PRINCETON, NJ -- 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.
The percentage of Americans saying religion, as a whole, is increasing its influence on American life was 50% in April 2005, 39% in May 2006, 34% in May 2007, and 30% in May 2008. The 27% recorded in the new Dec. 4-7 Gallup Poll thus marks a continuation of the recent downward trend.
The current weak image of religion stands on par with the low ebb recorded in the first half of the Clinton administration in the mid 1990s, but is still not quite as low as it was during the late 1960s and Vietnam War. The record low came in a 1970 Gallup Poll when only 14% of Americans said religion was increasing in influence at that time, while 75% thought it was losing influence.
Indeed, 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.
The pinnacle for perceptions of religious clout came in Gallup's initial asking of the question in March 1957. At that time, 69% of Americans thought religion was gaining in societal influence while only 14% saw it declining -- resulting in a net 55 percentage point advantage for those saying the influence of religion was increasing. This was nearly matched in a December 2001 Gallup Poll -- just three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- in which 71% said religious influence was increasing and 24% decreasing -- a net 47-point advantage to those saying religious influence was on the rise.
After a long period of doubt about the influence of religion during the Vietnam War era -- from 1965 through 1975 -- a December 1976 Gallup Poll found nearly as many Americans saying religion was increasing in influence, as disagreed (44% vs. 45%). This relative high point for perceptions that religion was on the rise could have been associated with the election a month earlier of Jimmy Carter as president, an avowed born-again Christian.
Religion rose even higher in perceived prominence in the 1980s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, when religious conservatism -- also known as the "religious right" was in ascendance as a potent political force. From 1983 to 1986, Gallup consistently recorded more Americans perceiving religion to be on the rise than in decline.
Given this historical context, it is possible that the recent decline in perceptions that religion is increasing in influence is partially a result of the decline of Republican political strength throughout President George W. Bush's second term, a trend that was punctuated by the election of Democrat Barack Obama last month.
Large majorities of all gender, age, and political groups perceive religion to be losing influence, but that view is higher among men than women (70% vs. 64%) and is particularly prevalent among regular attendees of their church or other place of worship.
Is Religion Old-Fashioned?
Public perceptions about the influence of religion have varied widely over the last half-century, and may be more a reflection of changing political realities than of personal beliefs about religion. However, the new poll also finds the percentage of Americans believing that religion can answer society's problems is at an all-time low. Although still a majority, just 53% of Americans say religion "can answer all or most of today's problems." While 28% say it is "largely old-fashioned and out of date."
The current 53% affirming religion as a relevant tool for solving today's problems is not much different from the 55% recorded a year ago, but is below the 57% to 66% range seen earlier this decade. It comes at a time when the vast majority of Americans perceive the U.S. economy to be the nation's greatest challenge -- and perhaps one that religion is not particularly well suited to address.
The vast majority of Americans who attend church or another worship service weekly (82%) say religion can answer today's problems, as do 59% of those attending at least monthly, but only 27% of those who rarely or never attend agreed.
Confidence in religion to solve problems increases with age, but even young adults (aged 18 to 34 years) are more likely to affirm the value of religion than reject it (44% vs. 36%).
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.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 4-7, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.