A large majority of Americans say religion is good and needed in society, so when they sense the world around them is in moral decline they also perceive a corresponding decline in the influence of religion in American life.
Gallup has tracked that trend since the 1950s and its most recent survey found 75 percent of Americans say society would be better off if more people were religious. But, 77 percent of those polled believe the influence of religious faith is declining, representing the most negative evaluations of the impact of religion since 1970.
The survey didn't probe why the 1,535 adults felt religion's influence is waning or if they think that's good or bad. But the data do show that people's perception of religion in public life has little to do with their own faith.
"The sentiment is consistent whether you are religious or not," said Allen D. Hertzke, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma and a distinguished senior fellow for the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. "Religious people see it as more of a problem than nonreligious people, but they all agree that religion is losing influence."
They won't always see it that way, however, said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor-in-chief. "The degree to which these views changed during the Reagan years, and after 9/11, suggest that they could change again in the years ahead," he wrote on the Gallup website.
Newport said the perceptions of religion's influence in American society is not a statement of someone's personal religiosity.
The survey showed that those who attend worship services often and consider religion important in their lives were no more likely to say religion is losing its influence than those who are not religious.
Asked whether religion is losing its influence, 75 percent of those who said religion is very important in their lives said yes, compared to 79 percent of those who gave the same answer but who also said religion is not very important.
But Gallup did find a stronger relationship between ideology as well as partisanship and views of the influence of religion. Liberals and Democrats were more likely than conservatives and Republicans to say religion's influence is increasing in American society.
Newport said the tie between political ideology and views on religious influence may be explained by the fact that liberals tend to be less religious than conservatives. Or, it could be a matter of heightened sensitivity to your perceived enemy.
"If you are on the left you may see the tea party/religious right having a bigger influence because that's your perceived enemy," he said. "Then you hear conservatives saying godless liberals are trying to control the government."
For Richard Flory, a sociologist and director of research in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture and at the University of Southern California, the correlation between politics and religion is also one of personal perception.
"I think it is signifying a particular kind of American individualist mindset, which is saying that my religion is losing influence in the public sphere," he said.
But, the perception doesn't necessarily mean the respondents to the survey are wrong, Hertzke observed.
Referring to the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter, Hertzke said religion is less influential in the large institutions that shape society, such as universities, large corporations and the media.
"So, you have a society where a majority of people say religion is important but they have this instinct, an anxious concern, that somehow religion's influence is less than it used to be, not at the individual believer level, but at the institutional level," he said. "Just watch the entertainment media and to what extent do you see a respectful view of faith and its role in the life of people."
What fascinates sociologists and political scientists like Flory and Hertzke about the Gallup data is how the ebb and flow of perceived religious influence tracks with the events going on at the time.
The only other time Gallup found more than 70 percent saying religion was losing its influence was in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Gallup mentions the impact of an unpopular war in Vietnam and the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s.
"You also had the assassination of (the Rev.) Martin Luther King Jr. and the end of the civil rights movement, which if that wasn't a religious movement I don't know what is," Flory said.
Gallup found religious influence soared in the early 1980s, when the religious right found a powerful political ally in President Ronald Reagan and reached a 1950s level of 71 percent shortly after 9/11.
Newport said the terrorist attacks that killed thousands in New York City and Washington, D.C., brought the country together, and the feeling of solidarity created a perception that religion was having an influence during a time of crisis.
"What you notice at moments of national crisis is a resurgence of civil religion. And I think it’s genuine," Hertzke added. "Crises strike at something deeper than mere patriotism, so we heard a lot of religious language, metaphors, ceremonies, prayer services" in the wake of 9/11.
While Gallup didn't ask why respondents believe religious influence has declined today. Flory and Newport speculated that it could have something to do with the partisanship that is polarizing national politics, rallying cries that religious liberty is under attack by the federal government and secularist groups, and surveys showing a growing cohort of so-called "nones," or those who say they are spiritual but don't affiliate with organized religion.
But Newport explained that Gallup data still show the United States to be one of the most religious nations on earth, with seven in 10 Americans saying they are either very or moderately religious and growth of the nones slowing in 2012.
Love thy neighbor
Something else that respondents likely didn't pick up on is the influence religion has in their local communities, Flory said.
"There is an increased push by public agencies for a greater inclusion of faith groups in the public sphere, particularly in social services on the local level," he said. "We see more activity and interest with religion to do something in the community. And it doesn’t tend to always be political."
Kurt Fredrickson, a professor of pastoral ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, said religious influence has its most positive and lasting impact in the local community.
He explained that the message clergy should take away from the Gallup survey is to focus their efforts on loving God and their neighbors in a broadest sense. "Jesus taught that your neighbor is a very broad category to include people you may not like, appreciate or value. Our task is to go the extra mile to help them," he said.
Fredrickson believes that religious organizations that make themselves invaluable to their local communities will also attract more followers and supporters.
The Gallup poll found that 31 percent of those who didn't consider religion important in their lives said more religious Americans would have a positive impact on society.
"If churches in America were more concerned about being more neighborly rather than getting caught up in these more institutionalized moral wars, it would only go well for us," Fredrickson said.