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45% of Americans say the U.S. should be a Christian nation. What does that actually mean?

A new survey from Pew Research Center explores Americans’ complex thoughts on religion and politics

SHARE 45% of Americans say the U.S. should be a Christian nation. What does that actually mean?

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Nearly half of Americans say the United States should be a Christian nation, but they may not mean what you think they do.

A new survey from Pew Research Center found that U.S. adults hold complex and contradictory ideas about the concept of a Christian nation — and about the relationship between religion and politics in general.

“To some, being a Christian nation implies Christian-based laws and governance. For others it means the subtle guidance of Christian beliefs and values in everyday life, or even simply a population with faith in something bigger,” Pew researchers wrote in the survey report.

Among the 45% of Americans who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation, fewer than one-third want the government to formally declare it one or to advocate for Christian values. Additionally, more members of this group (39%) want the government to enforce the separation of church and state than to stop doing so, Pew found.

Still, supporters of the Christian nation concept are more supportive than others of the government embracing Christian values and teachings.

“The new survey finds that nearly 8 in 10 people who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation also say the Bible should have at least some influence on U.S. laws, including slightly more than half (54%) who say that when the Bible conflicts with the will of the people, the Bible should prevail,” researchers wrote.

Unsurprisingly, the survey showed Christians are more interested in the U.S. being a Christian nation than people of other faiths or no faiths.

More than 6 in 10 Christians (62%), including 81% of white evangelical Protestants, 65% of Black Protestants and 47% of Catholics, think the U.S. should be a Christian nation, compared to just 16% of non-Christians, Pew found.

There were also notable differences by political affiliation and age.

“Republicans also are at least twice as likely as Democrats to say that America should be a Christian nation (67% vs. 29%) and that the Bible should have more influence over U.S. laws than the will of the people if they conflict (40% vs. 16%),” researchers wrote. “Sixty-three percent of Americans ages 65 and older say the United States should be a Christian nation, compared with 23% of those ages 18 to 29.”

There’s less of a gap between Christians and non-Christians and Republicans and Democrats on a separate question about whether America’s founders “originally intended” for the country to be a Christian nation. Sixty percent of U.S. adults believe that they did.

Pew’s survey was conducted from Sept. 13-18, 2022, among 10,588 U.S. adults. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.

After asking a series of yes-or-no questions about the country’s character, researchers had survey participants respond to an open-ended question about what the phrase “Christian nation” means to them.

Responses made it clear that Americans are not at all on the same page, according to Pew.

“Some people who say the U.S. should be a Christian nation are thinking about the religious makeup of the population; to them, a Christian nation is a country where most people are Christians. Others are simply envisioning a place where people treat each other well and have good morals,” researchers noted in the survey reported.

The most common response was something along the lines of a Christian nation being one that’s generally guided by “Christian beliefs and values.”

Only 18% of U.S. adults said a Christian nation has Christian-based laws and governance, and it was much more common for opponents of the Christian nation concept to share this definition than others, researchers said.

There’s much more consensus around what role churches and other religious organizations should play in politics, Pew found.

More than three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) said these faith groups should not endorse political candidates. Two-thirds said churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters.

Most Americans (64%) also agree that the U.S. is not currently a Christian nation.

“A large majority of the public expresses some reservations about intermingling religion and government,” researchers wrote.

Pew’s survey comes amid widespread debate about religious freedom, including the Supreme Court’s approach to this right. More liberal Americans increasingly fear that Christians have an unfair advantage over others in the political realm, while conservatives often argue that people of faith are under attack.

The new report captures these tensions and shows that few Americans are happy with the status quo.

Pew found that majorities of all major faith groups — and 72% of U.S. adults overall — think “their side” has been losing more often than winning in the political realm over the past few years.

Here are some other findings from the report:

  • More than 8 in 10 U.S. adults say Supreme Court justices should not bring their own religious views into their rulings. The public is split over whether the justices relied too much on their faith (44%) or relied on it the right amount (40%) in recent decisions.
  • Similarly, Americans do not agree on whether recent Supreme Court decisions helped the interests of Christians. Forty-two percent said they have, while 40% said the rulings didn’t make much of a difference for Christians.
  • The share of U.S. adults who say the Supreme Court is “friendly” toward religion has risen from 18% to 35% over the past 3.5 years.
  • One-quarter of Americans, including 38% of Democrats and 11% of Republicans, say the Biden administration is “friendly” toward religion.