Americans Fear Religion Is Losing Influence

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/MCT) -

Six years into a Democratic administration widely seen as pushing a secular agenda, nearly three-quarters of Americans say religion is losing influence in American life and about half say churches and other religious institutions should express their views on political issues.

The findings, from a new Pew survey, underscore a persistent pattern in American politics: During conservative administrations, the public tends to become more liberal and during liberal ones, more conservative.

In this case, only about 3 in 10 Americans see the Obama administration as “friendly to religion.” About 4 in 10 rate the administration as neutral and another 3 in 10 call it unfriendly.

The percentage seeing the administration as unfriendly to religion has nearly doubled since the start of Obama’s tenure in 2009, with white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics in particular becoming more likely to voice that view.

The shift probably stems in part from the long-running fight between the administration and conservative religious groups over health insurance coverage as well as a concerted effort by Republican leaders in recent years to portray President Barack Obama as waging a war on religious belief.

The share of Americans who believe religion has lost influence, 72 percent, has risen at a fairly steady rate since 2002, when just over half of Americans felt that way. A majority of those who see religion’s influence fading see that development as a bad thing.

A growing number of Americans consider themselves secular, but they remain a minority. The religious majority appears to have reacted against what they see as a hostile administration and a reduced role for religious belief and have become more supportive of an active role for religion in public life.

During George W. Bush’s tenure, the percentage of Americans saying religious groups should “keep out of political matters” rose, while the share saying that churches should “express their views” on political questions dropped.

Since 2010, by contrast, that pattern has reversed. About half of Americans now say churches and other religious institutions should express their views and the other half say they should keep out.

By about 2 to 1, however, a large majority of Americans still oppose churches endorsing specific candidates, although support for that idea has grown in recent years.

The Pew survey, conducted Sept. 2-9 among a sample of 2,002 U.S. adults, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.