Americans believe religious influence waning, that’s bad for the country

Only a quarter of Democrats think that decline of religious influence bad, compared to two thirds or Republicans who regret religion’s declining sway.

Storm clouds pass over a Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. August 14, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/JASON COHN)
Storm clouds pass over a Roman Catholic church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. August 14, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/JASON COHN)
The US has for a long time been far more religious than other Western countries and that has had a strong impact on the cultural and political landscape.
But a new poll by the Pew Research Center has demonstrated that most Americans believe religion is losing influence in public life, and many view this trend as a negative development.
Perspectives on this issue diverge greatly across the political spectrum, with Republicans widely believing that the decline of religious influence over public life to be negative, while Democrats are far less likely to lament religion’s declining influence.
But despite these opinions, the majority of Americans think religious organizations should keep out of political matters.
According to the new poll published on Friday, 63% of those polled said churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics, compared with just over one third, 36%, who said that such institutions should express opinions on social and political questions.
And even greater numbers of Americans oppose the idea of religious institutions and leaders publicly supporting one political candidate over another, with 76% opposing such displays of partisanship, compared with 23% in favor.
Significant majorities also expressed positive sentiment toward the role of religion in society, with 55% of Americans saying that religious institutions do more good than harm, compared with 20% who say the opposite, along with 53% who say that religion strengthens morality in society and 50% who say it brings people together.
The survey also showed that roughly four-in-ten US adults – including a majority of Christians – bemoan what they perceive as religion’s declining influence on American society, while fewer than two-in-ten say they think religion is losing influence in American life and that this is a good thing.
But when looked at from a partisan perspective, there are significant divides in how the declining influence of religion is perceived.
Some 74% of Democrats and 83% of Republicans believe religion is losing influence in American public life, but only 27% of Democrats said this was a bad thing, compared with 63% of Republicans.
Indeed, 25% of Democrats said it was a positive trend, almost as many believe it to be negative.
Gil Troy, a historian and social commentator, said that the discrepancy in the polling on those who believe religion should stay out of politics was in part due to a reflexive interpretation by many liberals that “religion in politics” means conservative Christian Evangelical influence in the politics of the US.
Evangelicals are largely seen as being against abortion and in favor of small government, and having allied with the Republican Party to advance this agenda, stances that are anathema to Democrats and liberals.
But Troy pointed out that within liberal politics there is a strong strain of Protestant and Catholic social activism, and additionally, that liberal Jews and institutions also merge their religious identities with their politics, including on issues like immigration and gun control.
Troy also pointed out that the Black churches mobilized strongly to get former US president Barack Obama elected, although they did not necessarily share the social liberalism of other Democrats.
David Parsons, a long-time official with the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), an evangelical organization in Israel, said that the perception that religion plays too great a role in politics was not necessarily well-founded and could be media driven.
He agreed with Troy that both sides of the partisan divide mix in their religious and moral beliefs with their politics, insisting that separating the two was both unrealistic and unnecessary.
“Most evangelicals would agree that you can’t have the state formally associated with any denomination or religious group, but too many people have read the requirement for the separation of church and state in a way hostile to religion,” said Parsons, who emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of the ICEJ in this regard.
“Abortion is a battle over morality and world views,” Parsons argued. “Some people think it’s more moral for women to have a choice, and others think the rights of a fetus should be taken into account. It’s a fallacy to think people can separate out their world view and engage in public affairs and politics and leave behind other parts of their world view.”