Six in 10 Americans (59 percent) say churches and religious organizations have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country, but people's responses vary widely depending on political affiliation, educational background and attendance at religious services, according to a new Pew Research Center report.
Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults who are or lean Republican (73 percent) say churches have a positive effect on society, compared to only half of left-leaning or Democratic adults, Pew reported. Around 60 percent of people with a college degree or less view religious institutions positively, but only 48 percent of adults with post-graduate degrees feel the same.
An even larger perception gap exists between people who attend religious services at least weekly and those who rarely find themselves in a house of worship. Fewer than 4 in 10 adults who seldom or never attend church (38 percent) view religious organizations positively, compared to 74 percent of Americans who regularly find themselves in a house of worship, according to the report.
The survey was conducted from June 8-18, 2017, among 2,504 U.S. adults. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.
Pew has studied attitudes toward national institutions like banks, colleges and the news media since 2010, tracking how political events influence public opinion.
For example, Donald Trump's election seems to have boosted Democratic support for the news media. Today, 44 percent of adults who identify as or lean Democrat say the news media has a positive effect on the way things are going in the U.S., up from 33 percent a year ago, Pew reported.
Americans' views of churches and religious have been relatively stable over the last seven years, with the percentage of positive assessments dropping by only four points since 2010.
However, the percentage of Americans who are active in a faith community is falling, a trend that might eventually impact churches' reputation.
"As more people are raised without religious communities, they learn about religion secondhand through the media and other sources," said Daniel Cox, research director at Public Religion Research Institute, during a panel on demographic shifts at a recent Brigham Young University conference.
In 2016, 25 percent of U.S. adults were religiously unaffiliated, compared to 14 percent in 2000 and 8 percent in 1990, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
The discussion at BYU focused, in part, on how this religious disaffiliation might affect religious institutions, touching on whether it could weaken religious freedom law or affect the availability of social services.
"If religious institutions do decline, what is there to replace them?" Cox said. "That's a big, scary question mark for a lot of us."
Support for churches may be stable for now, but faithful Americans should still be proactively speaking about religious institutions' good works with others, said Michael Moreland, a law and religion professor at Villanova University who was on the BYU panel with Cox.
"It's incumbent (on religious people) to articulate forcefully and attractively the good that religious institutions do in society," said Moreland, who is Catholic.