Despite public concerns about religious groups and a loss of respect for clergy in general, a new poll from the Pew Research Center suggests many Americans still see religion generally having a positive role for Christianity.
Christianity has been rapidly declining in the United States while the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated is growing. Gallup polls have found a massive, three-decade fall in confidence in “organized religion” from as high as 66% in the mid-1980s to 36% in 2019. Pope Francis’ image has declined in multiple surveys in the wake of new revelations about sex abuse scandals.
But Pew’s survey, published Friday, finds that Americans hold more-positive views of religion’s role overall and concerns about it declining. Fifty-five percent say churches and religious organizations do more good than harm in society (compared with 20T of people who think it does more harm than good). Similar majorities say religious organizations strengthen morality in society (53%), and 50% say they bring people together.
As mainline Protestantism is experiencing an especially sharp decline, leaders are constantly talking about how to attract young people, said David Zahl, author of the book “Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It.”
Many younger Americans aren’t prioritizing church attendance the way their parents or grandparents did, he said, but some people might hold nostalgia for how religious organizations have set up hospitals and other community-based institutions. Zahl said that when he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, to be the college and young-adult minister at Christ Episcopal Church, “regular church attendance” usually meant someone would attend three times a month. Now, he said, someone who attends regularly is someone who attends once a month.
“People may be sad that churches are declining, but they’re not going to rearrange their priorities,” Zahl said. “They can say, it’s not for me, but I see it’s good for society.”
The two largest religious denominations in the country – the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention – have faced a new wave of sex abuse allegations within the past year. However, when asked about religion as a whole, Americans have more-positive views.
And among the 78% who think religion is losing influence in American life, 42% say that’s a bad thing, compared with 17% who say that’s a good thing (19% say it doesn’t make a difference).
Some researchers have tried to quantify institutional religion’s economic impact on the nation. Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University, estimated in his 2013 book “America’s Blessings” that religion benefits the American economy by $2.6 trillion per year. In 2016, Brian Grim of Georgetown University and Melissa Grim of the Newseum Institute analyzed the annual revenue as well as the goods and services that religious institutions provide, putting their estimate of the value of faith to U.S. society at $4.8 trillion.
Pew’s new poll numbers should be encouraging to pastors and other leaders who have been anxiously wringing their hands over the loss of many young people, said Brett McCracken, author of “Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.”
“Churches try to game the system and try to find what a demographic wants,” he said. “Rather than being inauthentic and trying to reinvent yourself to be cool, my instinct is young people are going to be interested in a church that makes a difference in people’s lives.”
He said that the poll numbers suggest many Americans still see a community value in religion that connects to larger policy debates. He noted how many religious Americans were alarmed when former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke in October said churches that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. That view was rejected by other Democratic candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.
Pew’s survey showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans want religious institutions to keep out of political matters. Although President Donald Trump has made efforts to chip away at the Johnson Amendment, which prevents pastors from endorsing candidates, the survey shows that three-quarters of the public believe churches should not come out in favor of a candidate during an election.
“Overly politicized of Christianity on both sides – whenever religion lines up with one political party or another, that’s suspicious to young people,” McCracken said.
As religion has been weaponized politically by white nationalism, Hindu nationalism and Islamic nationalism, young people are seeking to fight back, said Simran Jeet Singh, a senior fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a visiting professor at Union Seminary teaching on the history of Buddhism.
“I’m seeing a surge of interest among young people who want to reclaim religion as a force for good,” he said.
Without mentioning specific kinds of leaders, 65% of those surveyed said religious leaders have high ethical standards. By contrast, Gallup has found a decline in rating clergy as honest, with a sharp recent decline among Catholics.
“People see the church as falling from grace, and they lament it and think it’s a bad thing,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a longtime political and public relations strategist who represents many Jewish and Democratic groups. “We have high expectations for sports heroes, movie stars, religious leaders and other communal leaders. We seem to be routinely disappointed in them lately.”
The survey also found racial divisions in how Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view religion. White Democrats are more likely to say religion is declining, and 33% of them think this is a good thing, versus the 23% who think it’s a bad thing. On the other hand, black Democrats say it’s a bad thing by 40-9.
“For African Americans, the calculation is ‘Oh no, this is a part of our lives.’ Smaller black churches are dying off. People are moving. Developers are coming in,” said Anthea Butler, a professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “On the white side, a lot of it has to do with disappointment in organized religion.”
Many people are questioning America’s national identity right now, Butler said.
“Our national identity, whether you think it should be or not, is wrapped up in a ‘Christian nation,'” she said. “People could be thinking all kinds of things. Some might be saying, ‘Oh we’re losing something.’ Or people could think the discourse is too coarse right now.”