Religious groups need to back off partisanship to shore up confidence

Published: Friday, July 13 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT


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SALT LAKE CITY — A growing number of Americans are losing confidence in religious institutions, along with schools, Congress, banks and television news, according to a recent poll.

Gallup's annual confidence survey found all of the 16 institutions measured this year either held steady or declined in public confidence. The biggest declines in public confidence, from last year to this year, were in television news, public schools and organized religion.

The results found confidence in most of the institutions is below historical averages since the poll was first taken in 1973. Gallup specifically attributed the crisis in confidence to financial and sex abuse scandals that have rocked both Protestant and Catholic faiths over the past two decades.

In a broader context, pollsters determined that because more than half of the institutions it measures annually have hit bottom at some point in the past five years, organized religion is affected by a general lack of confidence in most major institutions.

"Once Americans begin to feel better about the way things are going in the United States, some of their lost confidence in the country's major institutions will likely be restored," Gallup concluded.

But those monitoring the decline in church membership and activity aren't so sure confidence in religious institutions will bounce back with the economy or when memories of scandals fade. They see a corresponding trend of people leaving their faith primarily because faith and partisan politics have become too intertwined.

"I have concluded that religious leaders need to understand the importance of avoiding partisan politics or they will literally end up preaching to the choir," said Jonathan Merritt, an author who has researched the recent flight from faith particularly among "millennials," young adults born in the early 1980s.

Other recent research backs up Merritt's warning. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found in 2009 that while about half of American adults change their religious affiliation at least once in their lives, the group that has grown the most due to religious change is the unaffiliated — those who leave religion altogether. Pew found that roughly half of those who became unaffiliated did so because of reasons related to their religious and moral beliefs.

For example, 56 percent of Catholics who are now unaffiliated say they left the faith because of its teachings on abortion and homosexuality. Another 48 percent drifted away because of the church's position on birth control.

The National Congregations study blames church hierarchy for driving away congregants over controversial moral issues, such as gay and lesbian ordination.

"Indeed, national conflicts probably cause rather than reflect conflicts within congregations," the 2009 study concluded, "meaning that congregations would argue about homosexuality even less if denominations did not sometimes force them to take sides."

Academics Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, who wrote "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," found the group most affected by these trends is millennials.

"To them, 'religion' means 'Republican,' 'intolerant,' and 'homophobic,'" they wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. "Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves — or wish to be seen by their peers — as religious."

The mixing of religion and party politics over highly charged social issues is not a new phenomenon. Putnam and Campbell noted religious leaders took sides along party lines over abolitionism and prohibition. But an unending string of religious liberty disputes dating back to the 1962 Supreme Court's school prayer ruling and the courting of religious conservatives by the Republican Party since the 1980s has enmeshed religion and politics in a way that experts say will have unintended consequences for both politics and religion.

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