Americans are losing faith in religion’s ability to help solve social problems

Not using the pulpit like it used to.
Not using the pulpit like it used to.
Image: Reuters/Patrick Semansky
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Throughout US history, religious leaders and institutions have played a vital role in addressing the issues of the day. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which witnessed a horrific shooting in June last year, was used in the struggle against slavery as a site for organizing and activism. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the civil rights movement was definitively shaped by his role as a preacher.

However, the share of Americans who think that churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship contribute to solving crucial social problems is declining rapidly, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

In August 2008, 75% of Americans said that religious institutions and leaders contributed at least somewhat to solving societal problems. That percentage had fallen to 65% by July 2012, and further declined to 58% in the most recent survey.

Roughly 4 in 10 Americans now say that religious leaders and institutions do not make a significant contribution to solving social problems.

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The changing perceptions of Americans on the role of religion could be partially attributed to the growth in population of those with no religious affiliation. (Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” rose from 16.1% to 22.8%, according to Pew research.)

As might be expected, those with no religious affiliation are less likely to think that religious institutions play an active role in solving societal ills. Only 38% of the non-affiliated say that religious leaders and institutions make a contribution in this area, as compared with 65% of Protestants and 63% of Catholics.

“Part of what’s reflected here is the changing religious composition of the country,” said Greg Smith, deputy director of religion research at Pew Research Center and one of the lead authors of the report.

However, that does not explain the shift entirely. The percentage of those who believe that churches help solve social problems has declined almost equally across age, religious belief, geographical location, and political affiliation. “It is striking just how broad-based this change is,” said Smith.

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If organized religion indeed is retreating as a force for social change, it doesn’t necessarily mean that activism itself is waning.

In a 2015 opinion piece in the Washington Post, social activist Rahiel Tesfamariam pointed to the decentralized nature of movements like Black Lives Matter, and argued that modern activism in many cases no longer needs, or even desires, the imprimatur of churches.

In the 1960s, she wrote, the authority of clergy “infused the civil rights movement with traditional values—hierarchical leadership, respectability politics and the guiding principles of reconciliation and nonviolence. Today’s movement has dismissed these criteria, operating without centralized leadership and accepting as many straight women and LGBTQ people on the front lines as straight men.”