Faith talk losing appeal to voters

August 22, 2011

Has America gotten more religious, or is religiousness just a vocal
strain in American politics? The country has grown less religious since
the 1970s, according to recent studies, but researchers say that
frequent churchgoers are now much more likely to vote Republican or
support the Tea Party.

As a result, faith-filled rhetoric and
campaign stops make Americans seem more Christian than they really are,
according to Mark Chaves, a Duke University professor of sociology and
religion. The rise of mega­churches also fuels the misperception that
most Ameri­cans attend services weekly, whereas only one in four
Americans actually do, he added.

"The Michele Bachmanns and Rick
Perrys of the world are playing to a base that's much smaller than it
was in the 1970s and 1980s," said Chaves, whose new book, American Religion: Con­temporary Trends, analyzes data from the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study.

Chaves
said America is not only losing its religion but also has lost
confidence in religious leaders and wants them to be less involved in
politics. Researchers say the trends reflect myriad factors:
disillusionment with clergy and political scandals, the country's
increasing diversity and younger generations that tend to be more highly
educated and socially liberal.

Chaves also interprets these
trends as a "backlash" against the politicization of religion that began
with Jerry Falwell and the rise of the religious right. The
findings—along with new research by Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam
and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell, coauthors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us—paint a shifting portrait of American politics.

The
Tea Party's sinking approval rating—currently at 20 percent, below that
of Republicans, Democrats, atheists and Muslims—signals a growing
discomfort with mingling faith and politics, including the kind of
"overt religious language and imagery" recently used by Bachmann and
Perry on the campaign trail, Putnam and Campbell recently wrote in the New York Times.

What's
more, Putnam and Campbell say the Tea Party is much more religious than
originally thought. "The Tea Party's generals may say their overriding
concern is a smaller government," they concluded, "but not their rank
and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government."

Some
core American beliefs have remained stable over the past two
generations, however, including belief in a higher power, in the
afterlife and in a God who is personally concerned with human beings.
"Compared to Europe, Canada and Australia, Americans are still very
religious," Chaves conceded.

Chaves nonetheless cites a number of
shifts in U.S. religious beliefs and practices that have been well
documented by sociologists of religion:

  • There is a declining (though still very high) belief in God or a higher
    power. In the 1950s, 99 percent of Americans said they believed in God;
    in 2008, about 93 percent did. Nearly 20 percent of Americans now say
    they have no religion, compared to just 3 percent in 1957.
  • Only 25 percent attend religious services weekly, although up to 40 percent claim they do.
  • Fewer Americans approve of their religious leaders getting involved in
    politics. In 1991, about 30 percent of Americans strongly agreed that
    religious leaders should avoid political involvement; by 2008, 44
    percent felt that way.
  • Belief that the Bible should be taken
    literally dropped from about 40 percent in the early 1970s to about 30
    percent in 2008; Chaves said this trend corresponds with the rise in the
    number of those receiving a college education.
  • From 1972 to
    2008, the percentage of people with great confidence in religious
    leaders declined from 35 percent to less than 25 percent. A sharp dip
    around 2002 was probably due to the Catholic Church clergy abuse
    scandals, but the trend has been downward for decades.

Immigration,
intermarriage and as­sim­ilation have diversified U.S. religious
beliefs since the early 1970s. Chaves be­lieves that Americans will grow
more accepting of Muslims over the next generation. He cited Putnam and
Campbell's "Aunt Susan Principle," the idea that people are less
suspicious of a particular faith when someone they know is a member of
it.

Putnam calls Chaves's book "an im­portant contribution to
clarifying the facts about religious change in America" but cautions
against oversimplifying the data. "The story is a bit more complicated
than simply a linear trend down," he said.

Whatever the
interpretation, Chaves says one thing is clear: American religiosity is
either stable or in slow decline—and he leans toward the latter view.
"Either way," he concludes, "it's not going up."  —RNS