Most Americans Support Religion in Public Life, but Avoid Disagreements | Sojourners

Most Americans Support Religion in Public Life, but Avoid Disagreements

A woman walks past an empty, boarded-up church in Youngstown, Ohio, on Nov. 21, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A new report from Pew Research Center found that while most Americans think religion has a positive influence on American life, few are willing to have discussions about religious differences.

The report revealed that a majority of American adults (80 percent) would say that “religion’s role in American life is shrinking,” which Pew reported as the highest in the survey’s history. Majorities in each religious group and the religiously unaffiliated say religion is losing influence.

All Christian groups except Hispanic Catholics had majorities who said the loss of religious influence is bad. In total, Pew found that 57 percent of U.S. adults have a positive view of religion in public life.

But Pew found that 41 percent of U.S. adults agreed it would be best to avoid discussing religion if there’s potential disagreement, up from 33 percent in 2019. White evangelicals were the most likely to say that they would try “to understand the person’s beliefs and agree to disagree,” with 60 percent of the group saying that was their approach when encountering religious disagreement. Yet, 14 percent of white evangelicals said that they would try “to persuade the person to change their mind” — 9 percent higher than the next highest religious groups.

Michael Wear, the founder, CEO, and president of the Center for Christianity and Public Life, told Sojourners he wasn’t surprised by Pew’s findings.

“America is still a profoundly religious nation,” Wear said. “Religion and religious influences are woven in our communities in so many different diverse cultures.”

Wear suggested that while some may think of scandal, controversy, or partisanship when they hear “religion in public life,” most Americans think of their day-to-day lives.

“[Most Americans are] thinking about more of the tactile stuff of community culture … the fact that you don’t see neighbors at church as often as you used to, or that the church that used to hold the festival every summer got closed down,” Wear said. “It’s a good reminder for folks that when they’re critiquing ‘religious influence in public life,’ … Americans may be thinking of something else entirely.”

Pew did not specifically define “religion’s role in public life” when asking about its influence. Sabrina Dent, director of the Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty interprets the term differently, saying it did suggest religious influence on public policy.

“When these surveys happen, you’re going to get a variety of responses depending on who is responding to the survey. When I think about the role of religion in public life, I’m thinking about how it shows up in the public square and has an influence on particular policies and particular issues,” Dent said. “It is perceived by some to be positive, but it doesn’t show up that way a lot of times.”

Increasing religion’s influence?

Rebecca Russo, vice president of higher education strategy at the nonprofit Interfaith America, said that for religion to again have an increased influence, Christians will have to embrace a holistic and hospitable plurality and look back at the country’s origins.

“We were founded to be, really, the world’s first attempt at religiously diverse democracy, which is an incredibly powerful thing. And as much as there are many things that are challenging about our history, this is one of the pieces that was aspirational and enacted from the very beginning of our nation’s history,” she told Sojourners. “We were created to be a place that valued religious freedom and that also valued religious pluralism and shared civic space together.”

Dent said the U.S.’s roots in religious pluralism can inspire a more religiously diverse future. Christians, she said, can’t be the only group in rooms with power.

“[What] does it look like to take into account the religious freedom and the human rights of every single person when the majority of the room is Christian?” she said. “Those that identify as Christian, or whoever are in the majority, … [must] align themselves to understand the experiences of those that fall in the minority.”

Wear agreed, saying that when Christians embrace their faith as a public good “it actually opens up a spirit in which we can look for the good everywhere.”

Pew also found that a high percentage of Americans had not heard of the term “Christian nationalism,” despite the prevalence of Christian nationalism in the zeitgeist. Pew found there has “been no change in the share of Americans who have heard of Christian nationalism over the past year and a half.” 54 percent of Americans had never heard of Christian nationalism.

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