Americans Want More Faith in Public Life

A new survey suggests a tension in the United States: Most people think religion is losing its influence on politics and culture, but many also want it to play a greater role.   

Daniel Munoz/Reuters

There's a curious set of numbers in Pew's new survey about faith and politics. Seventy-two percent of Americans think religion is losing its influence on public life, while 48 percent think houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues. Since 2010, both of these numbers have grown by at least five percentage points, and they're accompanied by another interesting data point: 41 percent of Americans say there has been "too little expression of religious faith by political leaders," up from 37 percent in 2010.

In other words, a growing portion of Americans think religion is fading from public life, and many of them want it back.

And although this desire is strongest among religious people and those who identify as Republicans, there have also been bumps among Democrats and people who are atheists, agnostics, or don't identify with a particular faith.

An Increased Desire for Religion in American Public Life
Pew Research Center

Perceptions are a tricky thing. It's impossible to "objectively" measure religion's role in public life. Influence is ephemeral and intangible and based on a million tiny, shifting data points—evidence of America's faithfulness may show up in a Supreme Court decision and disappear again in a Nicki Minaj video. The sense that faith is becoming less prominent also reflects a general decline in U.S. religious affiliation over time; perhaps people are just up to speed on the latest social science about religion and equate "influence" with strength in numbers.

Plus, there are limits to how much people want their faith and politics to be mixed. Only 32 percent of respondents in Pew's poll said they think churches should come out in favor of a particular political candidate (although, it's worth noting, this is up from 24 percent in 2010). A different Pew study from last spring also indicated that while Americans are uncomfortable with politicians who don't believe in God—specifically presidential candidates—in general, people aren't particular about what exactly their politicians believe. It just has to seem like they believe something.

The most simplistic interpretation of this data is that people who care about religion don't think candidates are performing their godliness enough on the campaign trail, and they don't think their church leaders are engaging enough with current events from the pulpit—this is just a desire for a little more God talk.

But there's another possible way to look at these numbers, one that's less about political performance and more about the changing relationship between religion and politics in modernity. In 2007, philosopher Jürgen Habermas observed that there is "an awareness of what is missing" in a secular European society where, as he describes it, religious beliefs aren't really seen as an appropriate part of public life. This is particularly damaging in the political sphere, he argues, asking whether the state can really "require [faithful] citizens to split their existence into public and private parts, for example by obliging them to justify their stances in the political arena exclusively in terms of non-religious reasons?"

The religious identities of the United States and Western Europe have developed very differently over time; from America's founding, strong faith and freedom to worship were part of this country's political environment in a way that wasn't true across the Atlantic. Even so, Habermas's analysis may be helpful for understanding the yearning some Americans apparently feel for faith in public discourse. Even as traditional forms of religious worship decline or take on new forms, people are apparently still able to recognize the value of religious insights.

In Habermas's view, this doesn't mean obligatory exclamations of "God bless America" at speeches and rallies. It's about norms—standards for what is and is not an okay way of talking about politics. "If religiously justified stances are accorded a legitimate place in the public sphere," he writes, "the political community officially recognizes that religious utterances can make a meaningful contribution to clarifying controversial questions of principle."