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More Americans Favor Mixing Religion And Politics, Survey Says

President Obama closes his eyes as a prayer is offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in February in Washington, D.C.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama closes his eyes as a prayer is offered at the National Prayer Breakfast in February in Washington, D.C.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe religious influence on life in the U.S. is waning and nearly half think that churches and other houses of worship should play a greater role in the national discourse on social and political matters, according to a new Pew study.

The findings by Pew's Religion & Public Life Project show that 72 percent of more than 2,000 people surveyed think religion's hold on America is in decline, as opposed to 22 percent who believe its influence is on the rise. Most of those surveyed who said religion was losing influence also viewed that decline as a bad thing.

Nearly half of those surveyed think that churches and other houses of worship should make their views known on social and political issues, an increase of 6 percentage points, to 49 percent, from the midterm 2010 elections when 43 percent said so. Self-identified Republicans were significantly more likely to want more religion in public life (59 percent) than Democrats (42 percent).

Since 2010, the percentage of the public that views religion's role as positive increased to 58 percent from 49 percent, while a quarter of those surveyed view that role as negative, down marginally from 26 percent four years ago.

Pew says:

"The findings reflect a widening divide between religiously affiliated Americans and the rising share of the population that is not affiliated with any religion (sometimes called the 'nones'). The public's appetite for religious influence in politics is increasing in part because those who continue to identify with a religion (e.g., Protestants, Catholics and others) have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion. The 'nones' are much more likely to oppose the intermingling of religion and politics."

As we reported two years ago, the percentage of those "nones" has grown in recent years, especially among younger Americans. In a 2012 Pew survey, 1 in 5 in the U.S. said he was "religiously unaffiliated," a group that includes those who say they have no particular religion as well as self-described atheists and agnostics. Among those under 30 years of age, fully one-third said that religion played "little or no role" in their lives.

Other findings in the latest poll: a slight drop in support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry, with 49 percent of Americans in favor and 41 percent opposed; a 5-point dip in support from a February Pew Research poll, but about the same level as in 2013, Pew says. However, Pew notes: "It is too early to know if this modest decline is an anomaly or the beginning of a reversal or leveling off in attitudes toward gay marriage after years of steadily increasing public acceptance."

There has also been a rise in the number who view homosexuality as a sin (50 percent from 45 percent a year ago). While almost half (49 percent) of those surveyed say they believe that businesses such as caterers and florists should not be allowed to reject same-sex couples as customers, nearly as many (47 percent) said they approved of such a practice.

Some other points from the survey worth noting:

-- 47 percent see the Republican Party as "friendly toward religion," but only 29 percent said that about the Democratic Party. Pew also says: "our surveys have found a steady rise in the percentage of people who view the Obama administration as unfriendly toward religion — rising to 29% today compared with 23% in 2012 and 17% in 2009."

-- 34 percent of white evangelicals believe the GOP has "not done a good job of representing their views on abortion because the party is too liberal," according to Pew.

The survey was based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 2-9, 2014, among a national sample of 2,002 adults drawn from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The sampling error for different demographic subsets ranged from 2.5 percentage points to 11.4 percentage points.

Note: An earlier version of this post said results of the latest survey showed an 8 percentage-point decrease in support for same-sex marriage. Support actually dipped by 5 percentage points.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.