What Factors Might Be Influencing Religious Trends?

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The character of religion in the U.S. has undergone many changes since the country’s founding, and today change remains a constant. Three contemporary trends stand out. First, affiliation with traditional institutions is loosening and declining, while belief in God holds steady. Second, views on social issues are liberalizing, as increasing acceptance of gay marriage has made clear. Third, shifting demographics are altering convictions. Members of the Baby Boom generation (people born from 1946 through 1964) are entering their 60s, and historically older populations increasingly turn toward religion. But Millennials – people who came of age in 2000 – show far less commitment to organized faith.

Declining affiliation
Church attendance figures, confidence levels and generational change all contribute toward a trajectory of decline in religious affiliation. In polls, 40% of Americans consistently say they regularly attend church. Clergy report actual weekly attendance figures are now closer to 20% and attribute the gap to the “halo effect” – what pollsters call a well-known tendency among poll respondents to mildly exaggerate culturally favored behaviors, such as voting and church attendance, while minimizing unsavory behavior such as excess drinking.

Scandals have shaken the faithful, with polls showing confidence in organized religion falling during periods of crisis. The biggest impact came from the late 1980s scandals regarding televangelists Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker, followed by the 2002 child molestation cases involving Catholic clergy in Massachusetts.
Younger Americans are not attending church at the same rates as their elders, and church attendance has not kept pace with population growth. Younger churchgoers who still attend are favoring “contemporary” worship services not offered by more traditional churches.

Continuing belief
Despite the drop in religious affiliation, majority belief in God has remained consistent despite economic and political change over the past 24 years. From 1987 to 2012, between 60% – 72% completely agree with the statement “I never doubt the existence of God” – the highest rate of any Western nation.

The intensity of belief varies with geography and political affiliation. The number of people who feel religion is very important in their lives runs from a low of 36% in the New England states to a high of 82% in the deep South. The national average is 56%.
Pew Research finds Republicans are most strongly invested in faith, followed by Democrats and Independents. Evangelical political activism has affected public perception of both religion and politics since presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan declared a “cultural war” at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Social values
As belief in God has held steady, the character of faith and attitudes toward values associated with belief are changing. Views on social issues of importance to evangelicals — birth control, homosexuality, marriage, censorship – have all become increasingly progressive. Animus toward nonbelievers is softening, as signified by a papal declaration that even atheists are redeemed.

Public opinion on guns and drugs are in flux following high-profile events — the legalization of marijuana in some states and support for background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. The role of women in society garnered more attention following a series of gaffes by conservative lawmakers during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Demographic change
It has long been true that older generations tend to be more devout than youth. The Millennials maintain the pattern of less devotion to faith than their elders, but with an important difference: they are even less involved with organized religion than previous generations were at their age.

Immigration does not have a significant impact on these numbers. Second-generation immigrants are consistently less devout than their parents.Twenty-five percent of Millennials are not affiliated with any faith. Among GenX (those born after 1964 through the early 1980s) that number at the same age was 20%. Among Boomers, it was 13%. As Boomers enter their final decades, it remains to be seen if their involvement with religion follows the historical pattern and rises.