Religious influence in the U.S. is on the wane

At least according to a December Gallup poll:

Two-thirds of U.S. adults today perceive that the influence of religion in American life is waning, while just 27% believe it is rising. This represents a sharp decline in the image of religion compared with only three years ago, when 50% thought its influence was on an upswing, and marks one of the weakest readings on the influence of religion in Gallup’s five-decade history of asking the question.

Of course, it’s easy to see the limitations of this poll at a glance, Just because people think they know what the rest of the country thinks doesn’t mean that they do, and from a functional standpoint, “losing influence” can coexist quite peacefully with “still a powerful force.” The fact that Boston has only about 75% of its all-time peak population of over 800,000 doesn’t mean it’s not a crowded place.


Also, keep in mind that fundies, who presumably formed a considerable fraction of those polled, are never satisfied; anything less than a reorganization if U.S law around Levitican mandates would be sufficient to lead some of them to respond with
As the pollsters note, “this measure of public perceptions about religion has been quite volatile over the forty-plus years of its existence, with shifts in perception often corresponding to major political events.” I wonder what would happen if this poll–conducted before Barack Obama picked Rick Warren to serve as the inaugural’s evil clown– has taken place more recently.
The “bottom line,” according to the poll analysts:

At the close of 2008, few Americans perceive that religion is thriving in U.S. society, and a relatively small majority believe religion is relevant to solving today’s problems. These perceptions may stem in part from the political climate — characterized by a weakened Republican Party and the incoming Democratic administration — as well as from the overwhelming consensus that the main problems facing the country today are economic.
At the same time, a solid majority of Americans (56%), largely unchanged from recent years, say that religion plays a very important role in their own lives. Also, Gallup Poll Daily tracking data shows no decline in the percent of Americans’ self-reported church attendance this year.

The Freethinker out of the U.K. has a story about the poll and what it suggests.

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  1. #1 by yogi-one on January 3, 2009 - 4:07 am

    I think religion, and spirituality in any case, has always been very important for Americans. What we saw in 70s,80s, and 90s was the rise of a faction called Dominionism – a specific subculture of Protestant Christianity (with roots in the Church of England) who furthered the idea that their brand of Christianity should be the foundation for US law, and replace the Constitution, and declare their particular brand of Christianity as the established state religion, some of their leaders even calling for requiring membership in that religion in order to be a US citizen.
    Some of the early Dominionists were very well politically connected, and when the GOP decided to adopt the so-called “Southern Strategy” the two subcultures teamed up to try to dominate American politics, but not with the same goals in mind. Thus you ended up with “Christians” such as Tom Delay, who didn’t go to church at all until he realized what a huge voting block the Christians could be, and “Republicans” who didn’t know much about politics besides their desire to politically institutionalize their religion.
    Finally, America got reminded (again) of the reason why a lot of American pilgrims came here in the first place: to escape the oppression of the Church of England, which at that time had vast influence over the policies of England.
    We were reminded once again of the violent toxicity that results when you mix church and state. Both are compromised. Christians realized that they don’t want their church doing the job of Congress, or the Pentagon’s job, and they don’t want their church to be directing foreign wars, and conducting witch-hunts of other Americans. They don’t want their church to become a bastion of hate-mongering against the world’s other religions.
    That’s when the appeal of the Dominionists began to wane.
    Religion is important to Americans. And they don’t want their religion to be about a Hitler-style quack-agenda for conquering the planet.
    You aren’t seeing the waning of religion. You are seeing the waning of an extremist faction that managed, for a short time, to gain some political traction.

  2. #2 by yogi-one on January 3, 2009 - 4:07 am

    I think religion, and spirituality in any case, has always been very important for Americans. What we saw in 70s,80s, and 90s was the rise of a faction called Dominionism – a specific subculture of Protestant Christianity (with roots in the Church of England) who furthered the idea that their brand of Christianity should be the foundation for US law, and replace the Constitution, and declare their particular brand of Christianity as the established state religion, some of their leaders even calling for requiring membership in that religion in order to be a US citizen.
    Some of the early Dominionists were very well politically connected, and when the GOP decided to adopt the so-called “Southern Strategy” the two subcultures teamed up to try to dominate American politics, but not with the same goals in mind. Thus you ended up with “Christians” such as Tom Delay, who didn’t go to church at all until he realized what a huge voting block the Christians could be, and “Republicans” who didn’t know much about politics besides their desire to politically institutionalize their religion.
    Finally, America got reminded (again) of the reason why a lot of American pilgrims came here in the first place: to escape the oppression of the Church of England, which at that time had vast influence over the policies of England.
    We were reminded once again of the violent toxicity that results when you mix church and state. Both are compromised. Christians realized that they don’t want their church doing the job of Congress, or the Pentagon’s job, and they don’t want their church to be directing foreign wars, and conducting witch-hunts of other Americans. They don’t want their church to become a bastion of hate-mongering against the world’s other religions.
    That’s when the appeal of the Dominionists began to wane.
    Religion is important to Americans. And they don’t want their religion to be about a Hitler-style quack-agenda for conquering the planet.
    You aren’t seeing the waning of religion. You are seeing the waning of an extremist faction that managed, for a short time, to gain some political traction.

  3. #3 by Rob W on January 3, 2009 - 5:36 am

    Another confounding effect is the campaign to portray mainstream religion as “under siege” in the US. The war on Christmas, and so on.
    The more that effort succeeds, the more people will report that religious influence is waning (and perhaps the more likely they will be to want to find some way to defend it).
    This is possibly supported by another question in the poll, which still has only 28% reporting that religion is largely “old-fashioned and out of date”, vs. 53% who believe it “can answer all or most of today’s problems”. The numbers for that question haven’t changed much over the past couple of decades.

  4. #4 by Matt Heath on January 3, 2009 - 10:42 am

    Dominionism – a specific subculture of Protestant Christianity (with roots in the Church of England)

    Citation needed. Dominionism has it’s roots in Anglicanism? That sounds… crazy. Aren’t Dominionists pretty much all Calvinists’

  5. #5 by yogi-one on January 3, 2009 - 1:02 pm

    Matt,
    Whoops, you are right. In America, some Presbyterian churches (though not all of them) have played a role in the rise of the Religious Right (particularly in the South).
    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterian
    In North America, because of past–or current–doctrinal differences, Presbyterian churches often overlap, with congregations of many different Presbyterian groups in any one place. The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC(USA)). Other Presbyterian bodies in the United States include the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, …(and others)
    and
    The territory within about a 50-mile (80 km) radius of Charlotte, North Carolina is historically the greatest concentration of Presbyterianism in the Southern U.S., while an almost-identical geographic area around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania contains probably the largest number of Presbyterians in the entire nation. With their members’ traditional stress on higher education, the largest Presbyterian congregations can often be found in affluent, prestigious “uptown” suburbs of American cities.
    Presbyterians have roots in the church of England, but branched off several hundred years ago (the main roots of Presbyterianism are Scottish, not English). The most conservative sects of Presbyterians do look more to their Calvinist influence than to the Church of England.
    also from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterian
    Presbyterianism is a group of congregations within Calvinism. and Modern Presbyterianism traces its institutional roots back to the Scottish Reformation.
    I was making a link back to the Anglicans through the Presbyterians, but actually, in this context, the correct linkage would be back to the Calvinists.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterian_Church_(U.S.A.)
    The main branches are the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or PC (USA) and the more recent branch the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The EPC has the more conservative agenda, and generally expresses its interest in government through positions on homosexuality, marriage, abortion. Neither the PC (USA) or the EPC has the expressly stated goal of governing with the church, although their ministers have certainly influenced their congregations with sermons and position papers
    http://www.epc.org/about-the-epc/position-papers/

  6. #6 by yogi-one on January 3, 2009 - 1:02 pm

    Matt,
    Whoops, you are right. In America, some Presbyterian churches (though not all of them) have played a role in the rise of the Religious Right (particularly in the South).
    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterian
    In North America, because of past–or current–doctrinal differences, Presbyterian churches often overlap, with congregations of many different Presbyterian groups in any one place. The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC(USA)). Other Presbyterian bodies in the United States include the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, …(and others)
    and
    The territory within about a 50-mile (80 km) radius of Charlotte, North Carolina is historically the greatest concentration of Presbyterianism in the Southern U.S., while an almost-identical geographic area around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania contains probably the largest number of Presbyterians in the entire nation. With their members’ traditional stress on higher education, the largest Presbyterian congregations can often be found in affluent, prestigious “uptown” suburbs of American cities.
    Presbyterians have roots in the church of England, but branched off several hundred years ago (the main roots of Presbyterianism are Scottish, not English). The most conservative sects of Presbyterians do look more to their Calvinist influence than to the Church of England.
    also from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterian
    Presbyterianism is a group of congregations within Calvinism. and Modern Presbyterianism traces its institutional roots back to the Scottish Reformation.
    I was making a link back to the Anglicans through the Presbyterians, but actually, in this context, the correct linkage would be back to the Calvinists.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterian_Church_(U.S.A.)
    The main branches are the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or PC (USA) and the more recent branch the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The EPC has the more conservative agenda, and generally expresses its interest in government through positions on homosexuality, marriage, abortion. Neither the PC (USA) or the EPC has the expressly stated goal of governing with the church, although their ministers have certainly influenced their congregations with sermons and position papers
    http://www.epc.org/about-the-epc/position-papers/

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