Religion’s Influence on Society and Government
Two-thirds of Americans (67%) currently say that religion is losing its influence on American life, compared with 59% who said this in July 2006. More people now say religion’s influence is on the decline than at any time since 1994, when 69% of respondents in a Gallup poll said religion’s influence on American life was waning.
More people also say religion’s influence on government leaders, such as the president and members of Congress, is declining. Currently, 62% say that religion is losing its influence on government leaders, compared with 45% who said this in 2006.
The number saying that religion is losing influence on American life has increased most among Republicans, with 82% expressing this view, up 21 points since 2006. Similarly, 72% of Republicans now say that religion’s influence on government leaders is declining, up 20 points since 2006.
More independents also say that religion is losing its influence on American life (up nine points) and on government leaders (up 25 points). Among Democrats, the number saying that religion is losing influence on government leaders (52%) has increased nine points since 2006, but there has been no significant change in the number of Democrats saying religion’s influence on American society is declining (58% today vs. 60% in 2006).
Among religious groups, nearly eight-in-ten white evangelical Protestants see religion’s influence decreasing on both American society (79%, up 20 points since 2006) and on government leaders (78%, up 20 points since 2006). Fewer white mainline Protestants and black Protestants say that religion’s influence is declining. Nearly three-quarters of white Catholics (74%) say that religion has a declining influence on American society, up 13 points since 2006, and 61% say that religion is losing its influence on government leaders, up 18 points since 2006.
As in the past, most of those who say that religion has less influence on American life see this as a bad thing; 53% of the total public says this is a bad thing while just 10% see it as a good thing. Similarly, 42% of the public says religion’s declining influence on government leaders is a bad thing while just 15% say it is a positive development.
Views of Churches’ Involvement in Politics
A narrow majority of Americans (52%) now say churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters while 43% say that houses of worship should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions.
These opinions are little changed since 2008, but in 2006 – and over the preceding decade – narrow majorities had expressed support for churches speaking out on social and political issues. Today’s attitudes are on par with results from 1968, when 53% said churches should keep out of politics and 40% said they should express their views.
The decline in support for churches and other houses of worship speaking out on social and political issues has been broad-based. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Catholics and white mainline Protestants are all less supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out on political issues.
The most dramatic changes in views on this question are seen among black Protestants (53% now say churches should speak out on political matters, compared with 69% in 2006) and people with less than a high school education (39% now say churches should speak out, down from 58% in 2006).
While most religious groups are less supportive of churches expressing their views on issues, there continue to be substantial differences on this measure. Majorities of white evangelical Protestants (56%) and black Protestants (53%) say churches should speak out on issues; far fewer white non-Hispanic Catholics (37%) or white mainline Protestants (35%) agree.
Republicans continue to be more supportive of churches and other houses of worship expressing their views compared with independents and Democrats. About half of Republicans (51%) favor churches speaking out, compared with 41% of independents and 39% of Democrats.
The survey also finds that Americans continue to overwhelmingly oppose churches and houses of worship endorsing specific candidates for public office. Fully 70% say churches should not come out in favor of candidates during political elections while just a quarter (24%) supports such endorsements. These opinions have changed little in recent years. More than half of every major religious group opposes such endorsements.
Most Say Lawmakers Should Be Religious
Though the public expresses reservations about churches’ involvement in politics, there is widespread agreement that politicians should be religious. Fully 61% say that is important that members of Congress have strong religious beliefs; just 34% disagree.
Majorities across all major religious groups – with the exception of the religiously unaffiliated – agree it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs. More than eight-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (83%) express this view, as do roughly two-thirds of white non-Hispanic Catholics (66%) and white mainline Protestants (64%). And about seven-in-ten black Protestants (71%) say it is important that lawmakers have strong religious beliefs.
In contrast, by more than two-to-one (66% to 30%), the religiously unaffiliated disagree that it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs. Among atheists and agnostics, fully 85% say it is not important for congressional representatives to have strong religious beliefs.
The public continues to be divided about the level of religious expression among political leaders. Nearly four-in-ten (37%) say there has been too little expression of faith by political leaders; 29% say there has been too much, while 24% say political leaders speak on faith and prayer the right amount. These opinions have changed little in recent years.
Majorities of white evangelical Protestants (56%) and black Protestants (51%) say there has been too little expression of faith by political leaders. Only about three-in-ten white mainline Protestants (31%) and white Catholics (30%) agree.
The religiously unaffiliated continue to say there has been too much – rather than too little – expression of religious faith by political leaders. Fully 53% of the religiously unaffiliated say that politicians speak too much about faith and prayer.
Across all religious groups, roughly half (52%) of those who say they attend worship services weekly or more think politicians talk too little about their faith, compared with about one-third (32%) of those who attend services monthly or yearly and just 21% of those who seldom or never attend services.
Fewer See Parties as Friendly Toward Religion
A plurality of the public (43%) sees the Republican Party as generally friendly toward religion, while 28% say it is neutral and 14% say it is unfriendly. By comparison, just 26% say the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion; 41% say it is neutral and 19% say it is unfriendly.
The percentages saying each party is friendly to religion have declined over the past two years. In 2008, a narrow majority of the public (52%) said the Republican Party was friendly to religion; that percentage slipped to 48% last year and 43% in the current survey. There has been a comparable decline in the percentage saying the Democratic Party is friendly to religion – from 38% in 2008, to 29% in 2009 and 26% currently.
There is no political or religious group in which a majority views the Democratic Party as friendly to religion; even among Democrats themselves, just 42% say the party is friendly to religion, down slightly from last year (47%).
Most Republicans (57%) see the GOP as friendly to religion, which is little changed from last year (59%). However, the proportion of white evangelicals saying the Republican Party is friendly to religion has slipped, from 53% last year to 46% today.
The Religious Right and Left
A majority of Americans (58%) have heard a lot (25%) or a little (33%) about the “religious right,” or the Christian conservative movement. Fewer are familiar with the liberal or progressive religious movement sometimes known as the “religious left,” with 41% saying they have heard either a lot (10%) or a little (30%) about it.
About two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants (66%) say they have heard at least a little about the religious right. That compares with 59% of white mainline Protestants, 55% of Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated, and 47% of black Protestants.
Among political groups, large majorities of both conservative Republicans (71%) and liberal Democrats (68%) say they have heard at least a little about the religious right, while fewer moderate and liberal Republicans (54%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (50%) have heard something about the movement.
Half of white evangelical Protestants (50%) say they have heard at least a little about the religious left. Among other religious groups,
significantly smaller proportions (ranging from 34% to 40%) say they know about the movement. Conservative Republicans are the only political group where as many as half (52%) say they are familiar with the religious left. Just 43% of liberal Democrats say they have heard a lot or a little about the movement.
Support for the conservative Christian movement is highest among conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants. More than four-in-ten conservative Republicans (41%) and 29% of white evangelicals say they agree with the conservative Christian movement. Just 4% and 6%, respectively, say they disagree with the movement.
By contrast, 45% of liberal Democrats disagree with the conservative Christian movement while just 2% agree. The religiously unaffiliated disagree with the Christian conservative movement by 30% to 3%.
Yet across all religious and political groups –regardless of their view of the movement – large percentages either have not heard of the conservative Christian movement or express no opinion of it. Majorities of conservative Republicans (55%) and white evangelicals (64%) have no opinion of the movement or have not heard of it; this also is the case among liberal Democrats (54%) and the religiously unaffiliated (66%).
Even fewer people have formed an opinion of the liberal or progressive religious movement; just 4% agree with this movement while 11% disagree. A quarter of the public (25%) expresses no opinion, while 59% have not heard about the progressive religious movement.
Of those who have an opinion on the movement, conservative Republicans (28% disagree) and white evangelicals (20%) express the highest rate of disagreement with the religious left. Liberal Democrats express the highest levels of support for the religious left, with 14% saying they agree with the movement.