Frank Newport, Gallup Editor-in-Chief, discussed Gallup’s findings that 75% in the U.S. say it would be positive for society if religion in American was more prevalent, but 77% believe religion is losing its influence on American life.
Gallup’s results have been mirrored in Pew Research studies as well. The implication is really quite simple. God is, as Frank Newport has coined, “Alive and Well” in American society, or at least in the hearts of Americans He is. However, the organized or established church so to speak, has yet to earn back the trust of the American people from various scandals, and government encroachment on religious freedom has greatly reduced the influence of religion in America.
It is expectedly true that Americans who attend church regularly and also report that religion is important in their personal lives are far more likely than others to say it would be positive for American society if more Americans were religious. However, over half of those who infrequently or never attend church, and close to one in three Americans who say religion is not important to them personally still believe that it would be positive for society if more Americans were religious.
I have long held the belief, and argued such in the section called “Decapitation of Church and State” in “Our Virtuous Republic,” that the American mainstream Protestant ethic is unique to our national identity, and the assault on the “ethic” by government has only been exacerbated by our religious leaders. It is a detailed argument, but Gallup and many other surveys have underscored the deep divide between American spirituality and church leaders. Americans expect, and rightfully so, that their established political institutions will be breeding grounds of corruption and excess, but disappointments from within church leadership is less forgivable, and such hypocrisy has made it much more difficult to regain the trust of the people.
This helps to explain how the broad appeal God’s influence shares among Americans does not translate into church attendance, or established religious affiliation:
These perceptions of religion’s influence in American society are not related to Americans’ personal religiosity, as measured by church attendance or the self-reported importance of religion in one’s life. In general highly religious Americans are neither more nor less likely to say religion is losing its influence than those who are not religious.
Not surprisingly, however, a “modest relationship” between Americans’ ideology as well as partisanship and their views of the influence of religion does exist. Liberals and Democrats are more likely than conservatives and Republicans to say religion’s influence is increasing in American society.
Frank Newport would certainly agree with my assertions, and I would certainly agree with many of his. Historically, Americans have fallen in-and-out of the belief that religion is losing influence, and more times than not revivals have followed periods of deep discontent that the nation was becoming “corrupt and vicious” as a result of a crisis of immorality. However, and I am sure many church leaders will be shocked, historically American church leadership has been made up of a class of laymen.
In colonial times, leaders did not want for wood in the winter, but they certainly did not stuff while others suffered – at least that was not the norm. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was always dressed like a gentlemen, but he did not live in excess while congregational members followed him without shoes. You get the anti-hypocrisy point. Nevertheless, in support of my earlier assertions Newport writes:
The view most Americans hold – that religion is losing its influence on American life – does not appear to reflect personal religiousness, but rather appears to reflect widely shared judgments on factors relating to the course of events in the U.S. In 1969 and 1970, with the Vietnam War raging in controversial fashion and with the cultural and sexual revolutions underway, and to a lesser degree at times in the 1990s, Americans held negative views similar to those they hold today. The degree to which these views changed during the Reagan years, and after 9/11, suggest that they could change again in the years ahead. The fact that most Americans think the country would be better off if more Americans were religious shows that many of those who believe religion is losing its influence may think this is a negative state of affairs.