The Influence of Religion

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Over the years, Gallup has asked Americans whether they “think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence.” And unlike other Gallup survey questions having to do with belief in God and worship attendance, the results have varied a good deal. Right now, we’re at one of those points when Americans overwhelmingly say that religion is losing influence–as in the late 60s and early 90s.

religion's influence.gifThe question is, what exactly does this graph signify? A case can be made that, from the late 50s, American society was in fact becoming more secular–or at least that the public piety of the so-called Eisenhower Revival was in decline. And yet, during this period of alleged waning influence, religious forces were powerfully at work, changing American society via the civil rights movement.

So what accounts for the turnaround in 1969-70? Perhaps it was the return of the presidency to the Republican Party. At least up until the late 80s, Americans seemed to consider religious influence on the upswing after the GOP took over the White House. But how to explain its rise under Bill Clinton, and its decline during George Bush’s second term?

Possibly, it was the full-fledged emergence of the religious right in national consciousness that accounts for the 90s, and the general disaffection from Bush from 2005 on that accounts for the steep decline in the late 2000s. The latest trend appears to have peaked last May. Since then, the proportion of Americans who think the influence of religion is increasing has risen from 23 percent to 27 percent; the proportion who think it’s declining has fallen from 71 percent to 69 percent. This would seem to track the Republican fortunes.

Here’s my hypothesis. Presidencies are themselves lagging indicators. What the overall trend lines track is ideology. When conservatism is in the ascendant, Americans believe that religion is increasing its influence in American life. When liberalism is in the ascendant, it’s the opposite. And it’s been that way for half a century.