After watching the rapid expansion of support for same-sex marriage and contraception mandates, this is probably not going to surprise too many political observers. Gallup quantifies the trend in its latest poll, with almost eight in ten respondents saying that religion is losing its influence on American life:
Over three-quarters of Americans (77%) say religion is losing its influence on American life, while 20% say religion’s influence is increasing. These represent Americans’ most negative evaluations of the impact of religion since 1970, although similar to the views measured in recent years.
Americans over the years have generally been more likely to say religion is losing rather than increasing its influence in American life. In addition to the previous peak in views that religion was losing its influence measured in 1969 and 1970, at least 60% of Americans thought religion was losing its influence in 1991-1994, in 1997 and 1999, in 2003, and from 2007 to the present.
Americans were more likely to say religion was increasing rather than decreasing its influence when the question was first asked in 1957, in 1962, at a few points in the 1980s during the Reagan administration, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in late 2001 and early 2002, and in 2005. The high point for Americans’ belief that religion is increasing its influence, 71%, came in December 2001.
Bear in mind that this measures the perceived influence on overall political life, not the influence of religion on each respondent’s life. Without knowing that, the breakdown among political affiliations won’t make much sense. Republicans are the most pessimistic about religious influence on American life, with 82% believing it to be on the decline and only 14% on the increase. Democrats follow suit with a slightly less negative view on religious influence, 69/28, while independents follow closely with Republicans, 79/18. The negative conclusions are broadly similar regardless of church attendance, personal importance of religion, or ideology.
Note that I use the terms “pessimistic” and “negative” in my analysis, which is not an accident. Most readers know that I feel quite strongly about my faith and see religion as a positive influence on culture and politics. As it turns out, so do most Americans. In this survey, 75% of respondents feel America would be better off being more religious, with only 17% expressing the opposite opinion. Even among those who rarely or never attend religious worship, a majority sees religious influence positively (58/31).
Why, then, are Americans both overwhelmingly positive about religious influence and overwhelmingly negative about the direction of the US in this regard? My own personal experience makes me believe that people feel intimidated in discussing their religious values in terms of culture and politics, and that the retreat on this ground has become significant enough to make even those who are less inclined to discuss faith worry about the direction in which we’re heading. The Gallup poll indicates that the ground is still fertile for the expression of faith in cultural and political matters — and that we need leaders who can find a formula for positive engagement in both arenas.