Maintain that wall

Pew Research Center survey finds most Americans prefer separation between church and state

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Claire Gecewicz

LOUISVILLE — Most Americans want their churches and religious organizations to stay out of politics — most, but not all.

Maintaining that wall of separation is true for more than 6 in 10 of mainline Protestants and Catholics. But 54% of those surveyed from historic black faith traditions told the Pew Research Center they want their churches to express their views on social and political questions.

And most church attenders said the sermons they hear each week have the right amount of politics included, according to Claire Gecewicz, a Pew Research Center research associate for domestic religion polls. She appeared Tuesday as the guest of the Rev. Gregg Brekke, executive director of The Associated Church Press, during a Religion Communication Congress 2020 webinar called “Americans’ Views on Religion’s Role in Society and Politics.”

More than 3 in 4 evangelicals say that religion strengthens morality, while 64 percent of mainline Protestants agree, Gecewicz said. Only about 3 in 10 unaffiliated Americans agree with that statement.

More than 3 in 4 mainline Protestants don’t want clergy endorsing candidates, while 55 percent of Christians attending predominantly black churches prefer clergy to steer clear.

For GOP respondents, 71 percent said churches and religious organizations do more good than harm. Forty-four percent of Democrats agreed. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans believe churches don’t have enough influence on politics, with 19 percent of Democrats concurring.

More than 7 in 10 respondents said the sermons they hear contain the right amount of discussion about politics, while 11 percent said sermons are too political. When congregants do discuss politics, Gecewicz said most parishioners generally agree with their religious leader(s): 62 percent said they generally agree, and 28 percent said they generally disagree.

Gecewicz also shared results from a more recent survey indicating that nearly 1 in 4 American adults say their faith has grown stronger during the pandemic, while 2% say their faith has grown weaker. According to results of the survey, published April 30, 56% of Protestants in the historically black tradition said their faith has grown stronger, followed by 42% of evangelicals, 27% of Catholics and 22% of mainline Protestants.

“The most religious Americans — those who frequently pray and attend services (at least in typical times), and who rate religion as very important to them — are far more likely than others to say their faith has grown stronger as a result of the coronavirus outbreak,” Gecewicz wrote of the survey, conducted April 20-26 among more than 10,000 U.S. adults. “In other words, the self-reported strengthening of religious faith has been most pronounced within a segment of the public that was already quite religious to begin with.”

Larger shares of black Americans than whites or Hispanics say their faith has grown stronger as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, Gecewicz wrote. Women and older adults are more likely to say this than men and younger adults.

“It remains to be seen,” she wrote, whether “the strengthened faith that some Americans are experiencing will translate into greater service attendance, since most houses of worship are closed due to nationwide social distancing recommendations.”

More than 8 in 10 respondents said their primary church offers streaming or recorded services online or on television. The survey found that 57% of adults who attend religious services at least monthly said they have watched religious services online or on TV because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The survey was the first time Pew Research Center had asked Americans how a crisis affects their faith, Gecewicz told Brekke. The pandemic “is an event nobody has experienced before. It allows us to do all kinds of research and track how Americans are coping with the outbreak — economically, religiously and socially. That’s a big focus for us.”

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