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Polling Matters
Religion and Drinking Alcohol in the U.S.
Polling Matters

Religion and Drinking Alcohol in the U.S.

Americans who attend religious services weekly are less likely than others to drink alcohol, reflecting the centuries-old connection in American history between religion and the perceived immorality of drinking.

As my colleague Lydia Saad recently pointed out in her annual review of Gallup's trends on drinking, the percentage of Americans in general who say they "have occasion to use alcohol" has remained remarkably steady over the years that Gallup has tracked the measure. The percentage of U.S. adults (aged 18 and older) who say they consume alcohol has averaged 63% since Gallup first asked the question in 1939 and is at 65% this year.

That leaves 34% who say they are total abstainers, roughly the same as the average of 36.5% measured since 1939. Being a total abstainer (or a "teetotaler," the colorful term that originated in the temperance movement to describe those who don't drink any alcoholic beverages) varies modestly by a number of traditional demographic variables. Older adults, women, those with lower levels of education, blacks and Hispanics are more likely than others to abstain.

But one of the most significant predictors of drinking alcohol, and my interest in this column, is religion. Using an aggregate of our last six years of asking Americans about their drinking habits, we find a basic inverse linear relationship between drinking and church attendance. Those who attend weekly -- the devoutly religious -- are clearly in a class of their own when it comes to abstention. Half of this group are total abstainers, well above the national average and particularly higher than the 29% who are total abstainers among those who never attend church.

Also, among the group of Americans who admit to drinking at least occasionally, highly religious Americans drink less frequently and are less likely to report drinking too much on occasion.

Differences Among Religious Groups and Drinking

Among America's major religious groupings, Jews and "Nones" (those who say they have no formal religious identity) are more likely than average to say they drink alcohol, while those who identify with a non-Christian religion are below average. Protestants are also slightly below average, while Catholics are slightly above average.

Eighteen percent of Americans who identify as Latter-day Saints (Mormons) say they have occasion to drink alcohol -- far below the national average, but not insignificant given that the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states that "the use of wine, strong drinks, tobacco and hot drinks is proscribed."

Gallup's annual Consumption Habits survey does not include a specific measure of evangelicals, but we can isolate highly religious white Protestants to approximate this group. About 53% of highly religious white Protestants are total abstainers, much higher than the national average.

Southern Baptists, one of the most prominent evangelical groups in America, have traditionally been associated with an anti-alcohol position. Many a young Southern Baptist grew up hearing admonitions against "demon rum," the historic temperance aphorism that "lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine" and the Biblical quote from the book of Proverbs: "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise."

An official Southern Baptist resolution adopted at the group's 2006 annual convention proclaimed "our total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing and consuming of alcoholic beverages" and "we urge that no one be elected to serve as a trustee or member of any entity or committee of the Southern Baptist Convention that is a user of alcoholic beverages." This is important because Southern Baptists remain the largest Protestant denomination in America, and as such serve as an exemplar of the historic alcohol-religion connection among Protestants. We don't break out Southern Baptists in our research, but a recent survey sponsored by LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, showed that about a third of Baptists nationwide admitted to drinking alcohol.

The Complex Origins of the Relationship Between Religion and Alcohol

The origins of the historically strong connection between religiosity and alcohol abstinence (particularly among fundamentalist Protestant groups) is complex and beyond the scope of this column to review. The connection reflects cultural and regional developments and the influence of specific religious leaders as much as it reflects adherence to straight Biblical doctrine. In fact, the Bible does not provide a definitive basis for total abstinence. The use of alcohol is prevalent throughout the Bible, including Jesus' first miracle in which he turned water into wine, and verses such as Psalms 104 in which the Scripture says that God gave us wine that "gladdens men's hearts."

Biblical or not, the impact of highly religious groups on the nation's drinking patterns has been very real. Religious groups -- including in particular the Women's Christian Temperance Union -- were largely responsible for the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol from 1920 until the amendment was repealed in 1933.

Not Just Behavior: Religion Affects Views of Moral Acceptability

Gallup's Values and Beliefs survey asks Americans whether each of a long list of behaviors is morally acceptable or morally wrong. A review of the results from 2018 and 2019 shows a modest relationship between church attendance and finding "drinking alcohol" morally acceptable. Sixty-five percent of those who attend religious services weekly say that it is acceptable, compared with the overall average of 79% and the 85% average among those who never attend church.

We find the same relationship among Protestant weekly churchgoers, the closest analog we have to evangelicals. Six in 10 members of this group say they believe drinking alcohol is morally acceptable.

Highly Religious More Distinct on Abortion, LGBT Issues Than on Alcohol

As noted, the gap in views of the morality of drinking between those who are highly religious and those who are not is not huge. A clear majority of weekly church attenders still believe drinking is morally acceptable.

The 20-percentage-point difference in views of the morality of drinking between those who attend weekly and those who never attend church is in fact dwarfed by other issues. The biggest gaps between those who attend every week and those who never attend (45 points or more) are found for views on the moral acceptability of sex between unmarried men and women, gay and lesbian relations, abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, pornography, and having a baby outside of marriage.

In other words, drinking is no longer the moral and political issue it once was, as other issues -- namely abortion and gay and lesbian relations -- have taken their place as major causes activating and animating the Religious Right.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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