October 15, 2021

Most Americans Who Go to Religious Services Say They Would Trust Their Clergy’s Advice on COVID-19 Vaccines

But a slim majority have not heard their congregation’s leaders say much about them

Rev. Emmanuel Mulenga (3rd R) greets parishioners after Sunday Mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Rev. Emmanuel Mulenga (third from right) greets parishioners after Sunday Mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

By Justin Nortey and Mike Lipka

As houses of worship continue to reopen, most U.S. adults who regularly attend religious services voice confidence in their clergy to provide guidance on the coronavirus vaccines – and far more say they have heard their pastor, priest, rabbi or imam encourage people to get vaccinated than have heard their clergy raise doubts about COVID-19 vaccines. But a slim majority of regular worshippers say they have not heard their religious leaders say much about vaccinations either way, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted Sept. 20-26, 2021.

As in-person religious attendance rises, virtual attendance fallsAlso, among U.S. adults overall, there is no clear consensus about whether houses of worship have had a positive or negative impact on the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey finds that a growing share of Americans are now attending religious services in person. Among those who say they typically attend services at least once or twice a month, a clear majority (64%) report that they actually have gone in person in the past month, the first time that has been the case in three surveys conducted since the pandemic began.

The resumption of in-person attendance has been accompanied by a decline in the share of both U.S. adults overall and regular worshippers who say they have watched religious services online or on TV in the past month.

Many U.S. congregants – i.e., people who say either that they typically attend religious services at least monthly or that they have attended in person in the past month, who together comprise a little more than a third of all U.S. adults – say they have heard the clergy or religious leaders at their house of worship weigh in on coronavirus vaccines. And among those who have heard from their clergy on this issue, far more say their priest, pastor, rabbi, imam or other religious leader has encouraged people to get vaccinated (39% of all religious attenders) than say their clergy has discouraged getting the shots (5%).

Far more U.S. worshippers say their clergy have encouraged COVID-19 vaccines than discouraged them

Even among evangelical Protestants, who have tended to be relatively skeptical toward the vaccines, just 4% say their clergy have discouraged people from getting a vaccine. But more than half of U.S. congregants (54%) and nearly three-quarters of evangelical churchgoers (73%) say their clergy have not said much about COVID-19 vaccinations either way. Most members of the historically Black Protestant tradition, on the other hand, say their pastors have encouraged people to get a vaccine (64%).

Among those who attend religious services, most trust clergy as source of information about COVID-19 vaccinesThere is a relatively high degree of trust in clergy to give advice on the coronavirus vaccines: Fully six-in-ten U.S. congregants (61%) say they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in their religious leaders to provide reliable guidance about getting a vaccine. This figure is virtually identical to the share who express confidence in public health officials, such as those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to give reliable guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations (60%), although Americans who attend religious services at least monthly are slightly more likely to say they have “a great deal” of confidence in guidance from public health officials than to say the same about their clergy (27% vs. 21%).

Religious attenders express more trust in their clergy on this issue than they do in state elected officials, local elected officials or news media. Among the options presented by the survey, only primary care doctors rank above clergy in the share of U.S. congregants who have at least “a fair amount” of trust in each group to provide guidance on vaccines.

Clergy have responded in differing ways to the COVID-19 outbreak that began in the United States in early 2020. At various points in the pandemic, some religious leaders have refused to limit attendance or enforce other public health restrictions at their houses of worship. At the same time, other members of the clergy have encouraged vaccinations and even hosted vaccination sites at their churches or other facilities.

Americans overall express ambivalent views about the broad impact of churches and other religious organizations on the U.S. response to the pandemic, with 25% saying that religious organizations have done “more harm than good” and 22% saying they have done “more good than harm.” About half (52%) say that religious organizations have not made much difference.

There is a substantial gap between the two major political parties on this question, with four-in-ten Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party saying that religious organizations have done more harm than good (39%), compared with just one-in-ten Republicans and GOP leaners who take that position (9%).

Democrats more likely than Republicans to see harm from religious groups in COVID-19 response

Even more broadly, there appears to have been a modest but noticeable change in recent years in the way Americans view the role of churches and other houses of worship when it comes to addressing social and political issues. Some pastors have waded into a wide range of political and social debates regarding not only the pandemic but also the 2020 presidential election and the national conversation on racial injustice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Rising share in U.S. says houses of worship should keep out of politicsFully seven-in-ten U.S. adults now say that, in general, churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, up from 63% the last time this question was asked, in March 2019. Just three-in-ten Americans (29%) now say that churches should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions, down from 36% in 2019. Democrats remain more likely than Republicans to say that houses of worship should stay out of politics (76% vs. 62%), although members of both parties are more likely to express this view now than they were when the question was last asked.

There has been little change on two other questions about religion’s role in public life over the past few years: More people continue to say that churches and other religious organizations mostly bring people together (rather than push them apart), and that in general – not just regarding the pandemic – religious institutions do more good than harm (as opposed to more harm than good).

These are among the key findings from a new Pew Research Center survey of 6,485 U.S. adults, conducted on the Center’s American Trends Panel. Although the survey was conducted among Americans of all religious backgrounds, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons and more, it did not obtain enough respondents from these smaller religious groups to report separately on their views.

The remainder of this report explores the survey findings in more detail.

Roughly equal shares of U.S. adults recently have attended religious services in person and virtually

Among those who typically attend religious services, most have gone in person recentlyAbout a quarter of U.S. adults (26%) say they have attended religious services in person in the last month (prior to when the survey was conducted, Sept. 20-26). This is up from 17% who reported having attended in person as of March 2021, and from 13% who said they went to services in person earlier in the pandemic, in July 2020.

A similar share of Americans in the new survey (28%) say they have watched religious services online or on TV in the past month, down modestly from March 2021 (33%) and July 2020 (36%). This drop has been particularly pronounced among U.S. adults who say that they typically attend religious services at least monthly. Within this group, the share who have watched virtual services (online or on television) has dropped from 72% to 65% to 55% over the course of the three surveys, and virtual participation is now especially low among Catholic churchgoers (35%).

Meanwhile, Americans who typically attend religious services are now attending in person at a much higher rate. Only a third reported doing this during the summer of 2020, but that share has nearly doubled in the new survey (64%). Evangelical Protestant churchgoers (72%) are more inclined than those in the mainline Protestant (56%) or historically Black Protestant (50%) traditions to have attended recently in person.

Most congregants say houses of worship are open with coronavirus-related restrictions in place, and that this should be the case

The rise in religious service attendance is accompanied by an increase in the number of churches and other places of worship that are reopening to in-person services and/or loosening pandemic-related restrictions. Among U.S. adults who say they typically attend religious services at least monthly or who attended in person in the past month, a growing share report that the house of worship they attend most often is now open for in-person services. This includes three-in-ten (29%) who say their congregation is open to the public and holding services just as it did before the pandemic – up from 12% who said this about their congregation in March 2021.

Most U.S. religious attenders (59%) continue to say that their house of worship is open for services, but with precautions in place to protect against COVID-19. Just 6% now say their congregation is closed entirely for in-person services, down from 31% who said this in July 2020 and 17% earlier this year.

Congregants who identify with the evangelical Protestant tradition are far more likely than other Christians to say that their churches are open without any coronavirus-related restrictions. Roughly half of evangelical Protestants (49%) say this is the case, compared with 20% of mainline Protestants, 14% of congregants in the historically Black Protestant tradition and 19% of Catholics.

White religious attenders are more likely than Black and Hispanic congregants to say their houses of worship are back to normal operations (38% vs. 16% and 20%, respectively). Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party also are much more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners to report that their congregations are open without restrictions (43% vs. 16%). Still, no more than about one-in-ten in any of these groups say that their house of worship remains closed entirely to in-person services.

Dwindling share of U.S. religious attenders report that in-person services at their congregation remain shut down

When asked what should be happening in their religious congregations – as opposed to what actually is happening – survey respondents give similar answers. For example, the percentage of religious attenders who say their congregation is open to the public for services with some health restrictions in place as a result of the coronavirus (59%) is identical to the share who say this should be the case (59%).

Among religious attenders, evangelical Protestants, White (non-Hispanic) Americans and Republicans are considerably more inclined than others to say their congregations should be open without pandemic-related restrictions. For instance, half of evangelical Protestant churchgoers take this position, compared with a quarter of Catholic churchgoers. And 53% of Republicans and people who lean toward the Republican Party say their congregations should be open without restrictions, compared with 15% of Democrats and people who lean toward the Democratic Party.

Growing minority of U.S. religious congregants say their house of worship should be open and holding services just as it did pre-pandemic

Most worshippers feel at least ‘somewhat’ confident in safety of communal worship, but fewer than half are ‘very’ confident

The vast majority of U.S. adults who typically attend religious services or have gone in person in the past month (82%) now say they feel at least somewhat confident they could safely worship in person without catching or spreading the coronavirus. This figure is up slightly since March 2021 (76%), although the share who say they are very confident they can attend religious services safely is unchanged over this period, at 45%. And among those who actually have attended in person in the past month, the share who say they are very confident they can do so safely has fallen from 66% in March to 54% in September.

More than half of White (non-Hispanic) religious attenders (55%) now say they are very confident they can attend religious services in person without catching or spreading COVID-19, far higher than the share of Black (35%) or Hispanic (23%) worshippers who say the same, mirroring a pattern from the earlier surveys. There also is a persistent partisan gap: Republican congregants are twice as likely as those who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party to say they are very confident in the safety of communal worship (62% vs. 30%).

Eight-in-ten religious attenders now at least somewhat confident they could go to services in person without catching, spreading COVID-19

Most U.S. congregants express at least some trust in their clergy’s guidance on COVID-19 vaccines

Where do religious leaders stand in comparison with other authorities as trusted sources of information about coronavirus vaccinations – particularly as many Americans express skepticism about the vaccines?

In the opinion of U.S. adults who typically attend religious services at least monthly or who attended in person in the last month, primary care doctors are by far the most trusted source of information asked about in this survey. Fully 84% of monthly attenders say they have either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in their own doctor to provide guidance about receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

But those who regularly attend religious services also express trust in their clergy or other religious leaders at their house of worship as sources of information about coronavirus vaccinations. About six-in-ten monthly attenders (61%) say that they have at least a fair amount of confidence in their religious leaders to provide reliable guidance about the vaccines, nearly identical to the share who express confidence in public health officials such as those at the CDC. Overall, more Americans who attend religious services at least monthly express trust in their clergy and religious leaders to provide vaccine guidance than say the same about their state elected officials, their local elected officials or the news media.

Black Americans who attend religious services are especially likely to be confident in their clergy to provide guidance about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, with 77% expressing at least a fair amount of confidence in religious leaders to do so, compared with 59% of White (non-Hispanic) and 62% of Hispanic congregants.

Among those who attend religious services, clergy rank above elected officials, news media as trusted source of information about COVID-19 vaccines

U.S. Catholics split on Pope Francis as a source of vaccine guidanceThe survey also asked U.S. Catholics about the level of confidence they have in Pope Francis – who has urged people to get vaccinated – to provide guidance about the vaccine.

Catholic Americans are split on this question: 47% say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in Francis to provide vaccine guidance, while 52% say they have “not too much” confidence or “no confidence at all” in the pope as a source of information on coronavirus vaccinations. Six-in-ten Catholics who attend Mass monthly or more often say that they have at least a fair amount of confidence in Pope Francis to provide guidance about the shots – similar to the share who say the same about their own parish priests (56%). Meanwhile, 40% of Catholics who attend Mass less often have the same level of confidence in the pope.

More than half of U.S. congregants have not heard advice from clergy about coronavirus vaccines

Members of historically Black Protestant tradition especially likely to hear clergy urging COVID-19 vaccinationsAmong Americans who attend services monthly or attended in person during the past month, far more say that their clergy have encouraged people to get a COVID-19 vaccine (39%) than discouraged it (5%), though a slim majority (54%) say that their clergy have not said much about the vaccines.

Nearly six-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners who attend religious services say that their religious leaders have encouraged people to get vaccinated, compared with just 24% of Republican attenders who say they have heard the same message from their religious leaders.

Additionally, almost two-thirds of Protestants in the historically Black tradition (64%) say their clergy have encouraged people to get the vaccine, much higher than the share of Catholics (42%), mainline Protestants (42%) and evangelical Protestants (21%) who say they have received the same kind of encouragement from their leaders. Still, just 4% of evangelicals say they have heard their clergy discourage the vaccine.

Most Americans say churches and other religious organizations should keep out of politics

Most U.S. adults want houses of worship to stay out of politicsA majority of Americans prefer that religious leaders and organizations stay away from discussing politics. When asked whether churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters or express their views on day-to-day social and political questions, fully seven-in-ten U.S. adults say that houses of worship should keep out – up from 63% the last time this question was asked, in March 2019. About three-in-ten now say that churches should express their views on these questions (29%).

There are differences in views of this question based on race, party affiliation and religious affiliation. Black adults are more likely than White, Asian or Hispanic adults to say that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on political and social matters, with 40% saying this is something they support. Additionally, 37% of U.S. adults who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party say that churches should express their views on these matters, while fewer Democrats and Democratic leaners (24%) say the same.

Even though a strong majority of evangelical Protestants identify with the GOP and a larger majority of Protestants in the historically Black tradition identify with the Democratic Party, the two groups have similar views on this question, with relatively large shares saying that churches should express their views on political and social issues (47% and 45%, respectively). Smaller shares of mainline Protestants and Catholics say the same, with roughly three-quarters in each group saying that churches and other houses of worship should refrain from weighing in on political matters.

On balance, religious organizations still viewed as positive forces in society

More Americans say religious institutions unite than divideQuestions about whether churches and other houses of worship should speak out on political and social issues are part of a larger discussion on the impact that these institutions have on public life in the United States.

More U.S. adults say churches and religious organizations mostly bring people together rather than push people apart (52% vs. 19%), and 28% say they do neither. These figures are little changed since 2019 and 2017.

Christians are far more likely than religiously unaffiliated Americans to say that religious organizations mostly bring people together (66% vs. 25%), with evangelical Protestants especially likely to hold this view (77%). Meanwhile, most self-described atheists (62%) say religious groups mostly push people apart. Additionally, Republicans and independents who lean Republican are much more likely than Democrats to say churches and other religious institutions mostly bring people together (70% vs. 40%).

Americans generally view religious organizations as more beneficial than harmfulIn a similar vein, respondents were asked whether they feel that churches and religious organizations do more harm than good; more good than harm; or don’t make much of a difference in American society. Overall, 53% say they do more good than harm, 21% say they do more harm than good, and 25% express a neutral view. These figures also are largely unchanged from 2019 and 2017.

Once again, Christians are much more positive than the religiously unaffiliated in their assessments of the influence of religious organizations on public life, as are Republicans compared with Democrats. Two-thirds of Christians (67%) say that all things considered, churches do more good than harm in American society, a view shared by just 26% of religious “nones.” And roughly seven-in-ten Republicans (71%) express this positive view of religious organizations, compared with four-in-ten Democrats.

Notably, U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 49 are about twice as likely as those ages 50 and older to take the opposite position, saying that churches and religious organizations do more harm than good (27% vs. 14%).

No clear consensus on religious organizations’ impact amid pandemic

U.S. adults ambivalent about impact of religious organizations on COVID-19 responseThe survey also asked more narrowly about the impact that churches and religious organizations have had on the way the United States has handled the coronavirus outbreak. U.S. adults are not quite as positive in assessing the impact of churches and other religious organizations in this specific area as they are when it comes to society as a whole. About half of Americans (52%) say houses of worship have not made much difference on the way the U.S. has handled the coronavirus outbreak, while 25% say religious institutions have done more harm than good, and 22% say they have done more good than harm.

Most Christians (55%) say that churches have not made much of a difference in the country’s handling of the coronavirus, with the remainder more likely to say they have helped (28%) rather than harmed (16%). A strong majority of atheists (71%), meanwhile, say that religious organizations have done more harm than good in the country’s response to the pandemic.

Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say that churches have done more harm than good in the country’s response to the pandemic (39% vs. 9%), as are Americans who attend religious services a few times a year or less compared with those who attend monthly or more often (30% vs. 14%).