What has Shaken American Faith in the Power of Religion?

A May 2014 Gallup Poll says that 57% of the Americans polled believe in the ability of religion to answer most or all of the world’s problems. Click here to read the article. Gallup first conducted this poll once in the 1950s, once in the 1970s, and multiple times during the 1980s and each subsequent decade. American belief in religion to solve worldwide problems was at its height the first time the poll was conducted in 1957. In 1957, 82% of the respondents believed in Religion’s ability to answer the world’s problems. So, what has happened? Yes, technically, as the article reminds readers, 57% is indeed a majority of the population. However, it is a significant decrease from the high religiosity of the 1950s and 1960s and it is important for people of faith to grapple with potential causes of the wane in interest.

Students of American Religious History will remember that the 1950s were the decade when the United States became embroiled in the Cold War. World War II was over and the United States was a new world superpower. In the United States socio-political landscape circa 1957, to be a Protestant Christian was akin to being a Patriotic American. American Religious fervor, and fear of non-Protestant Christian faiths, was at a high in the 1950s. The period from 1945 to 1962 saw prominent Christian Theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth featured on the cover of TIME Magazine because their work, which animated the American mind as they strove to be Protestant Christian Patriots. In 1964, public theologian and Civil Rights Activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., also appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine. In the past decade, a few prominent pastors have appeared the cover of TIME Magazine, but there is much less fascination with the work of theologians than there was sixty years ago. Certainly, it would be a far stretch to say that today’s United States has produced public theologians to the caliber of any of the aforementioned individuals.

The Gallup Poll data shows American religiosity began to wane around 1970. Notably, the data reflects that about 60% of Americans born before 1970 still trust Religion while roughly 53% of those born after 1970 say the same. Thus, we are left to determine what problems that have arisen since 1970 that have caused Americans to begin to doubt the ability of Religion. Let’s take a look at some of the historical trends that have occurred starting around the middle of the 1960s that probably have impacted the ability of Americans to see Religion as the universal problem solver:

  1. Failed military endeavors. From 1959-1979, the United States was fully involved in the Indo-Chinese conflict known colloquially as the Vietnam War. A number of military failures in Cuba and East Asia under the leadership of President John F. Kennedy began to disillusion the beliefs of American superiority which had been more prevalent during the successful years of the 1950s.
  2. Many modern Civil Rights Movements have relied more heavily on the legal than religious system. The 1960s saw waves of change in the United States. Racial groups and the poor increasingly spoke out against the injustices they faced. They often used the tools of theological language, but in many cases also relied on political and legal structures to carry out their important work. As a result, the record of American History since the 1970s at least acknowledges the presence of black bodies and the presence of a diversity of socio-economic groups in its development. Having seen the relative success of those movements, in the past three decades, more oppressed groups have begun to make their voices heard. Although the Disabilities Rights Movement began in the 1960s, the American with Disabilities Act enacted in 1990 was most influential in giving voice to disabled Americans. Also, the past two to three decades have seen more inclusion of non-black people of color, the very young (mostly because of social media), elders (mostly because of increased life expectancy), and more inclusion of the LGBTQ population. As we have seen, these groups have found strong advocates first within the legal system and, often, only secondarily, within Religious communities.
  3. Alternative options for community. People need community but increasingly, Americans are deciding that they don’t need Religion in order to enjoy community. The article reveals that even among Americans who self-identify as people who “attend church less often”, 36% believe Religion is able to answer the world’s problems but 45% call it old-fashioned. For even Americans who infrequently attend church to call it old-fashioned is an indication that for many twenty first century Americans, religion does not provide the ideal form of community.

The title of the article you were invited to read at the beginning of this post is called “Majority Still Says Religion Can Answer Today’s Problems”. Indeed, 57% is a majority; however, Religion has lost its monopoly on American ways of thinking. No longer does Reinhold Niebuhr appear on the cover of TIME Magazine, he has been replaced by President Barack Obama who calls Niebuhr (who himself was more political realist than Christian theologian) his favorite theologian. For an increasing number of people in mainstream America, the social communities offered through video messages and social networking are more powerful than any religious community. More people than ever, according to the Poll data, are of the strong opinion that Religion is Old-Fashioned or Out-of-Date. What, if anything, will people and communities of faith do to increase their relevance or importance? Are our theologies ones that are motivated by love or by exclusionary doctrine? What do you believe to be the role of your Religion, or of any Religion for that matter, in answering the pressing world problems of our day?

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Jaimie Crumley is a summer intern at the Eleison Group. She is an alumna of Wellesley College and a current student at Yale University Divinity School.


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