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Religion is being pushed out of the public square. Research shows it’s only going to get worse

Nuns and their supporters rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2016, as the court hears arguments about birth control in health care plans in the Zubik vs. Burwell case.
Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Most Americans believe religion has a positive impact on society, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. But if you’re a fan of churches and other religious institutions, don’t celebrate just yet.

Researchers also uncovered deep partisan and generational divides that could threaten the future of religion in the United States. Religious institutions aren’t very popular among groups they soon may depend on for support.

For example, fewer than half of Democrats and people who lean Democratic (44%) said churches and religious organizations do “more good than harm” in society, compared to 71% of Republicans and Republican leaners, the survey showed.

“One of the clearest patterns in the whole survey is the difference between Republicans and Democrats in their views on religion’s role in public life,” said Claire Gecewicz, a research associate for Pew.

These results aren’t that surprising, since a growing share of Democrats identify as nonreligious. The Democratic Party recently passed a resolution in support of religiously unaffiliated voters, which claimed that religious views are sometimes wrongly used to justify limits on civil rights.

“Those most loudly claiming that morals, values and patriotism must be defined by their particular religious views have used those religious views ... to justify public policy that has threatened the civil rights and liberties of many Americans,” the resolution said.

As religious groups struggle to adjust to declining attendance at worship services and shifting cultural norms around issues like LGBTQ rights, many Democratic officials seem to be more interested in kicking them while they’re down than helping them out, said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, to the Deseret News earlier this month.

“The positions (Democrats) have taken are just so antithetical to Christianity,” the Rev. Jeffress said.

In recent years, Democrats have championed efforts to force religious objectors to cover birth control in insurance plans; prevent some conservative, religiously affiliated nonprofits from receiving federal grant money and limit the application of federal religious freedom protections.

Only 1 in 5 U.S. adults (19%) believe the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion, Pew found. Around half (48%) said it has a neutral stance.

Americans feel very differently about the Republican Party. More than half of U.S. adults (54%) say it’s friendly toward religious groups, the survey showed.

More than 6,300 U.S. adults took part in Pew’s survey, which was conducted online from March 18 to April 1, 2019. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.

Religious organizations are already suffering as a result of partisan tensions, said Montse Alvardo, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, during a Nov. 13 panel on how culture wars affect foster care and adoption agencies.

Efforts to shut down faith-based agencies that won’t serve LGBTQ couples are “politically motivated,” she said. They have “everything to do with not liking ... what their faith traditions teach and nothing to do with how well they do their work.”

Just 27% of Democrats and those who lean Democratic say religion’s declining influence in American life is “a bad thing,” compared to 63% of Republicans, Pew reported.

If Democrats win control of the Senate or White House next year, faith groups could face more pressure to alter their beliefs, religion experts said.

However, the survey also showed that, in the long run, partisan divides may not be religious organizations’ biggest problem. Religion-related laws won’t affect churches and nonprofits forced to close due to a lack of engagement from young adults.

Nearly 3 in 10 Americans aged 18 to 29 (28%) said religious organizations do more harm than good, compared to just 14% of U.S. adults over the age of 50, the survey showed. Around one-quarter of young adults (24%) believe religion is losing its influence in society and that it’s a good thing.

“The differences by age are relatively modest, especially when compared to differences by party. But, overall, we see that older adults are a bit more supportive of religion’s role in society,” Gecewicz said.

Historically speaking, it’s not unusual for 20-somethings to be less supportive of and engaged in religion than older adults. What stands out today is how few religiously unaffiliated young people change their minds about faith as they age.

“In the 1970s, only about one-third (34%) of Americans who were raised in religiously unaffiliated households were still unaffiliated as adults,” Public Religion Research Institute reported in 2016. “Today, about two-thirds (66%) ... remain unaffiliated as adults.”

In light of these figures, the fact that more than twice as many U.S. adults say religion has a positive impact (55%) on society than say it has a negative one (20%) may offer little comfort. But Pew’s survey does offer some clues on how churches and religious organizations should proceed in order to win back — or at least not lose — support.

Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults, including 70% of Democrats, believe that churches and other houses of worship should “keep out of political matters,” Pew reported. More than three-quarters of Americans said these institutions shouldn’t come out in favor of one candidate over another.

“U.S. adults are resoundingly clear in their belief that religious institutions should stay out of politics,” researchers wrote.