Religion Remains Front and Center -- but Should It?

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

More Americans preferring that religion have less influence on society

Gallup polling in the first few years of the new millennium suggests a few shifts in Americans' perceptions of the influence religion has and should have in American life.

A Bumpy Ride

After the turn of the millennium, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the high-profile Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal in 2002 seemed to move religion and values to the forefront of American thought. Prominent discussion about the role of values in society throughout the 2004 elections also kept religious topics in the headlines.

The public's perception of religion's influence reflects those headlines, making it a rather bumpy trend from 2001 to the present. In 2000 and the early part of 2001, the percentage of Americans thinking that religion's influence was increasing averaged 37%, and the percentage thinking it was decreasing averaged 57%. Just after the Sept. 11 attacks, 71% of Americans thought the influence of religion was increasing, while 24% thought it was decreasing. By the next year, however, the percentage seeing religion's influence increasing dropped to 53% in March 2002 and dropped even more later in the year, to 43%.

In 2003, the percentage of Americans who said religion's influence was on the rise averaged 39%, and the percentage who thought it was decreasing averaged 56%. However, the 2003 average for those saying influence was on the rise was brought lower because of a low (perhaps anomalous) reading of 32% in November 2003. In 2004, the proportions had evened out: An average of 48% of Americans each thought the influence of religion in American life was increasing and decreasing.

Public Warier of Religion's Influence Now

In the last several years, there has been a gradual decline in the percentage of Americans satisfied with the degree of influence organized religion has on society -- though this trend was temporarily interrupted by the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In January 2001, 64% of Americans said they were "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with the influence of organized religion on society. In January 2002, the first post-9/11 reading saw the percentage satisfied slightly higher, at 69%. A year later, the percentage who said they were satisfied dropped to 59% in 2003, about where it was in 2004. In the most recent poll, conducted Jan. 3-5, 2005, 55% of Americans now say they are satisfied with religion's influence, and 41% are dissatisfied.

Regardless of whether they think it is waxing or waning, Americans are more divided now as to whether they approve of the influence organized religion wields. Since 2001, Gallup has asked the public each January if it would like to see organized religion have more influence on society, less influence, or if its influence should remain about the same. The percentage who say religion should have less influence has slowly increased in the past five years.

In January 2001, 30% of Americans wanted to see religion have more influence, 45% were happy with its level of influence, and 22% wanted religion to have less influence on American life. The percentage desiring less influence increased to 25% in 2003 and 27% in 2004. The latest poll shows 33% of Americans saying that they would prefer that religion have less influence on U.S. society. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who say religion should have more influence has fallen back to 26% and the percentage who say its influence should be the same has dropped to 39%.

Issue Not Going Away

The debate about how much influence religion should have in society is not going to go away anytime soon -- particularly since political candidates (Republicans in particular) now recognize the role of values as a potentially effective wedge issue. Furthermore, members of the baby boomer generation are now assuming the primary positions of power in the United States, and as authors William Strauss and Neil Howe argue in their book, The Fourth Turning, boomer leaders tend to be passionate about issues of morality. So values, and thereby religion, may remain front and center in policy debates -- even though the public may be wary of the ways they are used.

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