Results of two new faith polls show US could be in trouble


By Mark Pattison
Catholic Press Service

WASHINGTON — With the release of two recent Gallup polls on Americans’ belief in God and their views on morality, one could come to the conclusion that the United States could be in big trouble.

A poll, released on June 15, found a record high: half of those polled said they thought the country’s moral values ​​were “weak”. And if that weren’t enough, another 37% called America’s moral values ​​”only right” and 78% said the nation’s morals were getting worse.

The other poll, released June 17, found that 81% of Americans believe in God. That’s an impressive number, until you realize that the percentage is the lowest ever recorded by Gallup when it asked this question.

That’s down six percentage points from 2017. And according to Gallup, more than 90% of Americans believed in God between 1944 — when Gallup “first asked this question” — and 2011.

There aren’t many polling organizations in the United States that focus on faith, religion, and related issues. And one of the largest, the Pew Research Center, adopts a policy of hands-off when it comes to the discoveries of others.

“Pew Research Center does not comment on research conducted/published by other pollsters or polling organizations,” said a June 23 email to the Catholic News Service from Anna Schiller, senior communications manager for Pew Research. on religion and public life.

But while Pew may be silent on other people’s polls, its own polls may support at least one of Gallup’s conclusions – on belief in God.

Pew has pointed to the rise of “nones” over the past 20 years, people who cite no specific religious affiliation or identity. This can include atheists and agnostics as well as those who do not belong to any specific denomination. Among this number are those who still attend church services on major holidays and observances.

In December 2021, results of a Pew survey showed that 29% of those polled did not profess any specific religious identity. Of this combined percentage, those who said they were “nothing in particular” made up 20%, more than double the percentage of atheists and agnostics (9%).

In Pew’s poll, none hitting the 20% mark for the first time comes awfully close to Gallup’s conclusion that only 81% of Americans believe in God – indicating that the remaining 19% must not.

“Increasingly, people who disaffiliate from religious institutions are also destroying any nominal belief in God,” said David Cloutier, associate professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

“What’s striking is that up until 2010, you still saw over 90% of Americans say they believe in God,” Cloutier added. “A 10% change in that number over a decade – that’s what you see here… that’s huge, because the population doesn’t turn over immediately at that time. You see a huge drop.

It may be cold comfort, but “I have just written an article which shows that even the majority of Europeans do not believe in God. And their actual religious practices are also much lower than those of Americans,” Cloutier said.

The existence of God was reinforced in American society by songs such as “God Bless America” ​​serving as the alternative national anthem after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the printing of the saying “In God We Trust” on the currency. But “the belief in God that is professed here is not heralded by any particular church,” Cloutier said. “It’s a broader cultural issue.”

When asked if there was a causal link between diminished belief in God and increased disapproval of moral values ​​in the United States, Cloutier replied that he “leans heavily towards the public” perceiving “this as oral commitments”. This leads, he added, to “the presumption that if there is no God, people can behave as they wish”.

David Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, had a markedly different take on the issue. Campbell is co-author of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us” and “Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics.”

“The perception that America is immoral is largely driven by Republicans,” Campbell told CNS in a June 23 phone interview. They hold firmly to the idea that “a more secular America is a less moral America. But many, many lay people would say that is not necessary. … You can be a perfectly moral person and have no religion in your life.

The issue of belief in God, Campbell said, is trickier. “We shouldn’t assume that just because over the past 20 to 25 years of the secular push doesn’t necessarily mean it will continue. There have been ups and downs throughout history,” he said. But “we are at a stage of secularization contrary to what we have seen in the past. It’s at a much lower level now.

The United States began to secularize in the 1960s, much like Europe had done, according to Campbell, but it stalled, which he attributed to an “evangelical reaction”.

The nation’s religious pluralism has been a double-edged sword.

“Over the last generation or so, most social scientists believe that pluralism is a higher level of religiosity because you have a religious market, you have religions competing with each other for membership – the same logic that leads monopolistic corporations to become complacent in how they treat their customer,” Campbell said, as one might observe in a country that is an avowed theocracy or has a state religion.

But an older perspective posits that “when you have a religiously pluralistic society, it’s easier for someone to opt out of a given religious system,” he added. “It definitely legitimizes not having religion in the public square.”

Campbell said, “Go back to what people think when they answer this question of whether America is on the right track or the wrong track.” It could be a reaction to the news of the day: a massacre in a supermarket, a massacre in an elementary school, the January 6th Special Committee of the House of Representatives.

Cloutier of Catholic University told CNS: “Americans have long felt that as a society we are losing our moral values. Culture affirms low moral standards, he said. “We have increasingly come to believe, or at least we are told, to believe that moral values ​​are a person’s business.”

However, now “we see people running across the country trying to impose their moral values ​​on other people,” Cloutier added. “It seems to me now that people want to impose (their values) on others. And the fact that they are not able to do this leads them to believe that the moral values ​​of society are lacking and they do not know how to deal with it.


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