A majority of Americans — 72 percent — see religion's influence in society waning, and many say that's a bad thing, a study released Monday reveals. The number is the highest since the Pew Research Center began measuring the question in 2001.
Overall, 56 percent of those surveyed expressed disappointment with the decline of religious influence; among those who are concerned about the trend, researchers found 77 percent of white evangelicals, 66 percent of white mainline Protestants and 65 percent of black Protestants holding that view.
And 49 percent of those Americans surveyed by Pew want to see churches take a stand on public issues and in political campaigns, a figure up six points since the 2010 midterm elections.
According to Gregory A. Smith, Pew's associate director of research, a sense of disenfranchisement among religiously minded Americans has led to the call for church involvement.
"Most people — and in fact a growing share of people — think that religion's influence is waning, and they tend to view that as a very negative thing," he told the Deseret News in a telephone interview. "They push back against it, and the desire to see it involved in politics is growing."
Pew said it conducted the survey between Sept. 2-9 among 2,002 adults. Release of the data comes approximately six weeks before the 2014 midterm elections, in which all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and 33 United States Senate seats, will be contested. At present, control of the Congress is split, with Democrats in the Senate majority and Republicans controlling the House. On state ballots, 36 state governorships are up for grabs.
Pew, an independent and nonpartisan research group, reported that the number of Americans who claim there has been “too little” expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders is "up modestly," from 37 percent to 41 percent, since 2012.
Support for church involvement doesn't necessarily translate into the additional step of making political endorsements. Pew found that 32 percent of Americans "believe churches should endorse candidates for political office, though most continue to oppose such direct involvement by churches in electoral politics," the report said.
Strong beliefs important
Not surprisingly for a country that has been polarized on religious issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration, gaps in opinion between those who are church members and those who are not remain.
"The findings reflect a widening divide between religiously affiliated Americans and the rising share of the population that is not affiliated with any religion (sometimes called the 'nones')," Pew reported. Those "nones" are the ones most likely to object to religious involvement in public affairs, Pew said.
The "nones," Smith added, remain "conflicted about whether religion's waning influence is a bad thing," with about half worried that a decline in religious influence is bad for society.
"The nones are not necessarily non-religious," Smith said. Many who say they are unaffiliated with a religious group "believe in God, but just don't identify with any particular religion."
According to the survey, 59 percent of Americans "say it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs," similar to numbers found in 2010. Also, Pew found 47 percent of Americans view the Republican Party as friendly toward religion, while only 29 percent say the Democratic Party is faith-friendly.
Pew added that only 30 percent of Americans believe "the Obama administration is friendly toward religion, down 7 points since 2009."
A growing partisan divide is evident from the study. "Majorities of black Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated continue to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, and say they would vote for the Democratic congressional candidate in their district this fall," Pew reported. "At the other end of the spectrum, white evangelical Protestants continue to support the Republican Party and the Republican candidate in their congressional district."
However, the group added, "the new poll finds some signs of discontent within the GOP among its supporters."
Those supporters fault the GOP for not doing a good job conveying its views on same-sex marriage and illegal immigration, while evangelical Republicans want the party "to move in a more conservative direction on all of these issues," Pew reported.
Gay issues surveyed
On the hot-button issue of same-sex marriage, 49 percent of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage, with 41 percent opposed, figures Pew said represent a 5-point drop in support from a February 2014 poll, but about the same as a June 2013 canvass.
Since the earlier Pew survey, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed federal benefits for same-sex couples, and declined to hear an appeal of earlier rulings on California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. In response to that ruling a number of states, including Utah, have seen their same-sex marriage bans tossed by federal judges; most of those rulings are on appeal.
The high court also declined to hear a case involving a wedding photographer who declined to photograph a same-sex wedding, citing religious objections.
"It is too early to know if this modest decline (in support) is an anomaly or the beginning of a reversal or leveling off in attitudes toward gay marriage after years of steadily increasing public acceptance," Pew stated in announcing the numbers.
The Pew report added that 50 percent of the American public "now considers homosexuality a sin, up from 45 percent a year ago."
As to the controversial question of whether businesses should be compelled to serve same-sex couples when this conflicts with owners' beliefs, Pew found "nearly half of U.S. adults think that businesses like caterers and florists should be allowed to reject same-sex couples as customers if the businesses have religious objections to serving those couples."