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Religion in America

Latest updates:
Addition of "Digging Deeper" sections - June 28, 2021
Update "Confidence in Religion and Other American Institutions" section- July 22, 2021

About Religion in America. In 2012 Stu Johnson was the lead author of a report on the Religious Publishing Marketplace in America, produced by Simba Information for Zondervan/HarperCollins Christian Publishing. The chapter on Religion in America, a summary of survey research, some of it going back many decades, was compiled solely by Stu and subsequently extracted as a separate report.


About this page. The graphs on this page are selected slides from a more detailed PowerPoint® presentation that illustrates major trends in the American religious landscape. You can click on a graph to enlarge it. (It will open in a new tab.)

The primary data sources used include Gallup, Pew Research, and Barna Group. Data sources are shown on each chart. For some charts, the survey is repeated annually, others more sporadically, Each chart shows the latest data available at the time of the last update of this page.



Executive Summary

Click on a Section header to go to that part of the report. Note beginning with "DD" describes a Digging Deeper page available for that section.

The U.S. Compared to the World

  • In the U.S. the number of Christian adherents continues a decline that became noticeable around 1970 and is accelerating in the early decades of the 21st century.. Those claiming Christian affiliation (Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational Christians) accounted for 93% of the adult population in 1964. It was 83% in 2000, then 68% in 2020. Meanwhile, those claiming no affiliation have been steadily climbing from 2% in 1964 to 20% in 2020 according to Gallup and 28% according to Pew.

  • While Christian adherents are declining in the U.S., those who describe themselves as "born again" or "evangelical" remain more constant. Gallup starting asking the question in 1992, when 36% of adult respondents claimed to be born again or evangelical. The number peaked at 47% in 1998, then began moving down, ending at the low point of 34% in 2020, but that is only 2 points lower than where it started 28 years ago.

The Changing Mix
DD on Composition of Religious Affiliation, with detailed demographics)

  • Breaking the numbers down, it appears that most of the loss in Christian adherents is occurring among those who might be identified as "cultural" or "nominal" Christians, whose adherence has been driven by tradition more than personal belief and practice. This is clearly seen in the shrinkage of mainline denominations.

  • The significant "rise of the nones" in the United States—those who claim no religious affiliation—has been accelerating since 2000 and is most noticeable among the youngest generations. A study in January 2018 by Barna, which includes 13-18 year-olds in Generation Z, shows a doubling of those identifying themselves as atheist (13%, compared to 6-7% for all older cohorts, including Millennial and Gen X). Where a sizable portion of early "nones" still retained an interest in spirituality, some have dubbed younger unaffiliateds as the "rise of the Dones"—those who may have been involved with organized religion under the influence of family, but cut their ties completely in adulthood.

  • Age Cohort, Political Party Preference and Geographic Region are the strongest indicators of variations in religious affiliation. In addition to the discussion of the Barna study of Generation Z later in this Summary, see Digging Deeper pages on Composition of Affiliates and Attendance at Religious Services for comparison with other demographic factors.

  • Globally, Christian adherents represent the largest group, at 31%, followed by Muslim, Unaffiliated, Hindu, Buddhist, Other and Jewish. According to a 2018 Pew study,by 2050 Muslims will catch up with Christians as a proportion of world population, together claiming six in ten adults. The growth of unaffiliated will impact the U.S. more than the global population, according to the study.

Beliefs
DD on beliefs in God, the Devil, Angels, Heaven, and Hell

  • Belief in God among Americans remains strong but showed signs of decline since the mid-1980s, paralleling but lagging behind the "rise of the nones," indicating the likelihood that belief in spiritual matters is distinct from affiliation with organized Christian religion. The expression of the belief has also been tempered by a softening of the survey question by broadening it from "do you believe in God" to "do you believe in God (or a Universal Spirit)?," which opens the door to a wider set of religious perspectives.

  • Declining religious affiliation among younger age cohorts impacts beliefs about Science and the Bible, though an early study of Generation Z by Barna showed a possible break in that pattern among the newest age cohort.

  • While nearly half of Americans believe the Bible is an "inspired Word," those who believe the Bible to be the "Actual Word" versus "Fables and Legends" have crossed paths in recent years, with the Fables and Legends view surpassing Actual Word in 2017, each camp represented by roughly one-quarter.

The Importance and Influence of Religion in America
DD on Attendance at Religious Services, with detailed demographics

  • Those who believe religion is very important has recently dropped below the majority (48%), falling 13% from its peak of 61% in 1998. On the other hand, those who see religion as not very important have slowly gained strength, beginning to compete with and surpass those who feel it is fairly important, a view that has remained more constant.

  • Slightly more than half of Americans believe religion can answer today's problems, but the 40% divide with those who said no in 1994 narrowed to 11% in 2018, with a slight rebound to 18% separation in 2020.

Confidence in Religion and Other American institutions
(DD on Confidence, additional tables and trend graphs by institution

  • Americans have shown a steady erosion of confidence in major institutions—including organized religion— tracked by Gallup since 1973. (The confidence score is the combination of those responding "A great deal" and "Quite a lot").

    In the 2020 report, issued in July during the early months of COVID-19, we saw a very uncharacteristic increase in confidence in two-thirds of the institutions. This included significant upward movement for The Medical System and Public Schools, which increased confidence scores by more than ten points and moved up 4 and 3 rankings respectively. Combined with smaller upward ticks for other instituions, this was very likely a response to the tributes given to the "heroes" on the front lines of the pandemic's impact as it surged in the U.S. At the same time, The Police and TV News sank to record lows, likely related to the global response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May. (The Police still came in at number 4 in the ranks, down one from previous years).

    In the update for July 2021 we see a resumption of the overall decline in confidence across what is now 17 institutions, with the addition of Science to the list (in response to debates over use of "the science" related to recommended responses to the COVID-19 pandemic). The downturn is still above record lows, but pointing downward. At the same time, it should be emphasized that such changes from year to year have to be taken in context. As you will see in the charts below, while trending down, the line of confidence scores has many peaks and valleys in the nearly five decades of polling.

    Organized religion
    was number 1 from 1973 through 1985. In 2020, it bounced up to 42% positive response from a low of 36% in 2019 and rose one rank to number 5 among the 16 institutions measured. This year, Organized Religion lost almost all of its gain from 2020, ending at 37 and dropped in rank to number 7, the lowest ever, partly because Science made its debut in third place with a confidence score of 64.


Defining Religious Cohorts

  • 2009: George Barna's Seven Faith Tribes - 66% Casual Christians, 16% Captive Christians, 11% Skeptics, 7% Other (Jews, Mormons, Pantheists, Muslims)

  • 2018: Per Research Religious Typology - 39% Highly Religious (Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers, Diversely Devout), 32% Somewhat Religious (Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake), 29% Non-religious


Look for the Digging deeper icon in sections below. It will lead to more detail on a particular topic, including demographic factors (gender, race, age cohort, geographic region, education, political party preference). This feature was introduced in June 2021 for four pages on Beliefs, Composition of Affiliates, Attendance at Religious Services, and Confidence in Institutions. Other Digging Deeper pages may follow as material becomes available.


The U.S. compared to the World

While Christian adherents have been declining, especially in the last two decades, the United States remains a predominantly Christian country—with 65% of adults identifying themselves as Christian in the most recent Pew polling. (Gallup shows 68%).

Around the world, according to various sources, Christians represented about half that level, with roughly three in ten of adults in 2020.

Pew suggests 28% unaffiliated in the U.S. in 2020, while Gallup puts it at 20%. The difference cannot be explained simply by margin of error, but by differences in survey methodology, question wording and interpretation of results. More on that as we dig deeper.

Though declining, Christian adherents are expected to dominate in the United States into the foreseeable future. By 2050 Pew predicts a drop from three-quarters to two-thirds of adults. In reality, we reached that level in 2018, according to Gallup and by 2020 it dropped to 65%.

Non-Christian religious adherents in the U.S. will increase some, but the most noticeable shift will be the continued increase of those with no stated affiliation. However, when looking at global projections, notice that Muslim adherents could match Christian by 2050. Most others, including unaffiliated, are seen as remaining the same or declining.

Back to Executive Summary

The Changing Mix

A 55-year trend

In many of the line charts in this report, orange dots represent low points on a line, yellow dots represent high points. There can be multiple dots for high and low points.

For much of the 20th century, Protestantism dominated the American religious landscape, with its adherents representing 70% or more of the adult population. Catholic adherents accounted for another one-quarter of adults, putting the combined total of Christian adherents well over 90% for many years.

Following World War II, Protestants and Other (non-Catholic) Christians declined from a steady 70% majority to just below 50% for the first time in 2012, according to Gallup. In 1998 Gallup began including "Other Christian" with Protestant. This reflects the rise of non-denominational churches as well as churches that do not promote their own affiliation with a denominational organization, so congregants may not know there is a denominational connection. Denominational Protestants fell below 50% of the population in 2006, while all Protestants hit that mark in 2012. Total Protestants fell to a low of 45% in 2019, but came back to 46% in 2020. Whether that is related to COVID, the presidential election, or other factors is simply too close to call when the margin of error alone could produce a swing of a percentage or two from year to year. It is interesting, however, that a number of measures that had been trended down saw a noticeable upturn in 2020.

Catholics have held steadier, at roughly a quarter of the adult population, but show a steady decline from a peak of 29% in 1982 to a low of 21% in 2019, followed by a slight bump up to 22% in 2020.

"Nones" have been steadily growing from practically non-existent status in the 1960s to breaking 10% in the first decade of the 21st century, then approaching or exceeding 20% in the second decade, depending on the survey. (Pew has shown Unaffiliated as high as 28%, though its estimate of total Christians (Catholic and Other Christian) is fairly close, at 65%, compared to Gallup's 68%. The difference, while notable, may be attributed to such factors as polling methodology, wording of questions and interpretation of responses.

Initially, the increase in unaffiliated (commonly called "the rise of the nones") reflected a rejection of organized religion, with some "nones" remaining spiritually open. More recently, however, especially among younger generations, we are seeing growth in those who identify as agnostic or atheist. (See the charts on Generation Z below).


Since 1992, Gallup has asked people if they describe themselves as "born again" or "evangelical." As a self-description there is plenty of latitude and I believe the term "evangelical" has been co-opted by the media in political analysis since the 2000 presidential election, applied to what in the 1990's was called the Religious Right. That designation was represented by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and similar movements growing out the Fundamentalist stream of American religion.

George Barna developed a strict definition of evangelical, based on beliefs and behaviors, which narrows the group down to about 8% of the American adult population. Beyond those who fit this narrow definition, a third or more in Barna surveys have described themselves as "born again."

During the early 2000's, I was involved in research for Tyndale Publishing House during the height of the popularity of the Left Behind end-times series. During that time, Tyndale commissioned research, part of which indicated that Catholics compromised a good part of the audience for that series and many of them used "born again" to describe themselves. Therefore, while "evangelical" generally refers to a subset within Protestantism, those who identify themselves as "born again" can be found across Christian adherents.

Needless to say, it is interesting to note the rise of this group from the start of the question in 1992 at 36% of all respondents) to a high of 47% in 1998. From there, the trend has been slowly downward, but the low of 34% in 2020 is barely below the starting point back nearly 30 years ago.

Compared to other indicators with far more significant change, the trend here is remarkably level. In fact, the proportion of born-again/evangelical among Christian adherents (including Catholics), at 52% in 2020, has actually grown, from 44% in 1992 to 52% in 2020. This could be attributed to the idea expressed by Ed Stetzer and others that "the rise of the nones" actually represents a winnowing out of nominal Christians for whom faith was more form and tradition than substance.


The changing mix: Other religions

The data comes from different sources. Because the numbers are small (within the error of margin for most surveys), we can only make a few general observations.

Clearly, there has been some increase in Other religions, yet they still represent a very small portion of the adult population in the U.S., between three and five percent.

Jews have remained between one and two percent in surveys since 1990.

Muslim adherents remain a smaller segment than many people might assume, given exposure in news and politics (and confusion between religion, ethnic background, and national origin). The growth shown by 2010 seems to have settled back to just under two percent.

Adherents of Other non-Christian religions (which represent many groups) are growing, up three-fold since 1990, and greater than the combined total of Jews and Muslims.


None does not equal Atheist, but does mean young

Prior to 2018, a breakdown of those who claimed no religious affiliation showed some growth of those who identify themselves as Atheist and Agnostic, but the greatest growth was among those who simply have no preference. (Compare this chart with the earlier one showing Gallup results, which shows unaffiliated ("None") about 5-8 percentage points below Pew throughout the time covered here).

From 2008 through 2016 Pew divided unaffiliated ("nothing in particular" in this chart) into Secular and Religious Unaffiliated. Starting with a nearly even split in 2008 (close to 6% each), by 2018 the gap widened to 14% Secular and 3% Religious.

The presence of the seemingly paradoxical "Religious Unaffiliated" is an indicator of the discomfort that a number have had with organized religion, especially as the rise of the Nones began to explode. In 2008, Pew found that when Unaffiliated were asked a number of questions about spiritual issues, they could be divided between Religious—those who claim that spiritual factors are important to them—and Secular—those who claim little or no importance for spiritual things. It appears that those with spiritual interest began to decline, so the most recent division between Atheist, Agnostic, and Nothing in Particular shows how significant has been the move away from organized religion and religious belief, especially in the second decade of the 21st century.


An increasing generation gap

When viewed by generation, it is striking to note the accelerating growth of the unaffiliated with each succeeding generation. The proportion moves from 10-percent or less unaffiliated for those born before the end of World War II in 1945, to more than a third of the youngest generation.

Note that Pew shows unaffiliated Millenials in 2018 ten-percent above a similar breakdown by Barna in the next chart. In the other age cohorts, Barna shows higher unaffiliateds than Pew by a smaller margin. The lesson here is that survey research is most useful to show trends over time than a high degree of precision at any one time. As already pointed out, this is often due to differences in research methodology and how questions are framed and interpreted.

Meet Generation Z

In a study released in January 2018, Barna Group revealed a startling indicator of the depth of age-related disconnect with organized religion. The youngest age cohort, known as Generation Z, or Gen Z, shows a 5-point increase over Millenials in not claiming a religious affiliation. Most significant: all of the increase and more came from those claiming to be atheists.

The Barna report reveals much more detail, which was the subject of an InfoMatters blog, "Generation Z," posted in February, 2018.


See more details about COMPOSITION OF RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION
(Rise of Nones, Religious Affiliation by Gender, Race, Age Cohort, Region, Education, and Political Preference)

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Beliefs

Belief in God

The trend indicated by this chart, developing since 2000, is very obvious (and corresponds to the "rise of the nones" discussed throughout this report). This is the longest-running of the Gallup questions on religion, going back to 1945. As you can see, belief in God was nearly unanimous from the end of World War II to the last decade of the 20th century. Since then, it has begun to erode noticeably. When first asked, the question referred only to "God," but in more recent years it has referred to "God or a Universal Spirit."

Science and the Bible

The Gen Z study asked about respondents' views of science and the Bible. In general, younger generations side with science or view science and the Bible as independent, expressing different aspects of reality. A diminishing proportion see the Bible and science as complementary, while the number who side with the Bible when there is apparent conflict increases with the youngest generations. This may seem counter-intuitive, but could be due to the strong influence among some home schoolers and Christian academies, "young earth" groups and others taking exception with scientific assumptions about the origins of life and the age of the earth.

Beliefs about the Bible

An interesting parallel to the Science and the Bible chart above is data from Gallup on views of the Bible.

What I find striking is that those who perceive the Bible as the inspired word of God have remained fairly steady since 1976. On the other hand, those who take a more literal view have declined by 12%. While it does not represent the movement of individuals, the decline is not matched by a growth in Inspired, but rather by an 11% increase in those viewing the Bible as Fables & Legends. The two lines converged in the latest survey in 2017. Unfortunately, the survey has not been done again, which would likely show those two lines continuing to move further apart, in opposite directions. [Unlike other charts, which represent annual surveys, the colored dots show the value in years the survey was conducted, with the solid lines showing the overall trend.]


See more details about BELIEFS
(God, Devil, Angels, Heaven, Hell)

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The Importance and Influence of Religion in America

How important is religion in your life?

Both "very important" and "somewhat important" show declines over 25 years. "Very important" is off 13% from the peak of 61% in 1998 and 2003. "Fairly important" fell 7% from its starting point of 29% in 1992 to its low of 22% in 2016. From there it has rebounded slightly, ending at 25% in 2020. "Not very important" moved up about 15% in nearly three decades, crossing the slowly declining "fairly important" line in 2016, matching it in 2019, then moving ahead again by two points in 2020 (remember, however that this could easily be within the margin of error for such research). This exceeds the "rise of the nones" in the same time period, which went up 10% (some earlier converts to none could have shifted from religious to secular unaffiliated).

Ability of religion to address today's problems

The decline for "yes" is greater than that of personal importance on the previous chart—a decline of 18% since the peak of 67% in 1999. However, Yes moved up 4% in 2019 to 53% and stayed there into 2020.

Those who felt that religion "is largely old-fashioned and out of date" ("No" on the chart) rose fairly steadily by 17 points, from 21% in 1994 to 38% in 2018. As with Yes, it reversed course in the next two years, ending at 35% in 2020—a likely temporary change of direction in the overall steady climb. What is interesting is that the low for Yes and the high for No both appeared in 2018, with the change of direction occurring before COVID and other events of 2020. Over the next few years, that may level off into a blip in time. How long now before the No's outnumber the Yes's?


The influence of religion

Here, the change is much more dramatic, with strong belief of increasing influence through 2001 followed by an equally dramatic decline to 2009, when it leveled off in the low 20% area, hitting the low of 19% in 2019. Then, an up-tick of 14% to 33% in 2020 mimics a similar jump in 2000-01. While the larger spikes may be related to 9/11 and COVID-19 as indicated by the markers, the overall trend is likely due to much more complex cultural and organizational associations than the more personal "problems" question. The trend for "losing" influence is a mirror image given the binary choice. (Also seen more subtlety in the previous chart on the ability of religion to answer questions where there is a stronger presence of "other" responses).


Membership and attendance

Membership has fallen faster than attendance, pointing out that the importance of membership (which requires a formal process in most religious bodies) has itself been in decline. Some are content to attend without being official members. Furthermore, while many churches may still distinguish between members and attenders, it is unclear whether respondents make that distinction. This is true not just of religion, where membership is usually distinct from attendance, but across the spectrum of organizations in society that are dependent on membership (service clubs, scouting, etc.) .

At any rate, while it is clear that immediacy of attendance (in the last seven days) remains lower than having a sense of belonging, attendance has declined by less than half (10%) that of membership (23%) since 1992. The significance of the comparison in the chart is that membership does not matter nearly as much as it once did, at least as reported by individuals (as Gallup is doing).


See more details about ATTENDANCE
(gender, race, party preference and more)

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Confidence in Religion and Other American Institutions

This section was last updated July 22 and 24, 2021, following release of the results of the 2021 Gallup survey on institutional confidence.

Gallup began its annual survey of confidence in American institutions in 1973. The question is stated "Now I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one -- a great deal, quite a lot, some, very little, or none?" The score in the charts and referred to as being confident represents those who responded "a great deal" or "quite a lot."

Survey results are released each July, so the 2021 survey is more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 survey, referred to here for contrast, was released in the early months of the pandemic, which resulted in two-thirds of institutions moving up in confidence, most likely in recognition of the "heroes" facing the first surge of virus in the U.S. On the other hand, the results came shortly after the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, with months to go in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election, so The Police and TV News both hit record lows (though The Police dropped only one rank to number 4). Now more than a year into the pandemic, those bumps have moderated in the direction of the long-term downward trend.

In 1973, the first year Gallup conducted its annual measure of confidence in major institutions, "the church or organized religion" was rated the highest among 15 institutions.

Organized Religion continued to rank first through 1985, then fell below 60%. Among the reasons: Televangelist scandals, child molestation by priests; then a general decline in religiosity continued the downward trend (as scandals in Catholic and Protestant churches continued). Organized Religion dropped 32% from its high of 68% in 1975 to 36% in 2019). In 2020, the survey reflected the early months of COVID with many congregations under lockdown and scrambling to stay connected through various online options, Organized Religion rebounded to 42% in 2020, but settled back to 37% in 2021 even as many congregations were opening up, keeping barely ahead of the low point of 2019.

For all institutions confidence fell 16% from a high of 48% in 1979 to a low of 32% in 2014. There was a noticeable upturn in 2020 across two-thirds of the 15 institutions, most likely attributable to responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a downturn for Police and TV News, with George Floyd's death occurring shortly before the survey results were released in July.

Last year I stated that I fully expected to see the downward trend continue in future years, which appears to be the case for 2021 . . . but first, let's like to look at 2020 again because of its uniqueness.

In 2019, Organized Religion ranked 6 among 15 institutions, even though it had fallen further in score than any of the institutions included. In 2020 it regained six points, to 42% confidence, bringing it up to number 5.

In 2020, Large Tech was added to the Gallup survey, bringing the list to 16 institutions. (It has always had 15 or 16, with half of them on the list since 1973). Large Tech includes organizations like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, all embroiled at the time of the 2020 survey in concerns over privacy, monopoly and content. The introduction of Large Tech at Number 10 pushed the six remaining institutions down one rank each while keeping their order from 2019.

Reflecting the events of 2020, Small Business and the Medical System reached their highest level of confidence, while Police and TV News hit their lowest levels—and were the only two to go down in score. Yet, The Police dropped only one rank to 4 after having been at 3 for at least three years before. Showing the uniqueness of 2020, even as early in the pandemic as the survey was taken, 10 of the 15 continuing institutions saw their scores increase over 2019, while only two went down (The Police and TV News), and three remained the same as 2019 (the Criminal Justice System, TV News and Congress).

While 10 of the 16 institutions have had 50% or more confidence at some point since their inclusion in the survey, in 2020 only 3 had the confidence of 50% or more of those surveyed.

In 2021, Science was added as the 17th institution, taking third place, pushing the rest of the list down at least one place from their 2020 rankings. Whether Science becomes a permanent part of the survey remains to be seen. Some others, like Internet News and Health Maintenance Organizations appeared sporadically and are no longer on the list. Large Tech was much in the news last year when it first appeared on the list. The introduction of Science, then, was not surprising, given the media exposure and partisan disputes over "the science" of COVID (on top of the longer-running disputes about Climate Change).

The danger, as I see it, is that Science enters the list as a kind of political litmus test. There is much more to science than what makes the nightly news or social media, yet the list of institutions has become more politicized over the years. When Gallup started the survey back in 1973 there was more agreement on the importance of key social institutions. A few, but not all, had natural partisan characteristics (The Presidency, Supreme Court, Congress). In addition, public understanding is shaped by a combination of personal experience and the kinds of news sources from which people form their opinions, which are far broader today than in 1973.

Looking at the 2021 results, Small Business and The Military stayed in the top two spots, but each were down in score from 2020. In fact, 12 of the continuing 16 institutions were down in score from the previous survey. (The number down in rank, for both 2020 and 2021 is skewed by the introduction of Big Tech in 2020 and Science in 2021. However, in 2020 with Big Tech at number 10 we saw the bottom six stay in the same order and each go down one rank. In 2021 there was more mixed movement, though introducing a new entry at rank 3 obliviously effects everything below that).

Organized Religion lost most of its 2020 gain—down five points to 37 and two ranks to 7, falling to its lowest rank ever and barely missing a repeat of its low score in 2019. Even without the insertion of Science, Organized Religion was back on the downward trend of institutional confidence.

Despite all the media coverage that might lead you to assume a stampede in the other direction, The Police went up by 3 points to a slim majority of 51% and stayed at number 4, even with the introduction of Science at number 3. Organized Labor moved up 4 points to 28 but fell one rank, while Congress moved up 1 point to 12, also falling one rank.

The Presidency was the only institution to move up in rank, from number 8 to 6, but it lost one point in score, dropping to 38.

Including "Some" confidence in the score would bring a number of the weakening institutions above 50%, but that is only stretching things to reach levels once achieved by "A Great Deal" and "Quite a Lot." An analysis in the Digging Deeper section will show trend charts for individual institutions that makes the distribution by response over time more clear. An update to that page is expected in early August.


Spanning more than 20 points between their high and low scores are ten of the 17 institutions for 2021. Except for TV News, which hit its low in 2021, the others have been lower in another year. All but two (TV News and Congress) have hit highs above 50. The Military has the record high, at 85 points in 1991 and is the only one of the ten over 50 now. Congress is holder of the record low, at 7 in 2014. The following list is sorted by the size of the spread between high and low scores.

  1. The Presidency - 47 points between its high of 72 in 1991 and low of 25 in 2007 - median score: 39 - 38 now
  2. Banks - 39 points between its high of 60 in 1979 and low of 21 in 2012 - median score: 41 - 33 now
  3. Public Schools - 36 points between its high of 62 in 1975 and low of 26 in 2014 - median score: 39 - 32 now
  4. Congress - 35 points between its high of 41 in 1973 and low of 7 in 2014 - median score: 24 - 12 now
  5. The Military- 35 points between it high of 85 in 1991 and low of 50 in 1981 - median score: 66 - 69 now
  6. Religion - 32 points between its high of 68 in 1975 and low of 36 in 2019 - median score: 56 - 37 now
  7. Newspapers - 31 points between its high of 51 in 1979 and low of 20 in 2016 - median score: 33 - 21 now
  8. TV News - 30 points between its high of 46 in 1993 and low of 16 in 2021 - median score: 27 - 16 now
  9. The Supreme Court - 26 points between its high of 56 in 1985 & 1988 and low of 30 in 2014 - median score: 43 - 36 now
  10. The Medical System- 20 points between its high of 51 in 2020 and low of 31 in 2007 - median score: 39 - 44 now

What does the overall decline of confidence say about the future of our society when we have so little trust in our bedrock institutions? What can the Christian church (and other faith communities) do at the individual and local level to restore trust when organized religion itself has fallen so far?


See more details about CONFIDENCE IN MAJOR AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS
(Top and Bottom Tier Institutions, Institutions Above and Below their Median scores)

NOTE: An update of this Digging Deeper page with 2021 data will be posted by early August.

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Defining Religious Cohorts

2009: George Barna's Seven Faith Tribes

Casual Christians (66%) - Rather than allowing the Christian faith to shape their minds and hearts, Barna suggested, they have chosen to fit Christianity within the box they have created for it.

Captive-Christians (16%) - They see themselves first and foremost as spiritual beings. They believe their lives are to be lived out in the flesh, but for spiritual purposes and on the basis of biblical principles. [The name Captive Christians the name comes from the idea expressed by the Apostle Paul that he voluntarily took on the role of a slave of Jesus Christ.]

One quarter of the Skeptics adopt the label “deeply spiritual” (which is distinct from being religious). Nearly half of the adults in this tribe describe themselves as faith seekers who are unattached to an organized body of faith or theological perspective.[If these seekers represent the religious unaffiliated described by Pew, their significance has gone down dramatically since 2009.


2018: Pew Research Religious Typology

Research conducted extensive interviews using a battery of questions that covered a wide range of religious and non-religious behaviors and beliefs. Cluster analysis was used to look for significant groupings that represent the American adult population.

HIGHLY RELIGIOUS (39%) are represented by three subgroups:

  • Sunday Stalwarts (17%) - Religious traditionalists actively involved with their faith and engaged in their congregation.
  • God-and-Country Believers (12%) - Socially and politically conservative, most likely to view immigrants as hurting American culture.
  • Diversely Devout (11%) - Traditionally religious, but majorities also believe in psychics, reincarnation, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects.

SOMEWHAT RELIGIOUS (32%) are represented by two subgroups:

  • Relaxed Religious (17%) - Say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Religion is important to them, but few engage in traditional practices.
  • Spiritually Awake (15%) - Few practice religion in traditional ways, but most believe in heaven and hell, and subscribe to New Age beliefs.

NON-RELIGIOUS (29%) are represented by two subgroups:

  • Religious Resisters(12%) - Most think organized religion does more harm than good, politically liberal and Democratic.
  • Solidly Secular (17%) - Hold virtually no religious beliefs and reject New Age beliefs.

Walking the talk

When asked about weekly habits of attending religious services and reading the Bible or other holy book, only the Sunday Stalwarts showed a high degree of connection between faith and practice (both in connection to organized religion and personal devotion).

One might expect God & Country Believers to be close behind, but they and all other groups fall off rapidly from this high degree of personal involvement.

It is interesting that the Sunday Stalwarts, at 17% in 2018 are remarkably close to Barna's Captive Christians, at 16% in 2009. This pattern is consistent with the observation of Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research in 2013 when he reported on "The State of Evangelicalism":

[T]here is decline—in self-identified Protestants, primarily in mainline churches. Many who once identified themselves as nominal mainline Protestants now identify as nothing. The nominals have become the nones. As such, we see that Christianity isn't dying—cultural Christianity is. . . (emphasis added).

For Christians who take their faith seriously, it is not time to simply sigh and be thankful that the least-faithful are falling away. It is time, as never before, for reassessment, prayer and re-commitment to the mission Christ called his followers to:

"'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
Jesus quoting The Great Commandments, Matthew 22:37-39 NLT

"Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
The Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20 NLT

Which type are you? Take the Religious Typology quiz. (This is a short version of the much longer survey questionnaire, but produces a fair guesstimate of which cohort you would be identified with.)

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Religion in America

Latest updates:
Addition of "Digging Deeper" sections - June 28, 2021
Update "Confidence in Religion and Other American Institutions" section- July 22, 2021

About Religion in America. In 2012 Stu Johnson was the lead author of a report on the Religious Publishing Marketplace in America, produced by Simba Information for Zondervan/HarperCollins Christian Publishing. The chapter on Religion in America, a summary of survey research, some of it going back many decades, was compiled solely by Stu and subsequently extracted as a separate report.


About this page. The graphs on this page are selected slides from a more detailed PowerPoint® presentation that illustrates major trends in the American religious landscape. You can click on a graph to enlarge it. (It will open in a new tab.)

The primary data sources used include Gallup, Pew Research, and Barna Group. Data sources are shown on each chart. For some charts, the survey is repeated annually, others more sporadically, Each chart shows the latest data available at the time of the last update of this page.



Executive Summary

Click on a Section header to go to that part of the report. Note beginning with "DD" describes a Digging Deeper page available for that section.

The U.S. Compared to the World

  • In the U.S. the number of Christian adherents continues a decline that became noticeable around 1970 and is accelerating in the early decades of the 21st century.. Those claiming Christian affiliation (Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational Christians) accounted for 93% of the adult population in 1964. It was 83% in 2000, then 68% in 2020. Meanwhile, those claiming no affiliation have been steadily climbing from 2% in 1964 to 20% in 2020 according to Gallup and 28% according to Pew.

  • While Christian adherents are declining in the U.S., those who describe themselves as "born again" or "evangelical" remain more constant. Gallup starting asking the question in 1992, when 36% of adult respondents claimed to be born again or evangelical. The number peaked at 47% in 1998, then began moving down, ending at the low point of 34% in 2020, but that is only 2 points lower than where it started 28 years ago.

The Changing Mix
DD on Composition of Religious Affiliation, with detailed demographics)

  • Breaking the numbers down, it appears that most of the loss in Christian adherents is occurring among those who might be identified as "cultural" or "nominal" Christians, whose adherence has been driven by tradition more than personal belief and practice. This is clearly seen in the shrinkage of mainline denominations.

  • The significant "rise of the nones" in the United States—those who claim no religious affiliation—has been accelerating since 2000 and is most noticeable among the youngest generations. A study in January 2018 by Barna, which includes 13-18 year-olds in Generation Z, shows a doubling of those identifying themselves as atheist (13%, compared to 6-7% for all older cohorts, including Millennial and Gen X). Where a sizable portion of early "nones" still retained an interest in spirituality, some have dubbed younger unaffiliateds as the "rise of the Dones"—those who may have been involved with organized religion under the influence of family, but cut their ties completely in adulthood.

  • Age Cohort, Political Party Preference and Geographic Region are the strongest indicators of variations in religious affiliation. In addition to the discussion of the Barna study of Generation Z later in this Summary, see Digging Deeper pages on Composition of Affiliates and Attendance at Religious Services for comparison with other demographic factors.

  • Globally, Christian adherents represent the largest group, at 31%, followed by Muslim, Unaffiliated, Hindu, Buddhist, Other and Jewish. According to a 2018 Pew study,by 2050 Muslims will catch up with Christians as a proportion of world population, together claiming six in ten adults. The growth of unaffiliated will impact the U.S. more than the global population, according to the study.

Beliefs
DD on beliefs in God, the Devil, Angels, Heaven, and Hell

  • Belief in God among Americans remains strong but showed signs of decline since the mid-1980s, paralleling but lagging behind the "rise of the nones," indicating the likelihood that belief in spiritual matters is distinct from affiliation with organized Christian religion. The expression of the belief has also been tempered by a softening of the survey question by broadening it from "do you believe in God" to "do you believe in God (or a Universal Spirit)?," which opens the door to a wider set of religious perspectives.

  • Declining religious affiliation among younger age cohorts impacts beliefs about Science and the Bible, though an early study of Generation Z by Barna showed a possible break in that pattern among the newest age cohort.

  • While nearly half of Americans believe the Bible is an "inspired Word," those who believe the Bible to be the "Actual Word" versus "Fables and Legends" have crossed paths in recent years, with the Fables and Legends view surpassing Actual Word in 2017, each camp represented by roughly one-quarter.

The Importance and Influence of Religion in America
DD on Attendance at Religious Services, with detailed demographics

  • Those who believe religion is very important has recently dropped below the majority (48%), falling 13% from its peak of 61% in 1998. On the other hand, those who see religion as not very important have slowly gained strength, beginning to compete with and surpass those who feel it is fairly important, a view that has remained more constant.

  • Slightly more than half of Americans believe religion can answer today's problems, but the 40% divide with those who said no in 1994 narrowed to 11% in 2018, with a slight rebound to 18% separation in 2020.

Confidence in Religion and Other American institutions
(DD on Confidence, additional tables and trend graphs by institution

  • Americans have shown a steady erosion of confidence in major institutions—including organized religion— tracked by Gallup since 1973. (The confidence score is the combination of those responding "A great deal" and "Quite a lot").

    In the 2020 report, issued in July during the early months of COVID-19, we saw a very uncharacteristic increase in confidence in two-thirds of the institutions. This included significant upward movement for The Medical System and Public Schools, which increased confidence scores by more than ten points and moved up 4 and 3 rankings respectively. Combined with smaller upward ticks for other instituions, this was very likely a response to the tributes given to the "heroes" on the front lines of the pandemic's impact as it surged in the U.S. At the same time, The Police and TV News sank to record lows, likely related to the global response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May. (The Police still came in at number 4 in the ranks, down one from previous years).

    In the update for July 2021 we see a resumption of the overall decline in confidence across what is now 17 institutions, with the addition of Science to the list (in response to debates over use of "the science" related to recommended responses to the COVID-19 pandemic). The downturn is still above record lows, but pointing downward. At the same time, it should be emphasized that such changes from year to year have to be taken in context. As you will see in the charts below, while trending down, the line of confidence scores has many peaks and valleys in the nearly five decades of polling.

    Organized religion
    was number 1 from 1973 through 1985. In 2020, it bounced up to 42% positive response from a low of 36% in 2019 and rose one rank to number 5 among the 16 institutions measured. This year, Organized Religion lost almost all of its gain from 2020, ending at 37 and dropped in rank to number 7, the lowest ever, partly because Science made its debut in third place with a confidence score of 64.


Defining Religious Cohorts

  • 2009: George Barna's Seven Faith Tribes - 66% Casual Christians, 16% Captive Christians, 11% Skeptics, 7% Other (Jews, Mormons, Pantheists, Muslims)

  • 2018: Per Research Religious Typology - 39% Highly Religious (Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers, Diversely Devout), 32% Somewhat Religious (Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake), 29% Non-religious


Look for the Digging deeper icon in sections below. It will lead to more detail on a particular topic, including demographic factors (gender, race, age cohort, geographic region, education, political party preference). This feature was introduced in June 2021 for four pages on Beliefs, Composition of Affiliates, Attendance at Religious Services, and Confidence in Institutions. Other Digging Deeper pages may follow as material becomes available.


The U.S. compared to the World

While Christian adherents have been declining, especially in the last two decades, the United States remains a predominantly Christian country—with 65% of adults identifying themselves as Christian in the most recent Pew polling. (Gallup shows 68%).

Around the world, according to various sources, Christians represented about half that level, with roughly three in ten of adults in 2020.

Pew suggests 28% unaffiliated in the U.S. in 2020, while Gallup puts it at 20%. The difference cannot be explained simply by margin of error, but by differences in survey methodology, question wording and interpretation of results. More on that as we dig deeper.

Though declining, Christian adherents are expected to dominate in the United States into the foreseeable future. By 2050 Pew predicts a drop from three-quarters to two-thirds of adults. In reality, we reached that level in 2018, according to Gallup and by 2020 it dropped to 65%.

Non-Christian religious adherents in the U.S. will increase some, but the most noticeable shift will be the continued increase of those with no stated affiliation. However, when looking at global projections, notice that Muslim adherents could match Christian by 2050. Most others, including unaffiliated, are seen as remaining the same or declining.

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The Changing Mix

A 55-year trend

In many of the line charts in this report, orange dots represent low points on a line, yellow dots represent high points. There can be multiple dots for high and low points.

For much of the 20th century, Protestantism dominated the American religious landscape, with its adherents representing 70% or more of the adult population. Catholic adherents accounted for another one-quarter of adults, putting the combined total of Christian adherents well over 90% for many years.

Following World War II, Protestants and Other (non-Catholic) Christians declined from a steady 70% majority to just below 50% for the first time in 2012, according to Gallup. In 1998 Gallup began including "Other Christian" with Protestant. This reflects the rise of non-denominational churches as well as churches that do not promote their own affiliation with a denominational organization, so congregants may not know there is a denominational connection. Denominational Protestants fell below 50% of the population in 2006, while all Protestants hit that mark in 2012. Total Protestants fell to a low of 45% in 2019, but came back to 46% in 2020. Whether that is related to COVID, the presidential election, or other factors is simply too close to call when the margin of error alone could produce a swing of a percentage or two from year to year. It is interesting, however, that a number of measures that had been trended down saw a noticeable upturn in 2020.

Catholics have held steadier, at roughly a quarter of the adult population, but show a steady decline from a peak of 29% in 1982 to a low of 21% in 2019, followed by a slight bump up to 22% in 2020.

"Nones" have been steadily growing from practically non-existent status in the 1960s to breaking 10% in the first decade of the 21st century, then approaching or exceeding 20% in the second decade, depending on the survey. (Pew has shown Unaffiliated as high as 28%, though its estimate of total Christians (Catholic and Other Christian) is fairly close, at 65%, compared to Gallup's 68%. The difference, while notable, may be attributed to such factors as polling methodology, wording of questions and interpretation of responses.

Initially, the increase in unaffiliated (commonly called "the rise of the nones") reflected a rejection of organized religion, with some "nones" remaining spiritually open. More recently, however, especially among younger generations, we are seeing growth in those who identify as agnostic or atheist. (See the charts on Generation Z below).


Since 1992, Gallup has asked people if they describe themselves as "born again" or "evangelical." As a self-description there is plenty of latitude and I believe the term "evangelical" has been co-opted by the media in political analysis since the 2000 presidential election, applied to what in the 1990's was called the Religious Right. That designation was represented by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and similar movements growing out the Fundamentalist stream of American religion.

George Barna developed a strict definition of evangelical, based on beliefs and behaviors, which narrows the group down to about 8% of the American adult population. Beyond those who fit this narrow definition, a third or more in Barna surveys have described themselves as "born again."

During the early 2000's, I was involved in research for Tyndale Publishing House during the height of the popularity of the Left Behind end-times series. During that time, Tyndale commissioned research, part of which indicated that Catholics compromised a good part of the audience for that series and many of them used "born again" to describe themselves. Therefore, while "evangelical" generally refers to a subset within Protestantism, those who identify themselves as "born again" can be found across Christian adherents.

Needless to say, it is interesting to note the rise of this group from the start of the question in 1992 at 36% of all respondents) to a high of 47% in 1998. From there, the trend has been slowly downward, but the low of 34% in 2020 is barely below the starting point back nearly 30 years ago.

Compared to other indicators with far more significant change, the trend here is remarkably level. In fact, the proportion of born-again/evangelical among Christian adherents (including Catholics), at 52% in 2020, has actually grown, from 44% in 1992 to 52% in 2020. This could be attributed to the idea expressed by Ed Stetzer and others that "the rise of the nones" actually represents a winnowing out of nominal Christians for whom faith was more form and tradition than substance.


The changing mix: Other religions

The data comes from different sources. Because the numbers are small (within the error of margin for most surveys), we can only make a few general observations.

Clearly, there has been some increase in Other religions, yet they still represent a very small portion of the adult population in the U.S., between three and five percent.

Jews have remained between one and two percent in surveys since 1990.

Muslim adherents remain a smaller segment than many people might assume, given exposure in news and politics (and confusion between religion, ethnic background, and national origin). The growth shown by 2010 seems to have settled back to just under two percent.

Adherents of Other non-Christian religions (which represent many groups) are growing, up three-fold since 1990, and greater than the combined total of Jews and Muslims.


None does not equal Atheist, but does mean young

Prior to 2018, a breakdown of those who claimed no religious affiliation showed some growth of those who identify themselves as Atheist and Agnostic, but the greatest growth was among those who simply have no preference. (Compare this chart with the earlier one showing Gallup results, which shows unaffiliated ("None") about 5-8 percentage points below Pew throughout the time covered here).

From 2008 through 2016 Pew divided unaffiliated ("nothing in particular" in this chart) into Secular and Religious Unaffiliated. Starting with a nearly even split in 2008 (close to 6% each), by 2018 the gap widened to 14% Secular and 3% Religious.

The presence of the seemingly paradoxical "Religious Unaffiliated" is an indicator of the discomfort that a number have had with organized religion, especially as the rise of the Nones began to explode. In 2008, Pew found that when Unaffiliated were asked a number of questions about spiritual issues, they could be divided between Religious—those who claim that spiritual factors are important to them—and Secular—those who claim little or no importance for spiritual things. It appears that those with spiritual interest began to decline, so the most recent division between Atheist, Agnostic, and Nothing in Particular shows how significant has been the move away from organized religion and religious belief, especially in the second decade of the 21st century.


An increasing generation gap

When viewed by generation, it is striking to note the accelerating growth of the unaffiliated with each succeeding generation. The proportion moves from 10-percent or less unaffiliated for those born before the end of World War II in 1945, to more than a third of the youngest generation.

Note that Pew shows unaffiliated Millenials in 2018 ten-percent above a similar breakdown by Barna in the next chart. In the other age cohorts, Barna shows higher unaffiliateds than Pew by a smaller margin. The lesson here is that survey research is most useful to show trends over time than a high degree of precision at any one time. As already pointed out, this is often due to differences in research methodology and how questions are framed and interpreted.

Meet Generation Z

In a study released in January 2018, Barna Group revealed a startling indicator of the depth of age-related disconnect with organized religion. The youngest age cohort, known as Generation Z, or Gen Z, shows a 5-point increase over Millenials in not claiming a religious affiliation. Most significant: all of the increase and more came from those claiming to be atheists.

The Barna report reveals much more detail, which was the subject of an InfoMatters blog, "Generation Z," posted in February, 2018.


See more details about COMPOSITION OF RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION
(Rise of Nones, Religious Affiliation by Gender, Race, Age Cohort, Region, Education, and Political Preference)

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Beliefs

Belief in God

The trend indicated by this chart, developing since 2000, is very obvious (and corresponds to the "rise of the nones" discussed throughout this report). This is the longest-running of the Gallup questions on religion, going back to 1945. As you can see, belief in God was nearly unanimous from the end of World War II to the last decade of the 20th century. Since then, it has begun to erode noticeably. When first asked, the question referred only to "God," but in more recent years it has referred to "God or a Universal Spirit."

Science and the Bible

The Gen Z study asked about respondents' views of science and the Bible. In general, younger generations side with science or view science and the Bible as independent, expressing different aspects of reality. A diminishing proportion see the Bible and science as complementary, while the number who side with the Bible when there is apparent conflict increases with the youngest generations. This may seem counter-intuitive, but could be due to the strong influence among some home schoolers and Christian academies, "young earth" groups and others taking exception with scientific assumptions about the origins of life and the age of the earth.

Beliefs about the Bible

An interesting parallel to the Science and the Bible chart above is data from Gallup on views of the Bible.

What I find striking is that those who perceive the Bible as the inspired word of God have remained fairly steady since 1976. On the other hand, those who take a more literal view have declined by 12%. While it does not represent the movement of individuals, the decline is not matched by a growth in Inspired, but rather by an 11% increase in those viewing the Bible as Fables & Legends. The two lines converged in the latest survey in 2017. Unfortunately, the survey has not been done again, which would likely show those two lines continuing to move further apart, in opposite directions. [Unlike other charts, which represent annual surveys, the colored dots show the value in years the survey was conducted, with the solid lines showing the overall trend.]


See more details about BELIEFS
(God, Devil, Angels, Heaven, Hell)

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The Importance and Influence of Religion in America

How important is religion in your life?

Both "very important" and "somewhat important" show declines over 25 years. "Very important" is off 13% from the peak of 61% in 1998 and 2003. "Fairly important" fell 7% from its starting point of 29% in 1992 to its low of 22% in 2016. From there it has rebounded slightly, ending at 25% in 2020. "Not very important" moved up about 15% in nearly three decades, crossing the slowly declining "fairly important" line in 2016, matching it in 2019, then moving ahead again by two points in 2020 (remember, however that this could easily be within the margin of error for such research). This exceeds the "rise of the nones" in the same time period, which went up 10% (some earlier converts to none could have shifted from religious to secular unaffiliated).

Ability of religion to address today's problems

The decline for "yes" is greater than that of personal importance on the previous chart—a decline of 18% since the peak of 67% in 1999. However, Yes moved up 4% in 2019 to 53% and stayed there into 2020.

Those who felt that religion "is largely old-fashioned and out of date" ("No" on the chart) rose fairly steadily by 17 points, from 21% in 1994 to 38% in 2018. As with Yes, it reversed course in the next two years, ending at 35% in 2020—a likely temporary change of direction in the overall steady climb. What is interesting is that the low for Yes and the high for No both appeared in 2018, with the change of direction occurring before COVID and other events of 2020. Over the next few years, that may level off into a blip in time. How long now before the No's outnumber the Yes's?


The influence of religion

Here, the change is much more dramatic, with strong belief of increasing influence through 2001 followed by an equally dramatic decline to 2009, when it leveled off in the low 20% area, hitting the low of 19% in 2019. Then, an up-tick of 14% to 33% in 2020 mimics a similar jump in 2000-01. While the larger spikes may be related to 9/11 and COVID-19 as indicated by the markers, the overall trend is likely due to much more complex cultural and organizational associations than the more personal "problems" question. The trend for "losing" influence is a mirror image given the binary choice. (Also seen more subtlety in the previous chart on the ability of religion to answer questions where there is a stronger presence of "other" responses).


Membership and attendance

Membership has fallen faster than attendance, pointing out that the importance of membership (which requires a formal process in most religious bodies) has itself been in decline. Some are content to attend without being official members. Furthermore, while many churches may still distinguish between members and attenders, it is unclear whether respondents make that distinction. This is true not just of religion, where membership is usually distinct from attendance, but across the spectrum of organizations in society that are dependent on membership (service clubs, scouting, etc.) .

At any rate, while it is clear that immediacy of attendance (in the last seven days) remains lower than having a sense of belonging, attendance has declined by less than half (10%) that of membership (23%) since 1992. The significance of the comparison in the chart is that membership does not matter nearly as much as it once did, at least as reported by individuals (as Gallup is doing).


See more details about ATTENDANCE
(gender, race, party preference and more)

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Confidence in Religion and Other American Institutions

This section was last updated July 22 and 24, 2021, following release of the results of the 2021 Gallup survey on institutional confidence.

Gallup began its annual survey of confidence in American institutions in 1973. The question is stated "Now I am going to read you a list of institutions in American society. Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in each one -- a great deal, quite a lot, some, very little, or none?" The score in the charts and referred to as being confident represents those who responded "a great deal" or "quite a lot."

Survey results are released each July, so the 2021 survey is more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 survey, referred to here for contrast, was released in the early months of the pandemic, which resulted in two-thirds of institutions moving up in confidence, most likely in recognition of the "heroes" facing the first surge of virus in the U.S. On the other hand, the results came shortly after the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, with months to go in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election, so The Police and TV News both hit record lows (though The Police dropped only one rank to number 4). Now more than a year into the pandemic, those bumps have moderated in the direction of the long-term downward trend.

In 1973, the first year Gallup conducted its annual measure of confidence in major institutions, "the church or organized religion" was rated the highest among 15 institutions.

Organized Religion continued to rank first through 1985, then fell below 60%. Among the reasons: Televangelist scandals, child molestation by priests; then a general decline in religiosity continued the downward trend (as scandals in Catholic and Protestant churches continued). Organized Religion dropped 32% from its high of 68% in 1975 to 36% in 2019). In 2020, the survey reflected the early months of COVID with many congregations under lockdown and scrambling to stay connected through various online options, Organized Religion rebounded to 42% in 2020, but settled back to 37% in 2021 even as many congregations were opening up, keeping barely ahead of the low point of 2019.

For all institutions confidence fell 16% from a high of 48% in 1979 to a low of 32% in 2014. There was a noticeable upturn in 2020 across two-thirds of the 15 institutions, most likely attributable to responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a downturn for Police and TV News, with George Floyd's death occurring shortly before the survey results were released in July.

Last year I stated that I fully expected to see the downward trend continue in future years, which appears to be the case for 2021 . . . but first, let's like to look at 2020 again because of its uniqueness.

In 2019, Organized Religion ranked 6 among 15 institutions, even though it had fallen further in score than any of the institutions included. In 2020 it regained six points, to 42% confidence, bringing it up to number 5.

In 2020, Large Tech was added to the Gallup survey, bringing the list to 16 institutions. (It has always had 15 or 16, with half of them on the list since 1973). Large Tech includes organizations like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, all embroiled at the time of the 2020 survey in concerns over privacy, monopoly and content. The introduction of Large Tech at Number 10 pushed the six remaining institutions down one rank each while keeping their order from 2019.

Reflecting the events of 2020, Small Business and the Medical System reached their highest level of confidence, while Police and TV News hit their lowest levels—and were the only two to go down in score. Yet, The Police dropped only one rank to 4 after having been at 3 for at least three years before. Showing the uniqueness of 2020, even as early in the pandemic as the survey was taken, 10 of the 15 continuing institutions saw their scores increase over 2019, while only two went down (The Police and TV News), and three remained the same as 2019 (the Criminal Justice System, TV News and Congress).

While 10 of the 16 institutions have had 50% or more confidence at some point since their inclusion in the survey, in 2020 only 3 had the confidence of 50% or more of those surveyed.

In 2021, Science was added as the 17th institution, taking third place, pushing the rest of the list down at least one place from their 2020 rankings. Whether Science becomes a permanent part of the survey remains to be seen. Some others, like Internet News and Health Maintenance Organizations appeared sporadically and are no longer on the list. Large Tech was much in the news last year when it first appeared on the list. The introduction of Science, then, was not surprising, given the media exposure and partisan disputes over "the science" of COVID (on top of the longer-running disputes about Climate Change).

The danger, as I see it, is that Science enters the list as a kind of political litmus test. There is much more to science than what makes the nightly news or social media, yet the list of institutions has become more politicized over the years. When Gallup started the survey back in 1973 there was more agreement on the importance of key social institutions. A few, but not all, had natural partisan characteristics (The Presidency, Supreme Court, Congress). In addition, public understanding is shaped by a combination of personal experience and the kinds of news sources from which people form their opinions, which are far broader today than in 1973.

Looking at the 2021 results, Small Business and The Military stayed in the top two spots, but each were down in score from 2020. In fact, 12 of the continuing 16 institutions were down in score from the previous survey. (The number down in rank, for both 2020 and 2021 is skewed by the introduction of Big Tech in 2020 and Science in 2021. However, in 2020 with Big Tech at number 10 we saw the bottom six stay in the same order and each go down one rank. In 2021 there was more mixed movement, though introducing a new entry at rank 3 obliviously effects everything below that).

Organized Religion lost most of its 2020 gain—down five points to 37 and two ranks to 7, falling to its lowest rank ever and barely missing a repeat of its low score in 2019. Even without the insertion of Science, Organized Religion was back on the downward trend of institutional confidence.

Despite all the media coverage that might lead you to assume a stampede in the other direction, The Police went up by 3 points to a slim majority of 51% and stayed at number 4, even with the introduction of Science at number 3. Organized Labor moved up 4 points to 28 but fell one rank, while Congress moved up 1 point to 12, also falling one rank.

The Presidency was the only institution to move up in rank, from number 8 to 6, but it lost one point in score, dropping to 38.

Including "Some" confidence in the score would bring a number of the weakening institutions above 50%, but that is only stretching things to reach levels once achieved by "A Great Deal" and "Quite a Lot." An analysis in the Digging Deeper section will show trend charts for individual institutions that makes the distribution by response over time more clear. An update to that page is expected in early August.


Spanning more than 20 points between their high and low scores are ten of the 17 institutions for 2021. Except for TV News, which hit its low in 2021, the others have been lower in another year. All but two (TV News and Congress) have hit highs above 50. The Military has the record high, at 85 points in 1991 and is the only one of the ten over 50 now. Congress is holder of the record low, at 7 in 2014. The following list is sorted by the size of the spread between high and low scores.

  1. The Presidency - 47 points between its high of 72 in 1991 and low of 25 in 2007 - median score: 39 - 38 now
  2. Banks - 39 points between its high of 60 in 1979 and low of 21 in 2012 - median score: 41 - 33 now
  3. Public Schools - 36 points between its high of 62 in 1975 and low of 26 in 2014 - median score: 39 - 32 now
  4. Congress - 35 points between its high of 41 in 1973 and low of 7 in 2014 - median score: 24 - 12 now
  5. The Military- 35 points between it high of 85 in 1991 and low of 50 in 1981 - median score: 66 - 69 now
  6. Religion - 32 points between its high of 68 in 1975 and low of 36 in 2019 - median score: 56 - 37 now
  7. Newspapers - 31 points between its high of 51 in 1979 and low of 20 in 2016 - median score: 33 - 21 now
  8. TV News - 30 points between its high of 46 in 1993 and low of 16 in 2021 - median score: 27 - 16 now
  9. The Supreme Court - 26 points between its high of 56 in 1985 & 1988 and low of 30 in 2014 - median score: 43 - 36 now
  10. The Medical System- 20 points between its high of 51 in 2020 and low of 31 in 2007 - median score: 39 - 44 now

What does the overall decline of confidence say about the future of our society when we have so little trust in our bedrock institutions? What can the Christian church (and other faith communities) do at the individual and local level to restore trust when organized religion itself has fallen so far?


See more details about CONFIDENCE IN MAJOR AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS
(Top and Bottom Tier Institutions, Institutions Above and Below their Median scores)

NOTE: An update of this Digging Deeper page with 2021 data will be posted by early August.

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Defining Religious Cohorts

2009: George Barna's Seven Faith Tribes

Casual Christians (66%) - Rather than allowing the Christian faith to shape their minds and hearts, Barna suggested, they have chosen to fit Christianity within the box they have created for it.

Captive-Christians (16%) - They see themselves first and foremost as spiritual beings. They believe their lives are to be lived out in the flesh, but for spiritual purposes and on the basis of biblical principles. [The name Captive Christians the name comes from the idea expressed by the Apostle Paul that he voluntarily took on the role of a slave of Jesus Christ.]

One quarter of the Skeptics adopt the label “deeply spiritual” (which is distinct from being religious). Nearly half of the adults in this tribe describe themselves as faith seekers who are unattached to an organized body of faith or theological perspective.[If these seekers represent the religious unaffiliated described by Pew, their significance has gone down dramatically since 2009.


2018: Pew Research Religious Typology

Research conducted extensive interviews using a battery of questions that covered a wide range of religious and non-religious behaviors and beliefs. Cluster analysis was used to look for significant groupings that represent the American adult population.

HIGHLY RELIGIOUS (39%) are represented by three subgroups:

  • Sunday Stalwarts (17%) - Religious traditionalists actively involved with their faith and engaged in their congregation.
  • God-and-Country Believers (12%) - Socially and politically conservative, most likely to view immigrants as hurting American culture.
  • Diversely Devout (11%) - Traditionally religious, but majorities also believe in psychics, reincarnation, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects.

SOMEWHAT RELIGIOUS (32%) are represented by two subgroups:

  • Relaxed Religious (17%) - Say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Religion is important to them, but few engage in traditional practices.
  • Spiritually Awake (15%) - Few practice religion in traditional ways, but most believe in heaven and hell, and subscribe to New Age beliefs.

NON-RELIGIOUS (29%) are represented by two subgroups:

  • Religious Resisters(12%) - Most think organized religion does more harm than good, politically liberal and Democratic.
  • Solidly Secular (17%) - Hold virtually no religious beliefs and reject New Age beliefs.

Walking the talk

When asked about weekly habits of attending religious services and reading the Bible or other holy book, only the Sunday Stalwarts showed a high degree of connection between faith and practice (both in connection to organized religion and personal devotion).

One might expect God & Country Believers to be close behind, but they and all other groups fall off rapidly from this high degree of personal involvement.

It is interesting that the Sunday Stalwarts, at 17% in 2018 are remarkably close to Barna's Captive Christians, at 16% in 2009. This pattern is consistent with the observation of Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research in 2013 when he reported on "The State of Evangelicalism":

[T]here is decline—in self-identified Protestants, primarily in mainline churches. Many who once identified themselves as nominal mainline Protestants now identify as nothing. The nominals have become the nones. As such, we see that Christianity isn't dying—cultural Christianity is. . . (emphasis added).

For Christians who take their faith seriously, it is not time to simply sigh and be thankful that the least-faithful are falling away. It is time, as never before, for reassessment, prayer and re-commitment to the mission Christ called his followers to:

"'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
Jesus quoting The Great Commandments, Matthew 22:37-39 NLT

"Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
The Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20 NLT

Which type are you? Take the Religious Typology quiz. (This is a short version of the much longer survey questionnaire, but produces a fair guesstimate of which cohort you would be identified with.)

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