Religion in America: Power Without Influence?

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

In the midst of one of the most culturally religious times of the year, how do Americans perceive religion’s potential power and its influence on society? According to a November 2003 Gallup Poll*, most Americans say they think religion is losing its influence in America, yet most also say they firmly believe in the power of religion to solve today’s problems.

The percentage of Americans who believe religion is "increasing its influence on American life" has dropped significantly since February, from 46% to 32%. This continues a decline from the immediate post-Sept. 11 environment. A December 2001 poll found 71% of Americans saying religion was increasing its influence, and the percentage steadily dropped since then. The current levels are similar to those Gallup measured before Sept. 11.

While most Americans believe religion is losing its influence, a solid majority (61%) believes that religion can "answer all or most of today’s problems." This trend has remained in the 60% range over the past decade, unmoved by Sept. 11. The percentage who say religion can answer contemporary problems is currently the same as the percentage who say religion is "very important" in their lives.

Bottom Line

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Americans -- including political leaders -- turned to their religious faith for comfort and reassurance. Church and synagogue attendance increased, albeit slightly and briefly -- and for a while it seemed at least that people had become more aware of their faith and the faith of others. It is therefore not surprising that Americans perceived religion to be increasing its influence on society during this period.

As the immediate impact of the attacks faded and things returned to normal, perceptions of the influence of religion reverted as well. As indicated by a May 2003 Gallup Poll**, 67% of Americans believe that "the state of moral values in this country as a whole" is "getting worse." This finding suggests a general pessimism about American culture and society, and reflects the perceptions of a decline in the influence of religion.

However, Americans do believe that religion can answer today’s problems, even though they do not see evidence of such answers being lived out on a large scale in American society. This apparent contradiction may reflect Americans’ inherent duality: they feel frustrated but hopeful. Their sense of moral stagnation is tempered by the idea that the potential for improvement exists, and that religion can help. To the extent that that mindset prevails, religious leaders have an opportunity to challenge their members to not only hope for a better tomorrow, but to put their faith into action to create a better today.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,004 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 10-12, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 5-7, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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