March 20, 2002

Americans Struggle with Religion’s Role at Home and Abroad

Part 1: Religion in America

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Americans viewed the country in a new light. Not only did broad measures of patriotism, confidence in government, and concern about the safety of friends and family rise, but the vast majority saw religion playing a significantly greater role in American life. In a mid-November Pew Research Center/Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll, fully 78% said the influence of religion on American life was increasing, a figure that decreased only slightly (to 71%) in a December Gallup poll.

But this perception was relatively short-lived, and now, six months after the attacks, the public’s view of religion’s influence on American life has returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels. Today, just 37% see the influence of religion increasing in America, while 52% say it is in decline. This finding mirrors results from similar Pew Research Center polls in recent years, including one in the spring of 2001, which was conducted with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

This stark turnaround is not a sign that religion is in disfavor, however. As is the case with evaluations of the influence of religion around the world, Americans who think religion is in decline almost unanimously agree that this trend is a bad thing. This view is not limited to the highly religious. Even among seculars and people with weak religious ties, majorities believe America would be better off if religion’s influence were on the rise.

America Is Protected, So Are Others

Nearly half of Americans (48%) think that the United States has had special protection from God for most of its history. Four-in-ten take the opposite view, that America has had no special divine protection. The perception that America has special status clearly links to religious beliefs. Seven-in-ten (71%) white evangelical Protestants believe this to be true, compared with just four-in-ten white mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics. And within all religious groups, those with the deepest religious commitment are the most likely to believe the U.S. has a special status.

Yet there is a strong sense that the United States is not alone in receiving special protection from God. Fully 76% of those who say the U.S. receives special protection also say that other nations receive the same protection from God. This viewpoint is consistent across all religious, political, and demographic lines.

The public also overwhelmingly rejects the notion that the terror attacks were a signal that God is no longer protecting America as much as in the past. Just 5% believe this is true, while 91% say it is not. Even among highly committed evangelical Protestants ­ who are most likely to say that the United States has received special divine protection ­ just 12% see the terrorist attacks as a signal that God is no longer protecting the nation as much as in the past.

Religion’s Role in America

Not only do many Americans believe that God protects the U.S., most see the religious belief of the American public as the basis for this country’s success. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) think the strength of American society is based on the religious faith of its people. Just over a third (36%) take the opposing view, that the society would be strong even if most Americans did not have a religious faith.

Not surprisingly, a person’s own religious beliefs, and the strength of those beliefs, shape these views. More than eight-in-ten (83%) white evangelical Protestants say religious faith is at the core of America’s strength, compared with 57% and 58% of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, respectively. Within each of these groups, highly committed people are much more likely than those with low religious commitment to subscribe to this view.

Overall, just 49% of Hispanics say the nation’s strength is based on the religious faith of its people, fewer than either African-Americans (69%) or whites (58%). But Hispanics with strong religious commitment are twice as likely as those with weaker ties to religion to see religious faith as an essential part of American society (64% to 31%).

Although most people believe that religious faith underlies America’s strength, very few see faith as a prerequisite to being a good citizen. Fully 84% say a person can be a good American if he or she does not have religious faith, while just 13% disagree. White evangelicals and African-Americans are slightly more likely to see religion as a requirement for being a good American; but even among these groups, only about one-in-five take this position. Similarly, while two-thirds consider the United States to be a Christian nation, just 14% say it is essential that a person believe in basic Judeo-Christian values in order to be a good American, while eight-in-ten take the opposite view.

Religion and Morality

Although there is agreement that faith is not a mandatory component of good citizenship, the public is split over whether it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Half say it is not necessary to believe in God in order to have good values, while 47% say that it is.

However, there is more of a sense that religion is central to the moral development of children. Six-in-ten (61%) say that children are more likely to grow up to be moral adults when they are raised in a religious faith, while 35% take the alternate view that children are just as likely to develop morals whether or not they are raised in a religious environment.

White evangelical Protestants strongly believe that religious faith is both an essential component of values and important for children. White mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics are far less unified on these issues. While 62% of white evangelicals say one must believe in God in order to be moral, just 39% of white mainline Protestants and 42% of white Catholics agree. More than eight-in-ten (85%) white evangelical Protestants say children are better off when raised religiously, compared with 60% and 63% of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, respectively, and 66% of black Protestants.

Overall, 87% of those who are highly observant say children raised in a religious faith are more likely to grow up to be moral adults. Among those with weak religious commitment, just 38% hold this view, while a 59% majority says children are just as likely to develop morals without religion. This “commitment gap” is particularly strong among white mainline Protestants and white Catholics.

More Than One Path

While many hold the view that religious faith is important in the development of good values, Americans are open to the idea that many religions can provide a moral foundation and lead to eternal life. Three-quarters of the public say many religions can lead to eternal life, while just 18% think their own religion is the only way to achieve eternal life.

The level of Americans’ commitment to this ecumenical position is seen across all religious faiths and backgrounds. Even the most strongly committed evangelical Protestants are evenly divided (48%-48%) over whether their faith is the only route to eternal life or not.

Atheists and ‘Non-religious’

Americans are relatively positive about people of other faiths, but they tend to look more negatively at those without faith. Atheists, in particular, are viewed unfavorably by a 54% majority, with people in the South and Midwest taking an especially negative view.

However, when people are asked for their view of people who are not religious ­ rather than atheists ­ the response is more positive. Roughly half (51%) say they feel favorably toward the non-religious, with 30% expressing an unfavorable opinion. This is comparable to public opinion about Muslims in the survey.

Morals in Decline

Over the past half-century, there has been a steadily growing sense that people in this country, especially young people, lack the morals that they once had. In 1952, half of Americans saw no decline in public morals, and 57% said young people had as strong a sense of right and wrong as did the youth fifty years previously. Today, just 21% think Americans on the whole are as honest and moral as in the past, and an equally small number (19%) think that young people have the same sense of right and wrong as 50 years ago.

Young people themselves do not disagree with this characterization. While somewhat more likely than their elders to stand up for their generation’s inherent morality, 69% of Americans under age 30 think young people lack the same sense of right and wrong that existed fifty years ago.

Where the Young Differ

Whether younger generations actually lack the morals and honesty of their predecessors or not, there is strong evidence that they do view religion as less essential ­ both to the nation’s strength and to individual morality ­ than do their elders. A clear majority of Americans age 30 and older (62%) believe the strength of American society is based on the religious faith of its people; just 46% of younger people agree, with the other half (52%) saying our society would be strong even if most did not have religious faith.

Half of those under age 30 believe children are just as likely to grow up to be moral adults whether or not they are raised in a religious faith. By more than two-to-one, older Americans take the view that religion increases the likelihood that a child will develop morals rather than this more secular viewpoint. The gap is less pronounced, though still substantial, over whether it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. In a similar vein, 42% of young people have a favorable opinion of atheists, compared with just 18% of those age 65 and older.

But this does not mean that younger Americans think religion is irrelevant. Three-quarters of Americans under age 30 who think religion is losing its influence in America say that this is a bad trend, and an equal proportion of those who think religion’s influence is increasing say this is a good trend.

Values Unite Blacks, Evangelicals

Black Protestants take a liberal approach on economic issues, such as increased aid for the poor and the root causes of child poverty. But in terms of religious values, black Protestants share much in common with white evangelical Protestants ­ the most conservative religious group. (The majority of black Protestants are evangelicals. Due to small sample size, black evangelical and mainline Protestants are combined in a single category).

Solid majorities of white evangelicals (71%) and black Protestants (60%) agree that the United States has special protection from God; pluralities of white mainline Protestants and Catholics believe that the U.S. receives no special divine protection. In a similar vein, more than six-in-ten black Protestants and white evangelicals think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person; most white mainline Protestants and Catholics disagree.

Black Protestants and white evangelicals have much less common ground politically, but there are points of agreement. About one-third in each group say churches should endorse political candidates; far fewer white mainline Protestants and Catholics agree. And like white evangelical Protestants, black Protestants are somewhat more likely to support government programs to encourage marriage.

Yes to Flag-Waving

The public is generally comfortable with the displays of patriotism and public expressions of religious faith that followed in the wake of Sept. 11. Just 16% say there has been too much showing of the flag; an equal proportion (16%) say there has been too little, with two-thirds saying current flag displays are appropriate. The proportion who think there is too much flag-waving, while relatively small, appears to be growing. Last October, just 8% held this view.

Similarly, few Americans are bothered by post-9/11 expressions of religious faith by political leaders. Just 16% say politicians refer to religion too much, with the rest thinking that current levels of religious expression by politicians are either appropriate (53%), or insufficient (24%).

As with reactions to the showing of the American flag, these views have not changed a great deal over the past six months. Seculars make up the only group that is even marginally troubled by the religious tone of political speech, but even among those who have no religious affiliation, just 32% say politicians refer to faith and prayer too much these days. At the other end of the spectrum, a significant proportion of white evangelical Protestants (35%) and black Protestants (37%) would like to hear more expressions of faith and prayer by political leaders.