The State of Religion: Survey Finds Drop in Faith in Both Political Parties

Pope Francis, standing alongside Vice President Joe Biden and leaders from the U.S. House of Representatives, waves to the crowd after his address on Capitol Hill. The pope's visit was one of the most talked about events of the year, but statistics show fewer Americans are identifying as religious. Carlos Barria/REUTERS

The number of religious Americans is declining, while those that remain religious are often more religious.

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A massive Pew Research Center Poll has found statistically significant changes in the role of religion in American society since 2007. The 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study reached out to devotees of every major faith and sect in America while examining the relationship between religious and political affiliation.

With over 35,000 respondents interviewed by phone, the survey has a less than 1 percent margin of error (meaning it's more accurate than the daily primary polls).

No matter what angle you approach the question from, there is a general trend of decline in religion, with some caveats. Here are the basics:

  1. Americans still mostly believe in God. Perhaps it's a low threshold to define religiosity, but the numbers are striking. About 89 percent of Americans believe in God, a higher percentage than any other major industrialized country. That number is down from 92 percent in 2007.
  2. But many are not sure. Only 63 percent of the God-fearing are "absolutely certain" that God exists, down from 71 percent.
  3. It's probably generational. There have been two reports on Pew's 2014 Religious Landscape Study, and the first focused on the growing influence of millennials on religious demographics. About 23 percent of American adults now say they have "no religious affiliation," up from 16. Those numbers are likely attributable to growing number of millennial adults, who are increasingly likely to identify as so called "nones."
  4. Believers are still going strong. Pew's data suggest that daily prayer, church attendance and other conventional measures of religiosity have not significantly declined among the population that identifies as affiliated.
  5. In fact, they're getting more religious. It's perhaps a clichéd expectation that when a group faces an existential decay in their overall influence, they become more extreme in their views. There have been modest increases since 2007 in the number of religious people who say they read Scripture regularly, share their faith with others and rely on religion to guide their decisions.
  6. Labels matter. In the past, some have contended, a nonreligious person may still have identified with a religious institution, even if they didn't pray or consider their religion important. In 2014, people who don't identify (the "nones") and don't find religion important are on the rise.

Religious decline is happening in both political parties, but Democrats are becoming less religious at a faster rate than Republicans. Pew's press release notes that "the changing religious composition of the U.S. population is particularly evident among the Democratic coalition." Still, the number of "none" Republicans has increased by 4 percent since 2007.

So why do candidates who are not only religious, but practically run on religion, continue to be so prevalent in political life? Unaffiliated individuals are nearly 10 percent less likely to be politically engaged, and in exit polls during the 2012 election only 12 percent of people claimed no religious affiliation. At no point in the foreseeable future will religion become politically obsolescent: Saying you are an atheist on CNN would be political suicide for a candidate from either party. This year, Hillary Clinton even stated that the Bible is her favorite book, and she comes from the less religious party. One evangelical Protestant recently told Newsweek that Clinton is "probably not the anti-Christ," which is a good start for her in the general election.

The political meaning of religion is not fixed. Among religious people there is a growing tolerance for homosexuality. Evangelical Protestants and Mormons are about 10 percent more likely to accept homosexuality than they were in 2007. Views on abortion have mostly stood pat, but the data suggest that certain social and cultural issues such as gay marriage could eventually become less of a calling card for a single political party.

When landscape changes, the meaning of demographics changes. While polls on religion are not without their critics, they seem to confirm a zeitgeist of increasing secularity.

Ben Carson, the man who is currently leading for the Republican presidential nomination has stated that Christians are being oppressed more than gays in this country. The phrase "War on Christianity" has sprouted up in conservative circles during the Obama presidency. As a reaction to the decline of religion, voting with religion in mind is arguably as prevalent as ever.

Candidates, especially the anti-establishment types in the Republican primary, have bemoaned the prevalence of special interests in politics. By definition, an interest group is a vocal minority or majority that wields an undue amount of influence on the political process through sheer interest and engagement. If current trends continue, it's conceivable that the label "special interest" could apply to those who vote based on religion.