger Americans, Republicans and Democrats and those who attend religious services regularly and less often all have become less likely to see churches and other houses of worship as key problem-solvers in society.

Topics: Religion and Society, Social Values

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

18 Comments

  1. Paul Penzione2 months ago

    Through social engineering, the left has worked for years to brainwash young people into thinking people of faith are intolerant, hateful and closed minded. Those same young people never stop to think about the millions of poor people fed every day by Christian people and organizations. They never stop to think about the many organizations that feed and clothe and shelter the homeless that were started by Christian organizations. They never consider the thousands of hospitals that exist because they were started by Christians. It never occurs to them that Christians, from across the U.S., travel to Mexico, Central and South America and Africa to build homes, medical clinics and irrigation systems for poor people. The world would be a lot worse off, and the U.S. would be far worse off, if it weren’t for Christian people and organizations. During the last 60 years, sitting in churches in many states, I have never heard a pastor tell people to hate gay people, or anybody else. The message has been the opposite. But, the left has created a false narrative that makes young people think that all problems come from the church. Any attitudes, that are found in Pew studies on this topic, can be laid at the feet of this social engineering, which comes through popular culture, TV, magazines, online sources, Hollywood stars and liberal politicians. America gains nothing by this seismic cultural change.

  2. Anonymous2 months ago

    Churches don’t toot their own horn, which didn’t matter when church attendance was high. But with lower church attendance, people don’t know all the good that churches do. And hostility increasingly fills people’s ignorance. The Internet magnifies this ignorance more than ever. Perhaps churches should promote themselves, but it goes against their grain.

  3. Anonymous2 months ago

    How sad, and how convicting, As a devout Christian I can only comment that if we are perceived as not helping to solve society’s problems, it may be because we are not doing our job as Christians. Yes, we make mistakes; we’re sinners too; but are we really trying to show our love to a needy world. Speaking out against sin is part of our mission, but doing so in true Christian love is both more difficult, and absolutely necessary.
    Jean Grant

  4. Anonymous2 months ago

    Have to wonder if the Mega Churches have anything to do with this. Hard to believe that folks who “think God wants them to have a private jet” and preach against other religions and races have any interest in “solving” social problems.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      spot on.

  5. Anonymous2 months ago

    Hanging onto the past and living our lives dictated by knowledge acquired thousands of years ago is a conservatives dream. Being afraid to live in reality is the scourge forced on us by religion. Fear of not believing in centuries old fantasies and being punished after death works it’s tragedy on millions. Churches have slowed the forward growth of the human race by wasting our resources on building churches and supporting clergy for centuries. Most fighting and wars are the result of too much religious conflict.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      “Amen” Brother

  6. Anonymous2 months ago

    How sad but expected since church attendance in the U.S. has also fallen. It seems as if the ” end time” prophecy is coming true!

  7. Anonymous2 months ago

    Get serious with the facts before you make accusations. If you buy into simplistic understandings of the church, you only perpetuate ignorance. Like many institutions in American culture, and around the world, churches have made stupid and destructive mistakes as well as leading the way for centuries in helping to solve social problems such as public education for all, health care for all, caring for the homeless, and many others. There’s plenty of work to do without more haters.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Nobody’s saying there isn’t a lot of work to do. The evidence reveals however that fewer believe that religious bodies are relevant in getting the work done. While the mainline “liberal” denominations still are active in social ministry those denominations are not growing but shrinking. The statistic may be relevant when issues of tax-free church buildings, etc. arise again because the main reason for church exemptions from property taxes is the alleged benefits they provide for the communities they serve.

  8. Anonymous2 months ago

    Unitarian Universalists seek out social justice work – standing on the side of love – and have seen increases in membership by folks looking to do more than just privately embrace their commitment but to take it before the community. And that’s as it has always been for the most part.

  9. Baron Suru2 months ago

    Churches are part of the problem, not the solution.

  10. Anonymous2 months ago

    Churches are gaining in one number every day ….. empty pews … not a bad thing

  11. Abraham Roloff2 months ago

    “…from slavery to civil rights to today’s advocacy in areas such as reducing poverty” churches have been on both sides of these issues. Not only working to make these issues better, but some actively work to make them worse. There are churches out there preaching a gospel of hate against people of other colors and sexualities, working to ensure that people in poverty are blamed for their situation and working against the fight for equality.
    Maybe keep that in mind while writing the articles that accompany the survey data next time.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      I actually think the article is well written. It reports the trends in survey results objectively, without trying to speak beyond the data/results. People feel religion is becoming less of an influence, plain and simple, and it varies by core groupings/nones. The write-up does not and should not seek to determine whether the findings are a “good” thing or a “bad” thing, or whether religion is on balance a contributor to good or bad in society. The author didn’t overanalyze, nor should the reader.

  12. Tim Tierney2 months ago

    Are you kidding me they’re the ones that are spewing hatred

    1. Paulo2 months ago

      Exactly.

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      No they aren’t.