Any attempt to assess the importance of religion in America is a massive undertaking. There are endless ways to approach the question — and endless questions to approach. Regardless of the question or the approach, however, the answer seems clear: religion is important in America.
This premise is apparent in the numbers of individuals who claim to be religious. In a 2004 Gallup poll, only 10.6 percent of the population claimed no religion, while 82 percent described themselves as Christian. In the same poll, only 15 percent claimed that “religion was not very important” in their lives.1 An Opinion Dynamics Corporation poll the same year showed that 92 percent of Americans believe in God, 85 percent believe in heaven, 82 percent believe in miracles, and 71 percent believe in the devil.2
It seems clear that religion plays some sort of role in the lives of the majority of individuals surveyed. Self-reports, however, can be problematic. For example, people can understand religion in vastly different ways. One person may consider religion important in guiding her political life and behavior, while another may believe that religion is important solely on a personal level.
This can cause some self-reported “religious” individuals to be perceived as secular by others; according to the same Opinion Dynamics poll in 2004, 69 percent of Americans say they think religion plays too small a role in people’s lives. Some consider regular meditation religious, while for others, weekly attendance at services qualifies a person as a religious individual. In light of these difficulties, then, it may be more telling to examine some of the ways in which we can measure the effect religion has on society.
Religion and Politics
It’s difficult to ignore the influence of religion on politics. Ongoing debates over abortion and stem cell research make it apparent that religious beliefs affect political opinion. In the 2004 presidential election, “moral values” were often cited as the most important election issue; 80 percent of the people who voted on this issue voted for George W. Bush,3 who identifies himself as a born-again Christian. In the 2006 U.S. Congress, there is not one religiously unaffiliated senator or representative; a 93-percent majority professes the Christian faith.4
Further, a 1999 Gallup poll revealed that over 90 percent of the population would vote for a president who was Jewish, black, Catholic, female or Baptist; 79 percent would vote for a Mormon candidate; and 59 percent would vote for a homosexual candidate — but only 49 percent would vote for an atheist, the lowest approval rating of all categories identified in the poll.5 Based on these numbers, we can say that to be elected into national political office, it is essential to be religious and particularly beneficial to be Christian.
Religion and Public Education
Another ongoing debate is over the presence of religion in schools. Recent controversies over intelligent design and evolution revealed that many Americans give religious beliefs a higher priority than scientific education. In 2001, 45 percent of Americans believed that humans were created by God in their present form;6 despite overwhelming scientific evidence of evolution, it is quite clear that for many, science education takes a back seat to religion.
Many Americans also believe religion should play a greater role in schools. A 2001 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of the population supported “allowing daily prayer to be spoken in the classroom”;7 in 2000, 74 percent favored allowing public schools to display the Ten Commandments.8 While these public opinion polls do not directly measure how much religion influences schools, they do make it clear that the population favors religion in classrooms, and this in itself can have an impact. For example, according to a New York Times article, pressure from religious parents and students has caused some teachers to avoid teaching evolutionary theory, simply to avoid conflict.9
Religion and Business
Aside from politics and education, religion also seems to affect businesses, or in some cases, create businesses. In 2002, Christian merchandise brought in $4.2 billion, and has been rising steadily.10 Christian stores are opening across the country; unaffiliated stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart sell religious merchandise. The great demand for Christian items has taken retail of them into the mainstream.
Also, the last two decades have seen a huge spike in the number of megachurches (churches with regular attendance over 2,000), many of which operate much like businesses; they create and sell publications, videos, and music, and often produce radio or television shows.11 This may seem more like the effect of business on religion, but however you look at it, religion and business are more 'commingled than we might initially perceive them to be.
Religion in America’s Future
The U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of disestablishment and free exercise of religion has created an America in which a plurality of religions thrives. At the same time, it is evident that Christianity seems to dominate as the most prevalent religious/social influence.
While it is difficult to predict how religion and Christianity will continue to influence the country, with megachurches on the rise, the public demanding more religious influence in schools, and with religion and politics closely intertwined, it seems safe to say that religion’s influences on America won’t diminish any time soon.
1 Newport, Frankfurt. 2004. “A Look at Americans and Religion Today.” The Gallup Poll. The Gallup Poll Organization: Princeton, NJ.
2 Opinion Dynamics Corporation. 2004. “More Believe in God Than Heaven.” Retrieved Jan. 24, 2006 (www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,99945,00.html).
3 “Election Results.” 2004. CNN.com: U.S. President/National/Exit Poll. Retrieved Feb. 4, 2006. (http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/pages/results/states/US/P/00/epolls.0.html).
4 “Religious Affiliation of U.S. Congress.” 2005. Retrieved Feb. 4, 2006. (http://www.adherents.com/adh_congress.html).
5 “Prejudice in Politics.” 1999. pp 53-55 in Gallup Poll Public Opinion 1999. Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources.
6 “Creationism vs. Evolution.” 2001. pp 52-54 in Gallup Poll Public Opinion 2001. Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources.
7 “Religion in Public Schools.” 2001. pp 49-50 in Gallup Poll Public Opinion 2001. Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources.
8 “Supreme Court Rulings.” 2000. pp 199-201 in Gallup Poll Public Opinion 2001. Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources.
9 Dean, Cornelia. 2005. “Evolution Takes a Back Seat in U.S. Classes.” New York Times, Feb 1.
10 Beres, Glen. 2004. “Onward Christian Shoppers.” ISC.org: International Council of Shopping Centers. (http://www.icsc.org/srch/sct/sct0204/page49.php?region=) Retrieved Feb. 4, 2006.
11 Kroll, Luisa. 2003. “Megachurches, Megabusinesses.” Forbes.com. (http://www.forbes.com/2003/09/17/cz_lk_0917megachurch.html). Retrieved Feb. 4, 2006.