On Monday of this past week, the Pew Research Center released the results of a poll taken earlier this month about religion, with this heading, "Public Sees Religion's Influence Waning." The survey addressed a wide range of religious topics relating to life in America.
The first question in the poll was: "At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?" The answers: 72 percent answered losing its influence; 22 percent said increasing its influence; and 6 percent responded the same or don't know. "Losing its influence" is up five percentage points from 2010, to the highest level in Pew Research polling.
Most people who say religion is losing its influence in American life see this as a negative development, with 56 percent of the public as a whole saying it is a "bad thing" that religion is losing sway in the U.S.
The report does not define "religion." In most religious faiths, however, "religion" is a person's recognition of his/her relation to God or the supernatural and the expression of that relation in faith, worship, and conduct. "Religion" and "church" are not the same. A "church" is the gathering of a "holy community" within the whole of society, a gathering where the tenets of one's religion are taught and practiced. The English word church comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which means "assembly of citizens called out."
How religious a people are depends, to no small degree, on how effective the gatherings of the various "holy communities" are. I suggest that if religion is losing its influence in the U.S, it means that the churches -- the various gatherings of the faithful -- are not doing a good job of being the church.
It is important that the church stays strong. There is the tendency for the church to become more like society than vice versa. In my opinion, it is important for today's church to work harder at influencing society, rather than trying to be more acceptable to the popular trends of the day. Trends come and go. The church needs to be stable, the foundation, the anchor, the lighthouse that can always be seen, and this will not be the case when the church worries more about its popularity than its mission: life now and salvation for the soul. Because these are such profound issues, we must make sure that we do no mistake our own preconceptions and prejudices as truths. This is where the church -- the holy communities -- come in.
The holy communities -- the individual churches -- must teach and practice the core beliefs of the religions they represent. And when they fail to do this, the respective religion they represent or promote becomes less profound and leads to polls showing that religion's influence is waning and that such waning is a "bad thing." The expression that it is a "bad thing" indicates that a majority of people believe that religion is important.
I suggest that leaders in the church, and especially the leaders who are professionally trained in the religious tenants of their religions, have a great responsibility. The clergy are usually considered the leaders of their congregations. They have a heavy burden -- the ultimate responsibility in the great majority of cases -- for overseeing the teachings of their congregations.
Some other results of the survey validate my point about the importance of the church's influencing society and not vice versa.
• The poll finds that 50 percent of the public now considers homosexuality a sin, up from 45 percent a year ago.
• The study finds a drop in support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry, with 49% of Americans in favor and 41 percent opposed -- a 5-point dip in support from a February Pew Research poll.
• Nearly half of U.S. adults think that businesses like caterers and florists should be allowed to reject same-sex couples as customers if the businesses have religious objections to serving those couples.
There has been much publicity about these issues over the past two or three years. Headlines and cover stories--some of a positive nature and others negative -- have focused on the steadfast determination of various churches and individuals to stand firm on their positions regarding these issues. And, obviously, that determination is bearing the fruit of the steadfastness.
Four other results of the poll, in my opinion, deserve to be mentioned:
• About six-in-ten Americans say it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs (59 percent).
• Currently, 41 percent say there has been too little religious talk from political leaders, while 30 percent say there has been too much, and 23 percent say there has been about the right amount.
• About 63 percent of Americans oppose the idea of churches endorsing particular candidates during political elections, with 32 percent saying they should.
• Roughly a third of evangelical Christians (34 percent) and one-in-five Catholics (18 percent) say it has become more difficult to be a member of their religious group in recent years. About 8 percent of non-believers say it has become harder to be a person with no religion in the U.S. in recent years, while 31 percent say it has become easier.
The complete survey and commentary can be found on-line, where the Pew Research Center posted the results of the survey for public consumption.
(The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan American think tank based in Washington, D.C., that provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends shaping the United States and the world. The analysis in this report is based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 2-9, 2014, among a national sample of 2,002 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International.)