Influence of faith: Americans say religion is good but faith is losing its influence

Published: Saturday, June 1 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Pat Denzer waves the U.S. and Texas flags in front of San Fernando Cathedral during a Religious Freedom protest, Friday, March 23, 2012, in downtown San Antonio. A recent Gallup poll found Americans say religion is losing its influence in society.

Eric Gay, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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A large majority of Americans say religion is good and needed in society, so when they sense the world around them is in moral decline they also perceive a corresponding decline in the influence of religion in American life.

Gallup has tracked that trend since the 1950s and its most recent survey found 75 percent of Americans say society would be better off if more people were religious. But, 77 percent of those polled believe the influence of religious faith is declining, representing the most negative evaluations of the impact of religion since 1970.

The survey didn't probe why the 1,535 adults felt religion's influence is waning or if they think that's good or bad. But the data do show that people's perception of religion in public life has little to do with their own faith.

"The sentiment is consistent whether you are religious or not," said Allen D. Hertzke, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma and a distinguished senior fellow for the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. "Religious people see it as more of a problem than nonreligious people, but they all agree that religion is losing influence."

They won't always see it that way, however, said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor-in-chief. "The degree to which these views changed during the Reagan years, and after 9/11, suggest that they could change again in the years ahead," he wrote on the Gallup website.

Perceived enemy

Newport said the perceptions of religion's influence in American society is not a statement of someone's personal religiosity.

The survey showed that those who attend worship services often and consider religion important in their lives were no more likely to say religion is losing its influence than those who are not religious.

Asked whether religion is losing its influence, 75 percent of those who said religion is very important in their lives said yes, compared to 79 percent of those who gave the same answer but who also said religion is not very important.

But Gallup did find a stronger relationship between ideology as well as partisanship and views of the influence of religion. Liberals and Democrats were more likely than conservatives and Republicans to say religion's influence is increasing in American society.

Newport said the tie between political ideology and views on religious influence may be explained by the fact that liberals tend to be less religious than conservatives. Or, it could be a matter of heightened sensitivity to your perceived enemy.

"If you are on the left you may see the tea party/religious right having a bigger influence because that's your perceived enemy," he said. "Then you hear conservatives saying godless liberals are trying to control the government."

For Richard Flory, a sociologist and director of research in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture and at the University of Southern California, the correlation between politics and religion is also one of personal perception.

"I think it is signifying a particular kind of American individualist mindset, which is saying that my religion is losing influence in the public sphere," he said.

But, the perception doesn't necessarily mean the respondents to the survey are wrong, Hertzke observed.

Referring to the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter, Hertzke said religion is less influential in the large institutions that shape society, such as universities, large corporations and the media.

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