Is organized religion – once more trusted than the military or the U.S. Supreme Court – beginning to falter in Americans’ eyes? A new poll from Gallup reports that only 44% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in “the church or organized religion” today, dipping just below other recent low points (45% in 2002 and 46% in 2007). Less than forty years ago, American confidence in organized religion reached as high as 68%.
Gallup notes that organized religion is not alone in its precipitous drop in public esteem. Americans’ confidence in banks, public schools, and television news have all fallen to record lows, suggesting that Americans may simply be disillusioned toward public institutions more generally, rather than organized religion specifically. Perspectives also vary by religious affiliation: a majority (56%) of Protestants express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the church/organized religion, compared to only 46% of Catholics. Meanwhile, only 3-in-10 (29%) Americans of other faiths express the same degree of confidence.
The drop in confidence in religious institutions coincides with a dramatic upsurge in the number of Americans who currently claim no formal religious affiliation. In 1990, only 6% of Americans reported that they did not identify with any denomination or faith. Today, that number has tripled. Most surveys find that roughly 1-in-5 Americans are now religiously unaffiliated.
Recent data from Public Religion Research Institute suggests that on hot-button issues like homosexuality and contraception, religious institutions (particularly the Catholic Church) may simply be failing to keep up with public opinion. While the Catholic Church strictly opposes same-sex marriage, and the Presbyterian Church recently failed to uphold an amendment to its constitution that would have changed the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, majorities of Catholics (55%) and white mainline Protestants (51%) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.
The gap between religious orthodoxy and public opinion is particularly evident among young adults. According to the 2012 Millennial Values Survey, younger Millennials express some ambivalence about present-day Christianity. Approximately three-quarters (76%) of younger Millennials say that modern-day Christianity “has good values and principles,” and 63% agree that contemporary Christianity “consistently shows love for other people.” On the other hand, nearly two-thirds (64%) of Millennials say that “anti-gay” describes present-day Christianity somewhat or very well. And more than 6-in-10 (62%) Millennials also believe that present-day Christianity is “judgmental.” The same survey found that younger Millennials (age 18-24) are leaving the religions of their childhood in substantial numbers. While only 11% of Millennials were religiously unaffiliated in childhood, one-quarter (25%) currently identify as unaffiliated, a 14-point increase.
In their conclusion, Gallup researchers posit that “the decline in confidence does not necessarily indicate a decline in Americans’ personal attachment to religion,” noting that the percentage of Americans saying that religion is very important in their lives has held mostly steady since the mid-1970s. Belief in God has also held strong, suggesting that it is religious engagement, rather than religious faith, that is inspiring caution. In this light, shifting public attitudes on cultural questions, particularly gay and lesbian issues, present a significant challenge to many religious groups seeking to keep congregants of all generations in their pews.