Americans Say Religion is “Losing Influence”

Today Gallup announced the results of a survey in which 77 percent of Americans “say religion is losing its influence on American life,” which represents “the most negative evaluation” of religion’s impact since 1970.

Writing today in Religion Dispatches, I have to wonder about the future of any publication with “religion” in its name. Is it time for a mission overhaul or simply rebranding?

It’s not that RD has been oblivious to the trend. An interview with Siviku Hutchinson on the racial politics of atheism, a book review of The Bonobo and the Atheist, and Elizabeth Drescher’s ongoing coverage of nones underline the big tent approach to coverage of American ir/a/religion. But do the Gallup numbers point to new ways we might be thinking about business as usual?

Two findings are striking.

First: Gallup reported that although Americans felt religion’s influence was declining, many—75 percent—agreed that more religion would be positive for the country. Not surprisingly, churchgoers were most gung-ho about religion’s beneficial impact. But “over half of those who seldom or never attend [services] and close to one in the three Americans who say religion is not important to them personally still say it would be positive for society if more Americans were religious.”

What planet do these Americans live on? Here in the U.S., religious fervor is at the center of a 30-year culture war that has debased civic discourse and rendered our nation ungovernable. Worldwide, religious sentiments have been mobilized to torture and murder. I understand that religion itself is not to blame; followers can distort religious teachings and politicians can cloak ethnic hostilities and turf wars in religious language. Yet even so—people believe that they are acting in God’s name.

Second: Gallup speculated that the growing sense of religion’s decline has less to do with personal religiosity than with events. The last time religious influence was deemed to be in sharp decline was the 1960s. Political protests along with cultural upheavals left many wondering about the future of traditional institutions. But during the Reagan years, and especially following 9/11, the significance of religion—its association with social stability, community cohesion, and traditional values—raised appreciation for its influence. The upshot? The perception of increased religious influence on American society is just a cataclysm away.

Religion’s saliency for political machinations, cultural inspiration, and social movements is a separate reality from the growing number of nones. Both need coverage. But the Gallup data raises questions that I’ve rarely seen addressed in recent years. What does faith look and feel like in flyover country? As a cub reporter, I wrote about the greying mainline, their internecine squabbles and financial woes. But thirty years later, they’re still standing. Did we get it wrong or did we just forget to look behind the headlines? What’s it like to be a Lutheran in northern Minnesota? How has Vacation Bible School at a rural Arkansas Baptist church changed since the ’60s? Who are the women behind the biggest Methodist congregation in Cleveland?

I want to know more about the people who believe religion to be a positive social good. Do they tune out the news or find ways to live in a messy both/and reality. (I am assuming not all these people are right-wingers.) I don’t want more top-down coverage about the end of religion. I’d like more bottom-up stories about what kinds of religion, or irreligion, get people through their day—along with analyses of religion’s ever-evolving role in politics, culture and society.

As for branding, “Post-Religion Dispatches from a More or Less Still Religious World” seems like a lot to say.

dianewin@usc.edu'

Diane Winston is RD's director. She holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC's Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and has worked as a reporter for several of the nation’s leading newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Times Herald and The News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army (1999) and co-editor of Faith in the Market: Religion and the Rise of Urban Commercial Culture (2002).