Gallup has recorded declines in church attendance, belief that the Bible is the literal word of God, belief in various spiritual entities and more. What can we glean from our larger body of research about Americans’ relationship with faith and religion? Gallup Senior Scientist Dr. Frank Newport rejoins the podcast to opine on Gallup’s trends.
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Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:11
For Gallup, I’m Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we welcome back a familiar voice to our listeners -- Gallup senior scientist and founding host of this podcast, Dr. Frank Newport. Frank, welcome back to your audio home, my friend.
Frank Newport 00:25
Well, it is my pleasure to be back with you, Mohamed.
Mohamed Younis 00:28
It’s so great to hear your voice and, and have you here back on the podcast to talk about the shifting trends in religious identity here in the United States -- how people identify their religious life, feelings, existence, attitudes. One of the major trends that we've been following and you've done a great job rounding up for us recently, Frank, is this relationship with faith and religion and kind of what's changing at the macro level in America. Can you take us through what we see?
Frank Newport 00:59
Yeah, happy to do that. It's a very fascinating topic and one that many, many people, including us at Gallup and myself, have been looking at. I’m going to tell you one thing, which is, historical context is needed here. You know, we've had religion for as long as we have recorded history. Christianity, which is the dominant religion in the U.S., of course, was founded over 2,000 years ago and, and the U.S. itself was founded by people who came here to practice a variance or various variants of Christianity in the 1700s. Yet we are looking at now, when we talk about these things, mainly at statistics that we have since the 1950s, when Gallup and then others started measuring them. So when we're saying, oh, here's the trends in religion that we're looking at over time, I think we have to keep in mind we're looking at a pretty narrow scope.
Frank Newport 01:44
And in fact, scholars tell us who go back and look at historical evidence for the United States from the 1750s and the 1800s and up to World War II, America was pretty irreligious. If we had had Gallup surveys going back to 1723, for example, we might have found very low levels of the kind of things we're gonna be talking about here in those decades and in those years. So we have to put that in context. Religion in America is waves -- you go up and go down. We've had big revivals and other things along those lines. So we're looking kind of microscopically now at what we have data on. And the bottom line there is that our indicators, a number of indicators we have about religiosity based on our surveys and some other data show that we have a decline in religiosity on these indicators in the U.S. over the last, probably, I would say, the last decade at least, but maybe began to be seen before that.
Mohamed Younis 02:37
In terms of those indicators, we did a really great look at people's belief in, for example, the Bible being the literal word of God. We also looked at people's beliefs here in the United States in terms of various spiritual entities. So there's really so many ways to ask about this topic, particularly in a society that, you know, espouses and, and cherishes religious freedom. One of the things, Frank, that I learned from you back in the day was this notion of the rise of the “nones.” And by “nones,” we mean not wonderful people who work in a religious institution, but by people who say they have no religious affiliation. Has that rise continued, or has it a slow down a bit?
Frank Newport 03:19
Yeah. Good question. Depends on the indicator you look at. By the way, Mohamed, we also have the nons -- n-o-n-s, some scholars look at now, which are Protestants who don't affiliate with a denomination but are nondenominational. So we have the nones and the nons, and then we have the Catholic order of the n-u-n-s nuns. So you have to be real careful about your nomenclature. We had in the 1950s, when Gallup asked these questions, which is basically, “What is your religion? Are you Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or something else or, or nothing?” We had virtually everybody -- I'm talking about everybody. In some surveys in the ‘50s at Gallup, we had 100% who identified with something -- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish mainly, back then. And in other surveys, like just a few percent who were nones. But in the, the key rise of the nones that everybody talks about now -- there are books published about this now -- has been in the last 10 to 20 years, we've had an increasing percent who, in response to that question, “What is your religion?” will now say, “None of the above” or “Nones.” Our latest Gallup data show it's about 20% to 22% of Americans, 18+ population, when we ask that famous question, will say “None.” Other surveys actually show it somewhat higher than that, up in the 20s and even in the high 20s. But our Gallup numbers clearly show it in the, in the 20% range. We've seen kind of a leveling off in the last few years. Other surveys have shown kind of bumps up and down. But, but the big picture is the nones -- people who say they don't have a religious identity -- has been increasing over the last couple of decades very significantly.
Mohamed Younis 04:51
What about religious service attendance, Frank? That's something we've been asking about. And, you know, we’ve asked about in a series of ways over the years. Lately, of course, virtual religious attendance is also part of this reality. Have you gleaned anything about a changing relationship with overall attendance and people's religious identification?
Frank Newport 05:10
Yeah. You know, I can say more globally that almost any indicator we ask about -- religious attendance; as you mentioned earlier, belief in God, angels and devils, heaven and hell; having an official religious identity; being a member of a church, and so and so forth -- all of those have gone down. So any measure that we or other researchers have of church attendance, religious service attendance, has been declining, even before the pandemic. Now, in the pandemic, everything was turned upside down. We had some surveys in the early months of the pandemic, in 2020, when we had, virtually no one said they were attending church in person. But a significant percent said they were attending virtually -- almost replacing the percent who had said they were attending in person previously. So we did have this big change. And a lot of churches -- and other religious entities -- for the first time in their history started to go online, so to speak, and make their services available.
Frank Newport 06:03
So the question has been, is that going to continue? Once people get a taste, so to speak, of sitting at their dining room table going to church and not having to put on fancy clothes and going to church, would they continue with that? And our data show that the percent who say they go virtually has dropped back down again, and the percent who say they’ve gone in person has certainly come way back up again, to about -- putting the two together, we’re about where we were prior to the pandemic. Some other researchers have actually shown a higher percent who say they worship virtually. So I think people are going back to church in person, in answer to the question, but probably virtually worshiping is here to stay.
Mohamed Younis 06:42
Well, Frank, one thing that we share a lot in common, but one thing that we both share in common is we’re both sociologists at heart and in our paradigm. When we come back, I’m going to ask you a little bit more about the political side of this. How can one define and measure the almighty term, evangelicals? And how has the increased involvement of religious and religious identity in politics impacted people’s perceptions of religions and their religious identity? We’ll take a short break, and we’ll be right back.
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Mohamed Younis 08:25
We’re back with Frank Newport, talking about the shifts in religious identity and identification here in the United States. Frank, before our break, I asked you about defining the term evangelicals. It’s such a huge and important term, not only in American life but also in American politics. How have you defined it in your research and in the work we’ve done for decades here at Gallup?
Frank Newport 08:50
Well, the way I defined it is to look at how other people have defined it, and there is no definitive way to define evangelical, and that’s part of the problem. In fact, I even have said in some things I’ve written, we ought to abandon the term altogether. Because it’s an amorphous term, extremely commonly used term, and yet a term that there’s no agreement on, on exactly how to measure it or who these people are. Clearly, it’s a Protestant group. By Protestant, I mean Christians in the U.S. who are not Catholic. And we can trace this back, and historians have traced this back, all the way to the 1700s and 1800s, a group of these Protestants who came to be defined as evangelicals because of certain beliefs and practices over the years. And that kind of tradition has continued on into the 20th century, and now into the 21st century. But the term has shifted and moved, and we’re not sure who they are or how to define them.
Frank Newport 09:39
There are three ways typically that people define them. One is by denomination. For example, the denomination I was raised in was Southern Baptist in Texas, where I grew up. So, many people would say, “Well, what’s your denomination, if you’re a Protestant?” And if you say, “Southern Baptist,” along with a number of others, they’d say, “Aha! You’re an evangelical.” But that’s not good. Because there are a lot of Southern Baptists -- which is still the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. -- who are not evangelical, based on some of the kind of criteria that we might want to use. So you can’t kind of take the denomination and apply it to people. And also, it’s too time-consuming to do research on. So I think that’s one issue there with that, with that way of defining evangelicals.
Frank Newport 10:22
The other way is beliefs. You give people a long list of things, “Do you believe the Bible is literally true?” You mentioned that earlier. “Do you believe that you should go out and try to win other souls for Christ?” “Have you been born again or had a born-again experience?” Some researchers have as many as nine of those kind of theological statements that one has to agree with to be defined as an evangelical. Other groups say, “Well, no, no, no, no. There are just four of these statements you need to agree with.” But that’s confusing itself. It’s a good effort. A theologian can sit around and argue, like, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin -- about which those questions, what those questions should be. But nevertheless, there’s not necessarily agreement on what they are. So that’s a hard way to measure evangelicals. Also, by the way, it’s impractical in most surveys. Surveys are always tight on time, and it’s hard to ask people a series of nine questions in every survey you do, in order to define evangelicals.
Frank Newport 11:14
The third way to do it, and the most common, is just to ask self-identity, as we call it. The Gallup question we’ve asked over the years is, “Are you evangelical or born again?” And if they say, “Yes,” we say “Aha! They’re an evangelical.” But recent research that we’ve done at Gallup -- and we’ve published some articles on this -- and some other researchers, including Michele Margolis of the University of Pennsylvania, a political scientist who’s done a lot of research on this, have shown that that’s confusing. People -- many, many more people say they’re born again if you ask it separately than say they’re evangelical. So that’s a classic double-barrel question when you put it together, and you get a confusing group of people there as well. So, bottom line here is I think we don’t know who these evangelicals are. They’re more orthodox Protestants is one way of looking at it -- a group of people who may share certain kinds of beliefs. They’re more conservative in their beliefs. But exactly who they are and how many of them there are, we don’t know for sure -- in answer to your question.
Mohamed Younis 12:09
And I love how you, and I love how you break this down, Frank, because this is something you -- more than, really, anybody I can think of -- you wrote a book about this. And throughout the past 30 to 40 years, there have been moments where evangelicals seem to have had a very important role in American politics, American political campaigning. I think the major question most of our listeners are thinking are has that group’s influence increased or decreased in this time period? Is it on the way up? Is it declining? How do you, Frank, get your mind around that question? Obviously, it’s not a very simple question to answer. But as a researcher, how do you, how do you try to look at that objectively?
Frank Newport 12:52
Well, it's, it's an excellent question. And I would say, yes, the influence of this group -- however, we define it -- has increased, for a number of reasons. The data clearly show, in all of our Gallup research and every other bit of research, that people who, no matter how you do it, you define as more orthodox Protestants (that is, more, people who are more conservative in their beliefs or, using the methods we just talked about, are evangelical) are much, much, much, much more likely to be Republican in political orientation than other Protestants -- so-called mainline Protestants, which would be Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist and Lutheran, and so forth. Much more likely to be Republican in their political identification, their partisanship. And therefore -- and this is what's become very famous since 2015, 2016 -- they’re much, much more likely to support Donald Trump for president in, in both 2016 and 2020. And now, here we are, 2023. It doesn't take much research to look at news articles, where everybody's saying, what's gonna happen to the evangelical vote? Mike Pence -- himself defined as an evangelical -- is out looking for that vote; DeSantis in Iowa looking for the evangelical vote; Trump trying to keep the evangelical vote, and so on and so forth. So I would say, the influence of these Protestants, more -- however we want to define it; orthodox, conservative, more religious Protestants -- in the political sphere has increased. And that is a very important demographic segment that any political consultant would tell you a Republican candidate in particular needs to go after.
Mohamed Younis 14:25
The other thing listeners should know that Frank and I share in common is we both grew up in a com, comparative, pretty religious environment. They’re very different but very religious environment. And one of the questions that really always fascinates me is how the, the brand of religion and religiosity, how the general public views religious identity is impacted by its involvement in national politics. And I ask that because, as you know more than most, Americans are really down on national politics. It's not a source of high levels of pride or excitement or joy for them. To what degree do you think Americans kind of turning away from religious identity is related to, in some degree, to its increasing involvement in politics in America?
Frank Newport 15:12
Yeah. That’s, that’s a good hypothesis. You know, there’s a broad question, which is why are we seeing the decline in religiosity -- these religious indicators that we’ve been talking about? And certainly, one theory is the so-called backlash theory. And there is actually some evidence -- you can find researchers who’ve done experiments and other types of research that can, they say can document with data that there is this backlash effect. That people, particularly young people, people who are not themselves in this more conservative, Protestant segment of the American population are less likely to be religious, because when they think of religion, they think of this group of people who have these very strong beliefs politically and also have very strong and strident beliefs on social and political issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion and others of these high-valence moral values issues.
Frank Newport 16:00
So I think that’s a very reasonable hypothesis that has some data to support it -- that we may be seeing some pullback from people willing to define themselves as religious or being religious because when they think now of religion, they think of this political aspect of that aspect of, of Protestant religion. And I might add, we’ve had, for Catholics, the priest scandals, among other things. So there are certainly people who, when they think of religion, not only think of what we’ve been talking about, in terms of Protestant evangelicals, but they think of what’s been happening in the Catholic church with the priests and all of the allegations and findings of fact about their sexual involvement with parishioners, and so forth. So all of that, together, I think, is a pretty reasonable aspect -- one brick in the wall, so to speak, of the explanation for why we’re seeing a decline in religiosity.
Mohamed Younis 16:54
Moving away from politics, Frank, I want to close with a really important topic you've also really studied deeply over the years, which is this connection, at least on the individual level -- and I know there's research to, to, that shows the opposite at the group level. But at least at the individual level, there seems to be a relationship between religiosity -- however hard it is to define that when we went through those points -- but religiosity and wellbeing. Can you tell us a little bit about that connection and, and what you’ve found, what the data show?
Frank Newport 17:23
It's extremely well-documented. There are not all that many well-documented facts in social science and in our survey research, but there is an extraordinary amount of data, extraordinary amount of data which shows that there is at the least a correlation -- notice I said “correlation,” not “causation”; come back to that in a minute. But there is at least a correlation between people who are more deeply religious and wellbeing and happiness. It extends across a number of measures and another type of measures and, of course, there are qualifications and what have you. But that's an extraordinarily strong finding in the data. I think one of your guests on the podcast, Dan Witters -- Gallup's wellbeing expert -- and I did research on this 10 or 15 years ago, using Gallup data, where we had hundreds of thousands of interviews in our Gallup tracking a while back, and we isolated exactly the same thing. So it's an extraordinarily well-documented finding. Now, is there causation? That, of course, is the question. You know, maybe it's that happier people choose to be religious. But the people who’ve tried to look at the causal era, I think -- arrow; a-r-r-o-w -- can show some evidence that in fact, the, the relationship goes between becoming religious, being religious and having higher, more favorable outcomes on measures of wellbeing and happiness.
Mohamed Younis 18:38
You mentioned topics of high valence, and I thought that was a really brilliant way to put it. The transgender issues around state laws, schooling, sports, etc., suddenly seem to be coming up a lot more in the national discourse than they were just a couple months ago. And it seems like it's increasing as we get closer to the primary season. How do attitudes about things like the rights of transgender individuals play into this larger conversation about religion and politics? It's fascinating to me to feel like that was kind of behind us with same-sex marriage and attitudes about same-gender relations. But attitudes about transgender rights are notably different and less accepting at the national level than attitudes about those other facets. How have you been kind of grappling with this issue and its reemergence?
Frank Newport 19:36
As you say, same-sex marriage, which was extremely controversial as recently as two decades ago, our data show in Gallup, we're now up to two-thirds, basically, maybe a little less, of Americans who say yes, same-sex marriage should be legally valid. And that's a huge turnaround in our data. So that's, that's moved on. Transgender issues in all of their complexity are certainly in the battlefield of ideas and, and contention at the moment. As I mentioned earlier, there's a strong relationship between being very religious and being Republican in general. And that's, I call that the R and R relationship -- religious equals Republican. And Republicans tend to be conservative, and conservatives tend to adhere to what we would call traditional norms about moral and values issues. And that would be more the norm for heterosexual marriage and, you know, gender identity that's the same as, as birth sex and so forth is what they would say is a conservative position they adhere to. So religion is, is inter, interspersed into all of this discussion on any new issue that comes up, when it relates to these kind of things that, that have this conservative position on them.
Frank Newport 20:43
That's a fascinating discussion in and of itself, because we're seeing a decline in a lot of norms in society that used to be prevalent. And, and religion used to be the force behind a lot of norms. Why should we not have sex before marriage? Well, in many religions, it's the religious or theological, biblical basis for that that is used as the justification to young people. Right. Wait, and so on and so forth. Well, if religion is beginning to crumble, then the enforcement of these kind of norms crumble at the same time. So religious people are trying to hold on to their traditional belief in, in norms and traditions, and so forth. And yet we're seeing society itself is shifting in those dimensions. So there's a very complex interrelationship, I think, between all of this.
Mohamed Younis 21:31
Absolutely. And there's so much all of us are learning, really, about this topic, even in the way we ask about transgender rights. I mean, I know on our team, we've been really thinking about how to better get at a, a question set that understands and is more informed by the realities that these communities are experiencing. There's no better person to unpack this topic with than Frank Newport. He is Gallup senior scientist and former editor in chief of The Gallup Poll. Frank, it's such an honor to have you back on the show, sir.
Frank Newport 22:02
Well, it’s great to be with you again. Look forward to talking some more. It’s a very, very important and fascinating topic, I think. Religion in any society is important, but obviously, for our interests here, it’s particularly important in the U.S.
Mohamed Younis 22:13
Thanks for being here. That's our show. Thanks for tuning in. For more from Gallup, go to news.gallup.com and sign up for our newsletter, Front Page, where we break down all that Gallup is learning across the globe in one weekly email. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.