The 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study used measures such as frequency of worship service attendance, prayer and belief in God to show that the U.S. public is becoming less religious — and the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly impacted by the religiously unaffiliated.
“I think that this most recent Pew poll reflects a continuation of trends that have been underway for at least a few years and reflect the general flow, but consistent slide, of American piety since the 1970s,” said Molly Worthen, a history assistant professor at UNC.
Worthen said religious attendance in the United States doesn’t work in a straight line — during the Revolutionary War, church attendance was much lower than modern day. It was only during the Second Great Awakening that church attendance surged.
Despite the decline in overall religiosity, Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher at Pew, said in an email that there is a great deal of stability in the U.S. religious landscape with religiously affiliated Americans, showing increased measures of devoutness.
“The recent decline in religious beliefs and behaviors is largely attributable to the ‘nones,’ who are a growing minority of Americans, particularly millennials, who say they do not belong to any organized faith.”
Worthen said the “none” category puzzles scholars, as only a small portion are devout atheists.
“Others seem to hold to some self-fashioned amalgamation of different religious and spiritual values that they pulled from different sources and experiences — and those can often be quite sincere and powerful beliefs,” Worthen said.
Martinez said there is diversity in religious commitment among unaffiliated categories — which includes atheists, agnostics or those who claim no specific religion — that shows the groups are not secular.
“Among the unaffiliated, overall about six-in-10 (61 percent) say they believe in God, and one-in-five say they pray on a daily basis,” she said.
The survey shows the unaffiliated group is growing faster in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party and is now the largest religious group among Democrats.
Khaled Jaouhari, president of the UNC Young Democrats, said he thinks religion remains important to Democrats even if it isn’t always mentioned.
“Democratic candidates are less likely to take religion and use it as a bias in terms of dictating policy proposals,” he said.
Worthen said new immigrants, with different religious views and a generational divide among conservative evangelical Christians, make Southern politics more complicated.
Jaouhari said changing religious convictions have resulted in politics becoming more focused on policy — in modern politics, a person’s lack of religious convictions won’t harm their ability to run.
“In today’s day and age, it is not spread throughout the country. I think that some parts are way off from this,” he said. “We have a Muslim congressman from Minnesota; you have independents like Bernie — it’s not so much about the religion anymore. It’s more so about policy substance.”