Most churchgoers don’t believe political divides in church are worsening
WASHINGTON (May 16, 2023) — Today, Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a new survey report finding that church attendance and the importance of religion continue to decline among most Americans. “Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social and Political Upheaval,” details the findings of a national survey examining the health of American religious congregations in the wake of seismic social and political shifts, including the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide protests for racial justice, the 2020 election and January 6 insurrection, and ongoing legislative battles over reproductive and LGBTQ rights.
Today, fewer than 2 in 10 Americans (16%) say religion is the most important thing in their lives; notably that number more than doubles for white evangelical Protestants (42%) and Black Protestants (38%). Nearly 1 in 3 Americans overall (29%) say religion is not important, a 10% increase from a decade ago.
“The state of American churches offers several paradoxes,” says Melissa Deckman, Ph.D., CEO of PRRI. “After the tumultuous last couple of years, we see a continued shuffling of affiliation among Americans and decline in church attendance. Yet Americans who remain active churchgoers are quite satisfied with their own congregations. While churchgoers largely agree that churches should provide a faith perspective on social concerns, most would rather avoid having challenging conversations about politics.”
Current attendance at religious services is lower than reported in 2019 before COVID-19, with the number of Americans who attend once a week decreasing from 19% to 16%. Between 2019-2022, attendance at least a few times a year dropped to half or less for white Catholics (73% to 45%) and Hispanic Catholics (65% to 47%). While more than 6 out of 10 white evangelical Protestants, Protestants of color, and Latter-day Saints remain regular churchgoers, their attendance also experienced slight declines since 2019. Attendance had dropped below 50% prior to 2019 for white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants and non-Christian religions, and attendance for those groups experienced further declines over the past three years.
Yet among the faithful, Christian churchgoers are satisfied with their current congregations; more than 8 in 10 churchgoers (82%) say they are optimistic about the future of their church. This optimism spans across Christian denominations. Nearly 9 in 10 Christians who attend church services at least a few times a year (89%) are proud to say that they are associated with their church.
While the political landscape has become increasingly polarized, and 4 in 10 churchgoers report that hot-button political and social issues like abortion and racism are discussed in their churches, fewer than 2 in 10 churchgoers (13%) say that their church is more politically divided than it was five years ago. Only a slightly higher amount (18%) wants their church to address political divisions in America.
Most churchgoers don’t believe political divides in church are worsening and don’t want their church involved in social issues
Despite current political divisions in the country, a majority of Christian churchgoers (56%) do not believe their church is more politically divided than it was five years ago, with Republican churchgoers (63%) more likely than Democrats (48%) to hold this belief. Only 13% of churchgoers say that their church is more politically divided. White mainline (non-evangelical) Protestants (17%) and Catholics (17%) are the most likely to indicate that their churches are more divided by politics.
When asked how frequently their congregations discuss social issues and current events, nearly two-thirds of churchgoers (65%) say their clergy sometimes or often discuss poverty and inequality, and around 4 in 10 say racism (44%) or abortion (41%) are sometimes or often talked about. By contrast, less than 1 in 10 churchgoers say their church sometimes or often discusses Donald Trump (8%). The majority of Black Protestants (57%) say their clergy sometimes or often discuss racism. Black Protestants are also the most likely to indicate that their clergy discuss election and voter fraud (30%), compared with around 1 in 10 of all churchgoers (11%).
More than 7 in 10 churchgoers (71%) agree that an important part of a church’s role is providing a faith perspective on pressing social concerns, including nearly three quarters of both Democrats (74%) and Republicans (72%). Majorities of all Christian denominations agree with this as well.
Yet, less than half of churchgoers (45%) agree with the statement that, “Congregations should get involved in social issues, even if that means having challenging conversations about politics.” This diverges somewhat on party lines, with a majority of Democrat churchgoers (56%) and only 4 in 10 Republicans (40%) saying churches should get involved in social issues. Notably, Black Protestants are the only Christian group in which a majority believe that congregations should get involved even if it means having difficult conversations (63%).
Congregants remain optimistic about the future of their churches
Concerns about the state of the country appear to have had little impact on the optimism religiously active Americans feel about their churches. More than 8 in 10 churchgoers (82%) say they are optimistic about the future of their church. This optimism spans Christian denominations — with 88% of Hispanic Protestants, 86% of white evangelical Protestants, 81% of Black Protestants, 81% of Hispanic Catholics, 80% of white Catholics, and 77% of white mainline Protestants holding this view.
Moreover, nearly 9 in 10 churchgoers (89%) are proud to say that they are associated with their church, and a similar number (88%) report that they are generally satisfied with the current leadership of their church. Majorities of Hispanic Protestants (58%), white evangelical Protestants (53%), and Black Protestants (53%) say they completely agree that they are satisfied with the leadership in their congregation while minorities of white mainline Protestants (42%), Hispanic Catholics (32%), and white Catholics (29%) say the same.
Christian congregations still largely racially segregated; desire for more diverse leadership varies
Despite the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the country, the vast majority of Christian churchgoers report that their congregations are mostly monoracial. At least three-quarters of white Christians say that their churches are mostly white, including 80% of white mainline Protestants, 77% of white Catholics, and 75% of white evangelical Protestants. Nearly three-quarters of Black Protestants (74%) and Hispanic Catholics (74%) say their churches are comprised mostly of Black and Hispanic members, respectively.
Nearly equal percentages of churchgoers say their church is more racially diverse today than it was a decade ago (36%) as report their church is less racially diverse (34%). Republican churchgoers (40%) are more likely than Democrat churchgoers (29%) to note their church is more racially diverse today. Less than half of Christian churchgoers of all denominations believe their church has more racial diversity today than in the past, including 45% of white Catholics, 36% of white evangelical Protestants, and 31% of white mainline Protestants and Hispanic Catholics.
When it comes to the diversity of church leadership, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely to say they wish their church had more people of color (36%), women (25%) and LGBTQ people in leadership (10%). Hispanic Catholics stand out for nearly two-thirds wanting more women in church leadership (64%) and as the only group in which a majority (56%) wish there were more people of color in church leadership.
Americans increasingly changing or leaving their religions
Nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say they were previously a follower or practitioner of a different religious tradition or denomination than the one they belong to now, up from 16% in 2021. Those most likely to say they previously followed or practiced a different religious tradition are members of non-Christian religions (38%) and the religiously unaffiliated (37%). Jewish Americans (15%) and Black Protestants (15%) are the least likely to say they were previously a follower or practitioner of a different religious tradition.
Among Americans who left a religious tradition, almost 4 in 10 (37%) say they were formerly Catholic, and nearly a quarter (24%) say they were non-evangelical Christian. White evangelical Protestants (13%) and members of non-Christian religions (5%) were the least likely to report leaving a religious tradition.
A majority of those who changed denominations or religious traditions (56%) report it was because they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings. Around 3 in 10 say they were turned off by negative religious teachings about treatment of LGBTQ people (30%), that their family was never that religious growing up (29%), or that they were disillusioned by scandals involving leaders in their former religion (27%). Less than 2 in 10 said they switched because their church became too focused on politics (17%).
Religion continues to be less important in American life post-COVID
Continuing a trend from the last decade, fewer than 2 in 10 Americans (16%) say religion is the most important thing in their lives, compared to 20% in 2013. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans (29%) say religion is not important, while in 2013 less than 1 in 5 (19%) said the same.
Religious attendance also continues to decrease. Nearly a third of Americans now say they seldom (28%) or never (29%) attend religious services aside from weddings and funerals, compared to 2013 when less than a quarter said they seldom (22%) or never (21%) attend. The COVID-19 pandemic further contributed to these shifts. Current attendance at religious services is lower than reported in 2019, with the number of Americans who attend once a week decreasing from 19% to 16% and the number attending a few times a year dropping from 17% to 13%.
Other key findings
- Americans who attend church at least a few times a year are slightly more likely than those who seldom or never attend church to have contacted a government official (23% v. 19%), served on a committee (17% v. 10%), put up a sign supporting a political candidate (13% v. 10%), or volunteered for a political campaign (7% v. 4%). Americans who attend church more frequently are less likely to comment about politics (22%) than those who seldom or never attend church (26%).
- Churchgoers of color are more likely than their non-churchgoing counterparts to be civically engaged. Black churchgoers are more likely than Black non-churchgoers to have contacted a government official (20% vs. 11%), served on a committee (19% vs. 7%), or volunteered for a political campaign (9% vs. 3%). Hispanic churchgoers are also more likely than Hispanic non-churchgoers to have contacted a government official (20% vs. 11%), served on a committee (15% vs. 6%), or put up a sign supporting a candidate (12% vs. 5%).
- Very few white evangelical Protestants (11%), Hispanic Protestants (9%), and Black Protestants (8%) say their churches are more divided by politics now than five years ago.
- Christians of color are almost twice as likely as white Christians to wish their church talked more about health care issues (42% v. 22%) and transgender rights (26% v. 14%).
- Nearly 4 in 10 churchgoers (39%) believe that church relationships have been strained because of the pandemic, including an equal number of Republicans (39%) and almost half of Democrats (46%).
The Health of Congregations Survey was designed and conducted by PRRI. The survey was made possible through the generous support of The Duke Endowment. The survey was conducted among a representative sample of 5,872 adults (age 18 and up) living in all 50 states in the United States and the District of Columbia who are part of Ipsos’s Knowledge Panel. An additional 536 adults were recruited by Ipsos using opt-in survey panels to increase the sample sizes in smaller states. Additionally, this survey includes 212 additional respondents recruited by Ipsos using opt-in survey panels to increase the number of white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants in the data. Interviews were conducted online between August 9 and August 30, 2022. The margin of error for the national survey is +/- 1.86 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence, including the design effect for the survey of 1.96. In addition to sampling error, surveys may also be subject to error or bias due to question wording, context, and order effects.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.
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