April 10, 2001

Faith-Based Funding Backed, But Church-State Doubts Abound

Section IV. Religion in American Life

Religion plays an important role in the personal lives of most Americans. The number of people saying religion is very important to them has gradually increased over the past two decades, after declining sharply between the mid-1960s and late 1970s. Currently, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) call religion very important. Fully nine-in-ten pray at least once a week and the overwhelming majority of respondents described God in very personal terms.

Yet there are major differences — based on gender, race, religious affiliation and other factors — in attitudes concerning the personal importance of religion. And these attitudes carry over into religious beliefs and practices.

More than seven-in-ten women (71%) cite religion as very important, compared to 55% of men. The racial divide is even larger — religion is considered very important by 85% of blacks, compared to 61% of whites. And Americans over age 50 place a higher priority on religion than do younger people.

Not surprisingly, evangelical Protestants, both white and black, are the most likely to cite the personal importance of religion. Nearly nine-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (88%) and even more black evangelicals (95%) say religion is very important to them. That compares to just over half (54%) of white mainline Protestants and 78% of black mainline Protestants. Catholics are also divided on this question; 75% of traditional Catholics call religion very important, while just half of liberal Catholics agree.

Only about half (54%) of college graduates consider religion very important, compared to two-thirds of high school graduates and three-quarters of those who have not finished high school. There is also a regional disparity, arising largely from the high concentration of evangelicals in the South. Three-quarters of southerners say religion is very important, while six-in-ten of those in the East and Midwest agree. Only about half (52%) of people living in the West place great personal importance on religion.

Strong majorities in both political parties believe in the importance of religion. Seven-in-ten Republicans and virtually the same percentage of Democrats (69%) say religion is very important. At the same time, ideological differences concerning the importance of religion cut across partisan lines. Conservative-to-moderate Democrats are about as likely as conservative Republicans to mention religion as very important (75% vs. 73%). Fewer moderate-to-liberal Republicans (63%) cite religion as highly important, and just 55% of liberal Democrats agree.

Religion in Daily Life

When it comes to practicing their faith, Americans show fairly high rates of observance. Six-in-ten attend religious services — not including weddings and funerals — at least once a month, while 43% attend at least weekly. But members of religious and other demographic groups vary widely in practicing their faith, and those who cite religion as very important in their lives are usually — though not always — among the most observant.

Nearly four-in-ten (38%) white evangelical Protestants attend church more than once a week, and another third go once a week. Black evangelicals are also frequent church-goers, with 69% attending church at least once a week. More than eight-in-ten in each group attend church at least once a month.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics report going to church at much lower rates. Just 28% of white mainline Protestants attend services a minimum of once a week and only about half (52%) go at least once a month. Black mainline Protestants are more likely than their white counterparts to attend church regularly; 36% go weekly, and 69% go at least once a month. Among white Catholics, 42% go to church at least once a week (54% traditional, 35% liberal), while 62% attend church at least once a month (73% traditional, 56% liberal).

The differences among religious groups stand out more clearly when respondents are asked if they had attended church in the past week. Overall, slightly less than half of the public (46%) said they attended church in the previous seven days, while 53% said they had not. Seven-in-ten white evangelical Protestants said they had been to church in the past week, more than twice as many as mainline Protestants (32%). The gap is nearly as wide among black Protestants, with two-thirds of evangelicals indicating they had been to church in the previous week, compared to 37% of black mainline Protestants.

Women attend church services much more frequently than men. Among adults age 30-49, for instance, nearly half (49%) of women go to church at least once a week, compared to one-third of men. Among those over age 50, the gap on weekly church attendance is also substantial (58% of women, 43% of men). The gender gap is smaller among those under 30, who attend church somewhat less frequently.

While Republicans and Democrats are equally likely to stress religion as very important in their lives, Republicans attend church somewhat more often. A majority of Republicans (54%) say they attend church at least once a week, compared to 45% of Democrats. Just 29% of independents say they attend services at least weekly.

Although college graduates place less of an emphasis on religion in their personal lives, educational levels are not a factor in church attendance. More than four-in-ten college graduates (43%) go to church at least weekly, about the same percentage of those who attended some college (42%) and high school graduates (45%).

Church Involvement

Americans are involved in a wide range of activities at their churches and houses of worship, beyond simply attending religious services. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) attend prayer group meetings or Bible or scripture study groups at least sometimes. Roughly one-third participate in religious education programs, and a similar proportion do community volunteer work through their place of worship. Nearly as many (28%) work with children or youth at their place of worship.

About one-in-six Americans participate in a church choir or other musical program (17%). Roughly one-in-ten are active in a sports league through their place of worship, and 11% receive child care services through a church-based organization.

The most popular extra-curricular church activity takes place outside of people’s individual churches, mosques and synagogues. Nearly half of all Americans watch religious television or listen to religious radio shows at least sometimes — 20% do so frequently. Only a third of Americans (34%) say they never listen to religious broadcasting.

Not surprisingly, those who are highly committed to their religious faith are among the most likely to participate in many of these church-based activities. This is true both across and within various religious groups.

Women are more likely than men to participate in prayer or Bible study groups and to listen to religious radio and TV. But on a range of other activities, they don’t differ markedly from men. Blacks are more likely than whites to attend prayer groups, listen to religious broadcasts and work with children or youth in their place of worship.

There are significant differences in levels of participation among religious groups — with evangelicals (both white and black) more involved than mainline Protestants and Catholics in a host church-related activities. For example, nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants attend prayer or Bible study groups, compared to 28% of white mainline Protestants. Similarly, 72% of black evangelical Protestants participate in these types of groups, compared to 32% of black mainline Protestants. Both white and black evangelical Protestants are much more likely than their mainline counterparts to do community volunteer work through their churches.

Religious beliefs and practices clearly have an impact on the extent to which people get involved in civic life, beyond the boundaries of church, synagogue or mosque. The poll measured involvement in a variety of non-church volunteer activities ranging from working with the homeless to supporting arts and cultural organizations. In virtually every area, those who are heavily involved in activities at their church or house of worship are among the most likely to volunteer their time to non-church-centered activities. The same can be said of those who are highly committed to their faith, though the differences are not as dramatic.

For example, 39% of those who are highly involved in religiously-based activities, reported having volunteered for a child or youth development program, such as a day care center, school or sports league, in the past month. This compares with 24% who are modestly involved in extracurricular religious activities and only 18% of those with low involvement.

This pattern holds for volunteering to help the poor, sick or homeless; neighborhood and community groups; as well as arts and cultural organizations. The only area where church involvement does not make a significant difference is in political activism. Those who are highly involved in activities at their place of worship are no more likely than average to have volunteered their time to any political organization or candidate either in the past month or the past year.

Prayerful Nation

Even those who cite the importance of religion in their lives can be somewhat inconsistent in their church attendance, but an overwhelming majority of Americans say they pray on a fairly frequent basis. Fully nine-in-ten pray at least once a week, and 59% pray every day or even several times a day. Even a majority of seculars (55%) report praying at least weekly.

While many more people pray weekly than attend services, similar patterns of behavior are present. Roughly eight-in-ten white evangelical Protestants pray daily and 61% pray several times a day. That compares to 45% of white mainline Protestants who pray daily, and 23% who pray several times a day. The differences on this question between black evangelicals and mainline Protestants, and traditional and liberal Catholics are not quite as large.

What may be more striking are the high rates of prayer among people who do not attend church very often. For instance, less than one-third (32%) of men under age 30 say they attend church weekly. But 83% of these younger men pray on a weekly basis, and 43% say they pray daily.