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America’s unique religious response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Nearly 3 in 10 Americans say that their faith has increased amid the pandemic and that the same is true of their fellow countrymen.

Very Rev. Martin Diaz celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
The Very Rev. Martin Diaz celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

More Americans say their faith has grown stronger amid the COVID-19 pandemic than citizens of other, comparable countries, according to a new survey.

However, that finding has more to do with the high share of U.S. adults who identify as religious than with the efforts of churches trying to keep people engaged, researchers said.

“Around the world you see a pretty clear trend that people who are already religious are considerably more likely than their secular counterparts to say that their faith has been strengthened” during the pandemic, said Neha Sahgal, an associate director of research at Pew Research Center. Because “religious Americans form a bigger share (of the population) than, say, religious Swedes or religious Danes,” the U.S., correspondingly, shows a larger increase in faith.

Nearly 3 in 10 Americans — 28% — say that their religiosity has increased since the pandemic began and that they believe the same is true of their countrymen, according to Pew Research Center’s latest report, which compares the U.S. to nations with similarly advanced economies.

Spain and Italy came after the U.S., with 16% and 15% of citizens, respectively, saying that their faith has grown stronger. Thirteen percent of Canadians reported the same; in the U.K. and Australia, that number dropped to 10%. Respondents in Scandinavia and Japan ranked the lowest in terms of increased religiosity during the pandemic.

As Sahgal noted, these results were primarily driven by people who were already religious before the pandemic began. Since the U.S. is more religious than other economically advanced countries, it had a leg up.

The most recent data confirms “American exceptionalism” when it comes to religiosity, Sahgal said.

If the survey had, instead, compared the U.S. to countries that are highly religious but less economically advanced, like India or some Middle Eastern nations, America might have seemed quite secular, she said.

“Anytime you do any kind of comparison, it’s a question: Are we really doing the right comparison?” Sahgal said. “We do know economic development does affect how people feel about religion.”

Pew’s survey, which was conducted via telephone in 14 countries, showed that most respondents, including a majority of Americans, believe the pandemic has neither strengthened nor weakened their faith.

“A median of 85% (across the countries surveyed) say their religious faith has not changed much,” the report explained.

But the pandemic has changed the way the faithful worship.

When houses of worship closed their doors in early 2020 to reduce infection risk, services moved online — and many Americans followed.

In a study released last August, Pew reported that 72% of those who regularly attended services before the pandemic began were watching them online.

Of those worshippers, 59% were church hopping by checking out the broadcasts of places other than their home congregations. Some took advantage of the opportunity to dip into the services offered by pastors in other states.

Churches and synagogues helped congregants stay connected by creating new small groups that fostered a sense of community and continuity amid the pandemic that has ruptured both. While these “prayer pods” are sustaining many religious institutions, those that formed spontaneously — as well as a smattering of new house churches — left some wondering if this democratic form of worship could pose threat to churches.

Research suggests, however, that after the pandemic most faithful will return to their usual practices.

In addition to comparing responses from the 14 countries involved, Pew’s latest report highlighted differences in responses among religious groups in the United States.

White evangelicals were the most likely to report that their faith had grown stronger during the pandemic, with 49% reporting that this was the case and 43% saying that they believed the same was true for fellow Americans. Catholic respondents came in just above but close to the national average, with 35% answering that their faith had deepened in recent months. Mainline Protestants (21%) lagged behind these two groups, as well as the national average.

While only 5% of the unaffiliated said that they had become more religious since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, about 20% believed the faith of other Americans had grown in recent months, the survey found.

Within the U.S., more respondents said the pandemic has strengthened their family bonds than their religiosity: Approximately 4 in 10 respondents told Pew their connections with their families have grown stronger.

Young Americans ages 18-29 were the most likely to say this, with 50% reporting that their ties to their families had deepened; Pew’s research echoes earlier findings reported in the American Family Survey that weathering the international crisis has knitted families together.