Beliefs Culture Politics

Religion loses clout: Why many say that’s a bad thing

Wedding-related businesses graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.
Wedding-related businesses graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.

Wedding-related businesses graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.

(RNS) More Americans today say religion’s influence is losing ground just when they want it to play a stronger role in public life and politics.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds 72 percent of Americans say religion’s influence is declining in society — the highest percentage since Pew began measuring the trend in 2001, when only 52 percent held that view.

“Most people (overwhelmingly Christians) view this as a bad thing,” said Greg Smith, associate director of Pew’s Religion & Public Life Project. “That unhappiness may be behind their desire for more religion and politics.”

Growing numbers want their politicians to pray in public and for their clergy to endorse candidates from the pulpit. And nearly half of Americans say business owners with religious objections to gay marriage should to be able to refuse wedding-related services to same-sex couples.

There are three ways to look at the findings, released Monday (Sept. 22):

More Americans say amen to mixing faith, politics

Just as campaigns ramp up for the 2014 mid-term elections:

  • 49 percent want churches and other houses of worship to “express their views on day-to-day social and political issues,” up from 43 percent in 2010.
  • 41 percent say political leaders today show “too little expression of religious faith and prayer,” up from from 37 percent in the last mid-term election. “People still see religion as one of the foundational sources of morality. They still want to see that in their leaders,” said John Green, professor of political science at the University of Akron and senior research adviser for the Pew Research Center.
  • 32 percent support clergy endorsing candidates from the pulpit. That’s a jump from 24 percent in 2010 although nearly twice as many — “63 percent, including some highly religious people — still say ‘No, no, no,’” Smith said.

    Public Split on requiring wedding service to same sex couples graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.

    Public Split on requiring wedding service to same sex couples graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.

“It’s a surprising reversal of trends,” Smith said. In 2010, 52 percent said churches should keep out of politics.

People stick to their corners

Party identification and social attitudes “are becoming even more polarized between people who identify with a religion — mostly Christians — and those who claim no religious label (the “nones”) said Smith.

There is discontent and divisiveness within each of the two political parties, but not enough drive people to jump the fence.

Democrats are split on whether their party is too liberal or not liberal enough. Republicans, particularly white evangelicals, say their party is not conservative enough on resisting government spending, abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

Even so, the survey finds no noteworthy change since 2010 in party preferences: 48 percent of registered voters identify with or lean to the Democratic Party and 43 percent favor the Republican Party. Most black Protestants and “nones” expect to vote Democratic this fall, while evangelical Protestants expect to vote for the GOP candidate in their district.

The public is almost exactly split on whether wedding vendors, such as caterers or florists, should be required to provide services to all clientele (49 percent) or be allowed to decline if they object for religious reasons (47 percent).

Religious identity was, unsurprisingly, the deciding factor here.

Those who said businesses should serve all clientele, included 61 percent of “nones,” 57 percent of Catholics and 59 percent of black Protestants.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Elaine Huguenin, co-owner of Elane Photography in Albuquerque, N.M., who had religious objections to taking photos for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Photo courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case of Elaine Huguenin, co-owner of Elane Photography in Albuquerque, N.M., who had religious objections to taking photos for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Photo courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

However, 71 percent of white evangelicals and 49 percent of white Protestant mainline faithful said wedding businesses should be allowed to refuse gay couples when owners have religious grounds.

The same people who support an opt-out for religious wedding vendors are also more inclined to say “homosexual behavior is sinful.”

Since May 2013 when Pew measured this question, bans on gay marriage have been overturned state after state. And the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by a New Mexico wedding photographer who refused on religious grounds to photograph a lesbian wedding.

The barrage of news headlines on these issues may have contributed to an uptick in the number of people overall who say homosexual behavior is sinful — 50 percent now, up from 45 percent last year.

Still, in 2003, Smith noted, 55 percent called gay activity sinful. It’s too soon to know if the 2014 findings on gay marriage are an anomaly or the first sign of a change in direction for public attitudes.

No deal breakers

More Difficult to Be Religious in the U.S.? graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.

More Difficult to Be Religious in the U.S.? graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.

Fewer people say the Obama administration is “friendly toward religion” (30 percent) than said so in 2009 (37 percent). Yet that could be irrelevant in the mid-term elections.

Religion overall is less prominent and less controversial than it was 10 or 15 years ago, said Smith. He cited examples in previous elections where contentious religious issues made headlines — and no difference at the polls.

  •  John Kerry, an abortion rights Catholic, didn’t lose the presidential race in 2004 because some bishops said they would refuse to give him Communion.
  • George W. Bush’s controversial first-term faith-based social service initiatives had nothing to do with his re-election.
  • Obama won two terms despite a persistent cluster of voters who insist he’s secretly Muslim.
  • Evangelicals set aside suspicions about Mormons to vote in droves for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Religious worldviews are deeply ingrained and they are not easily overridden by news events, said Smith.

“Social issues such as birth control, abortion and gay marriage are consistently at the bottom of the list of what’s most important to voters,” said Jessica Martinez, a Pew research associate. “There’s no evidence these will be deal breakers now.”

The survey of 2,002 U.S. adults was conducted Sept. 2-9 on cell phones and landlines. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.


About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • So the people who most want to use religion as an excuse to engage in business discrimination and acting badly towards others are saying religion losing clout is a bad thing. How unsurprising.

  • Maybe this isn’t the site to express my views, but I am an Atheist. I do not believe in any form of higher being. That said, I resent having to underwrite any and all religions with tax exemptions and tax breaks. I won’t go into it any deeper, but why do I, and many other like minded people, have to underwrite your religions? Beyond the fact that I sincerely believe that religion is and has been responsible for most wars in all of history, I feel that if the religion cannot support itself without tax breaks, then maybe it needs more followers.

  • Its Against the 500 year old Lutheran confessions to combine church and state. Countries that have done that had to water down and compromise Lutheran beliefs..

    a pastor job is to preach Christ crucified for all,, as scripture says..

    pastors should not endorse people running for government offices neither local or federal..

    instead they should have taught Gods laws and council correctly so people can make their own minds up which
    person running for office they should vote for..
    With out any coaching from their Pastor…

    should a Christian be forced to go against there conscience and give gay people weddings ..
    should atheists builders be forced to build Christian church buildings. .if they don’t want to.. NO to both..

  • Crankpaul-How can you not believe in God? Most people that don’t want to
    believe in God don’t want to believe because they don’t want to be told how
    to live. Read Romans 1:18-25. Look at the universe and the design of it all
    and you say that’s just random? It takes more faith to believe that this world
    just came about by random chance than to believe in God.

  • It is not a matter of conscience to discriminate in open commerce. It is being malicious and purposefully harming others. One’s religious belief hardly excuses the act.

    If one’s religious faith is so overwhelming that they feel the need to keep their customer base within a given set of beliefs, then they have no business holding themselves out to the public. Don’t advertise in general circulation media, don’t have a store front, advertise by word of mouth or within your church.

    Nobody ever said you have to have your beliefs coddled under the color of law. If you think such discriminatory activity is an act of conscience, then make the necessary sacrifices. Take the financial risk of reduced advertisement and marketing in order to stay “spiritually pure”.

    When you own a business open to the public, you have a duty to serve the public. If we let every business discriminate against their customers for various arbitrary reasons, nothing gets done.

  • you don’t pay extra.. your taxes are based on what you earn and your exemptions .. if you don’t like non profit tax exemptions
    you are allowed to vote with other like minded persons and try to get it changed ..
    you just can not separate them as that would be discriminatory.. for instance you can not be for atheist
    religious building and property getting a tax exemption and against a Christian church not getting them .

  • Easy. There is no evidence to support it. People don’t like to be told how to live according to arbitratry, self-serving and capricious rules. They want their relations with the rest of humanity to make sense.

    As for the universe and its design, since it is so vast and beyond your comprehension it can’t be assumed to be either designed or random. We recognize design based on what we can produce. To ascribe the infinite to such a mundane idea like design is to fail to appreciate it.

  • When churches stop acting like churches, they must be taxed.

    This means when a church acts like a PAC, when they engage in political lobbying, act as providers of public services, become real estate developers, business owners, and bankers, they no longer deserve to be treated as a church.

  • IF a atheist advertised he was a builder in a paper intended for the public and before he started the job he told me he honestly did not want to build my house,, Because he was atheist and he knew I was a Lutheran He would NOT BE FORCED to build my house. Nor DO I THINK IT would be right for some judge to force him to or fine him as punishment .

  • NOW if he just shut up that he did not want to build my house because he was atheist and did a lousy Job because he knew I was Lutheran .. Than I think a judge should step in and force him to do it right and fine him on plus of that..

  • Read Romans 1:18-25. Creation is the proof. How did we all get here
    if God didn’t create the world then explain how we got here? We have
    creation,our conscience which means with knowledge and the Bible
    prophecy that came true with 100% accuracy proving Jesus is who
    He says is. Jesus is the Messiah/the only way to heaven…Period!

  • Frankly I am not buying it.

    I doubt ANYONE on the business end of discriminatory practices, would be doing anything less than screaming “persecution” and “bigotry” if they are refused as customers for such reasons. Nobody accepts being discriminated against in such a context. It is considered a civil harm to people, which is why it is grounds for lawsuits.

    A person is not “forced” to serve the entire public in their business. It is their duty as being open to the general public. It is the price one pays for visibility and a responsibility for doing so. If one cannot meet such obligations, then they should be doing their work in a more private, less visible manner.

    How is it different from a restaurant with a sign, “Whites only”? Using your argument, if I am a Christian Identity adherent, I would have a right never to serve people of color in my business. My faith demands that I never act subserviently to those not of the white race. Having to abide by anti-discrimination laws would be forcing me to violate my faith. Of course adhering to such faith involves deliberately and maliciously denying someone my services who would be entitled to them as part of the general public.

    Frankly your position is premised on the idea that your religious belief absolves any duty to act towards others in a civil manner. That being a Christian makes one a law unto themselves with no responsibilities towards anyone but fellow Christians. Its not a position which demands a lot of respect.

  • . if a person heart is not in what there doing for you wouldn’t you really want them to tell you that;; so you could use some one else.?

    so now one brilliant judge forced the issue.. now the gay person will not know if the person likes homosexual weddings or not .. and the ones hey can no longer be sure of ,, because of the brilliance of that one judge ,, are the ones making their cake ..

    what a marvelous win for them..

  • Of course if that was the case, then you would have a tough time determining what was discriminatory conduct and what was incompetence/negligent work.

    In these situations where “Christian businesses” get sued for not serving gays, it all usually came down to the business owners being too malicious, too uncivil and uncreative to come up with plausible excuses not to take the work. Its much harder to claim discrimination in a court when they say things like, “we are all booked up for those dates”, “we don’t have the resources for what you ask” or “let me get back to you”.

  • If a person’s heart is not into serving the entire public in their business, then don’t do it. Do business through private clubs, subscription and word of mouth.

    “You can always go somewhere else” is what people used to say to justify segregation as well. “There are always those places which serve your kind”. Do you find it ironic at all to adopt arguments verbatim used in service of institutionalized discrimination 50 years ago?

    Actually the brilliant judge helped everyone involved. A gay couple can go to any business open to the public and expect to be served like every other customer. This way nobody is confused which business owners will serve them and who will not.

    Business owners who don’t want to serve them just won’t do business in a public way. The way to find out the business which only serve select clientele is to go through the usual channels of word of mouth and private areas of marketing.

  • Larry we Christians just think its appropriate in worldly matters to use the common sense God gave us ..
    if some one we know does not like us we would want to know about it first ..especially if they are preparing food..
    we would prefer to go else where ..

    from you I see atheists would prefer to eat the food surprises and all that may be added there,, while lecturing them on
    civil law..

  • Not really Larry ..
    now because of judges there are also many places a person has no idea they should have avoided..

    (Martha my stomach hurts and I got the squirts..)

  • Oh please, Larry. What are you doing, dude? Don’t even try to defend that sloppy atheism vomit. You already know the real deal that God at least exists, so you better tell the truth and shame the devil around here!!!!

    Atheism is rationally worthless. You should be able to look in your cheap bathroom mirror for 2.5 minutes, tops, and from empirical observation ALONE, find sufficient scientific evidence of brilliant and powerful engineering design — just by looking at your own face (eyes, ears, hair, skin) — to permanently and rationally convince you that God does indeed exist. No joke.

    You didn’t start out in life as an atheist. You know you can shoot a lot higher than that. You know you’re not happy with bankrupt bottom-feeder belief-systems like atheism. You know it’s time for an Upgrade!!

  • Such pleasant comments Doc. Its funny when people defend religious belief and use the word “rational”. Irony at its finest.

    I was born not believing God. Fresh out of the package. We all are. We acquire religious belief. Atheism wasn’t even a break from family beliefs and traditions. Just one of many my rather large and varied family has. .

    So what about atheism do you find so damaging to your beliefs? Are you really that insecure about your own Christian belief that you have to reassure yourself by attacking others. Because that is exactly what it looks like.

  • Common sense had nothing to do with the flat out fiction you slung. That you would be OK with being discriminated against as a customer of a business.

    Common sense would tell you that such behavior is not looked upon with respect. That business relations break down when people start injecting their personal prejudices into it.

    If Christians just provided crappy and hostile customer service, there would be no grounds for lawsuits. Just bad online reviews. There are always plenty of excuses for giving crap service. Virtually none for being a malicious d-bag and denying services normally available to the rest of the public.

  • Giving crap service is not lawsuit material. Just bad for your business reputation. If those “Christian” businesses were more creative and less self-righteous morons, this would not rise past nasty rumors. It would require no judicial intervention.

  • Rob isn’t talking about crap service. He’s talking about Christians deliberately adulterating or poisoning the food of customers they don’t like. If a pattern of this was noticed from a particular merchant, it actually would be lawsuit material.

    Frankly, it is refreshing to hear a Christian admit that this is the kind of behavior Christians would engage in.

  • But it can’t be a sign of malicious behavior, they are poisoning people out of concern for their immortal souls!

    Its an expression of Christian love!

  • I believe when it comes to religion and politics, we do not want our church to be placed into a “category” such as one party or the other! It’s because if our church decides it’s republican in it’s feelings and then some republican defuse is chosen by the republicans to run for office and half of the congregation becomes upset to be associated with the person selected!! ( do we remember Ms Alaska??)!! However what they DO want, is for the Christian Church as a whole to voice it’s opinion of the beheading of its preachers, the burning of it’s churches, the burning of Bibles and so on!! We want to hear from our Christian leaders preach a little fire and brimstone about THAT, and not set meekly by while such things happen!!!

  • Crankpaul is absolutely right, religion is the cause of most wars in the history of man. Though true, you may not be aware that Jesus Christ said that it was very wrong for religion to mix with politics. He himself said that God’s kingdom, that we pray for to come, is going to be what will come to rule this earth and there will be no more wars. Period He said pay back to Caesar what he asked for …..the tax and that was all. He did not get involved with the politics of the day and encouraged others not to so .

  • Larry-I am religious, but I am not going to try and convince someone out of what they believe and I don’t believe anyone has the right to do so either. Everyone is telling Larry to go read this and that….are you serious ? I believe they is a god but my religion doesn’t tell me to criticize the beliefs of others…so Larry, don’t try and defend yourself on a website. Go live your life and believe what you want !!

  • A Max… must have died! I miss all that twisted logic; especially for an article like this one. Of course religion is losing clout.

    2Ti 3:1-2 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,

    Any questions why religion is losing clout?

  • It’s funny when women stick up for the bible .. A book that promotes rape and timothy 2:12 says women need to hush when men are speaking so your bible posts have no pull .. The other funny thing is , there is over 1000 gods and none have ever shown themselves and the Christian god is out dated by tons of other gods

  • Much respect , bob .. Im also atheist and the bible contradicts way too many times to take it serious .. I live my life off updated science

  • I’m atheist and an adult that has grown out of the fairytale believing .. I’ve accepted reality and reality is ready to accept theists when their ready