September 22, 2014

Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning

Yet Americans’ Appetite for Religion in Public Life Is Growing

Media Contact: Katherine Ritchey, Communications Manager
202-419-4564, kritchey@pewresearch.org

Washington, Sept. 22, 2014 — Nearly three-quarters of the public (72%) now thinks religion is losing influence in American life, up 5 percentage points from 2010 to the highest level in Pew Research polling over the past decade. And most people who say religion’s influence is waning see this as a bad thing.

Perhaps as a consequence, a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in U.S. politics, according to a new national Pew Research Center survey. The share of Americans who say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues is up 6 points since the 2010 midterm elections (from 43% to 49%). The share who say there has been “too little” expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders is up modestly over the same period (from 37% to 41%). And a growing minority of Americans (32%) think churches should endorse candidates for political office, though most continue to oppose such direct involvement by churches in electoral politics.

The findings reflect a widening divide between religiously affiliated Americans and the rising share of the population that is not affiliated with any religion (sometimes called the “nones”). The public’s appetite for religious influence in politics is increasing in part because those who continue to identify with a religion (e.g., Protestants, Catholics and others) have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion. The “nones” are much more likely to oppose the intermingling of religion and politics. The desire for religion in public life is much more evident among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP than among Democrats and Democratic leaners.
These are among the key findings from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Sept. 2-9 among 2,002 U.S. adults. The survey tracks public attitudes about religion in public life, maps the contours of the religious elements of the political landscape heading into the 2014 midterm elections and monitors trends on important social issues. Among its other findings:

  • A slight drop in support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry, with 49% of Americans in favor and 41% opposed – a 5-point dip in support from a February Pew Research poll, but about the same level as in 2013. It is too early to know if this modest decline is an anomaly or the beginning of a reversal or leveling off in attitudes toward gay marriage after years of steadily increasing public acceptance. Moreover, when the February poll and the current survey are combined, the 2014 yearly average level of support for same-sex marriage stands at 52%, roughly the same as the 2013 yearly average (50%).
  • Fully half (50%) of the public considers homosexuality a sin, up from 45% a year ago. Nearly half of U.S. adults think that businesses like caterers and florists should be allowed to reject same-sex couples as customers if the businesses have religious objections to serving those couples.
  • Roughly two-thirds (65%) think gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination in the U.S., and half or more say the same about Hispanics (50%), blacks (54%) and Muslims (59%). Fewer think that Jews (32%), evangelical Christians (31%), atheists (27%) and Catholics (19%) face a lot of discrimination.
  • Among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP, half or more say the party is not doing a good job representing their views on government spending, illegal immigration or same-sex marriage, and they are divided about whether the party is doing a good job representing their views on abortion. Democrats get better ratings from their partisans on all of these issues. Evangelical Republicans who express discontent with the GOP would like to see it move in a more conservative direction on abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration. Non-evangelicals in the GOP are more conflicted.
  • A larger share of the general public sees the Republican Party as friendly toward religion (47%) than sees the Democratic Party that way (29%). And 30% says the Obama administration is friendly toward religion, down 7 points since 2009.
  • About six-in-ten Americans say it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs (59%), a figure that has not changed significantly since the most recent midterm campaign in 2010.

The full survey report, “Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning,” is available on the website of the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project: http://pewresearch.org/religion.

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Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. Its Religion & Public Life Project seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.

Twitter: @PewReligion