The separation of church and state has come under scrutiny again this summer after the Supreme Court sided with religious conservatives in a series of rulings. One of the rulings allows states to fund religious schools indirectly, while another protects religious schools from federal employment discrimination lawsuits.
Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government since the country’s founding. And even as the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans rises, church and state remain intertwined in many ways – often with the public’s support.
Here are eight facts about the connections between religion and government in the United States, based on previously published Pew Research Center analyses.
Following a series of Supreme Court decisions on religion and public policy, we sought to explore the church-state relationship by drawing on studies Pew Research Center has published in recent years. These studies are based on a range of sources, including an original analysis of state constitutions and congressional data collected by CQ Roll Call. Statements about presidents’ religious affiliations are based on an analysis of information from sources including the Miller Center, the University of Virginia, PBS’s “God in the White House,” and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Opinion survey findings are from these previously published Pew Research Center reports:
While the U.S. Constitution does not mention God, every state constitution references either God or the divine. God also appears in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency.
Congress has always been overwhelmingly Christian, and roughly nine-in-ten representatives (88%) in the current Congress identify as Christian, according to a 2019 analysis. While the number of self-identified Christians in Congress ticked down in the last election, Christians as a whole – and especially Protestants and Catholics – are still overrepresented on Capitol Hill relative to their share of the U.S. population.
Almost all U.S. presidents, including Donald Trump, have been Christian, and many have identified as either Episcopalian or Presbyterian. But two of the most famous presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, had no formal religious affiliation. Most U.S. presidents have been sworn in with a Bible, and they traditionally seal their oath of office with “so help me God.”
Roughly half of Americans feel it is either very (20%) or somewhat (32%) important for a president to have strong religious beliefs, according to a survey this past February. But only around four-in-ten (39%) say it is important for a president to share their religious beliefs. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say it is at least somewhat important for a president to have strong religious beliefs (65% vs 41%).
Americans are divided on the extent to which the country’s laws should reflect Bible teachings. Roughly half of U.S. adults say the Bible should influence U.S. laws either a great deal (23%) or some (26%), and more than a quarter (28%) say the Bible should prevail over the will of the people if the two are at odds, according to the February survey. Half of Americans, meanwhile, say the Bible shouldn’t influence U.S. laws much (19%) or at all (31%).
More than six-in-ten Americans (63%) say churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics. An even higher share (76%) say these houses of worship should not endorse political candidates during elections, according to a 2019 survey. Still, more than a third of Americans (36%) say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political matters. (The Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954, prohibits tax-exempt institutions like churches from involvement in political campaigns on behalf of any candidate.)
Only about a third of Americans (32%) say government policies should support religious values. Two-thirds (65%) say religion should be kept out of government policies, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found.
Even though the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that it is unconstitutional for a teacher to lead a class in prayer at a public school, 8% of public school students ages 13 to 17 say they have ever experienced this, according to a 2019 survey. (It is, however, possible that some teens who said they’ve experienced this could have previously attended religious private schools where teacher-led prayer is constitutional.) This experience is more common in the South (12%) than in the Northeast (2%). Four-in-ten U.S. teens in public schools (41%) feel it’s appropriate for a teacher to lead a class in prayer, including 29% of teens who know that this practice is banned but say that it is acceptable nevertheless.