Commentary: Religious ‘nones’ keep gaining ground, and they worry about the economy, says new study

(Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune) The University Ward at 160 S. University St. in Salt Lake City, built in 1924, shows an art deco style. It also has a large tile mural of the Sermon on the Mount outside. It is a long narrow chapel modeled after Protestant churches with biblical and LDS scriptures painted on the ceiling beams. 7/12/2009

More than a third (34 percent) of Americans surveyed said they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” according to the American Family Survey released Friday.

Taken together, this makes the unaffiliated the largest religious group in the study, having surpassed Protestants (33 percent) and Catholics (21 percent). There was also a smattering of other groups such as Muslims (2 percent), Jews (2 percent), Mormons (1 percent), Orthodox Christians (1 percent), and Hindus (1 percent), as well as those who said they were “something else” (4 percent).

The American Family Survey is the project of Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy Pope, who teach political science at Brigham Young University, and is co-sponsored by Brigham Young University and the Deseret News.

Now in its third year, it aims to uncover Americans’ attitudes on a range of issues, including politics, health care, immigration, and the challenges now facing the American family. This year had a special focus on comparing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump voters.

How respondents answered questions about challenges facing the family was the source of some of the surprises in this year’s study compared to 2015 and 2016, says Karpowitz.

“When we first started doing this study in 2015, more than two-thirds of our respondents picked at least one cultural issue as being one of the three most important issues facing American families,” Karpowitz says. “Now there’s been an 11-point increase in the percentage of people who say the biggest issues facing families are economic.”

Overall, economic issues increased in importance from 51percent to 62 percent, while concern about “cultural” matters (such as the decline in religious faith or the increase in sexual permissiveness and drug use) decreased by 17 points, from 68 percent to 51 percent.

Basically, this shows that an increasing number of Americans are more worried about economic stresses than they are about traditional markers of moral decline.

What’s particularly surprising about this trend, says Karpowitz, is that “the economy seems to be humming along, and we’re not in a recession right now.” Various markers of economic health, such as low unemployment and a robust stock market, are already in place.

Even so, about four in 10 respondents reported that they had put off going to the doctor when they were sick or experienced a time in the past year when they couldn’t pay a bill, showing that the economy’s health has not prevented many Americans from feeling a financial pinch.

There’s a religious divide in how Americans perceive which are the most pressing issues. Highly religious people are far more likely to point to cultural issues than are secular Americans, with 72 percent of frequent religious attendees and just 43 percent of nonattendees being concerned about things such as sexual permissiveness or falling religious attendance. In contrast, nearly seven in 10 secular respondents were concerned about the economy.

Faced with these polarizing differences, what can almost everybody agree on? There are two things.

• First, “Everybody loves their own family, and there’s hope in that message — there’s a lot of commitment to family, across lines of political and religious difference,” says Karpowitz. Among parents, it doesn’t matter if respondents voted for Trump or Clinton, or did not vote at all; nor does it matter whether they consider themselves to be religious. All groups of parents see the act of parenting as a fundamental, core part of their identity.

• Second, Americans are concerned that kids need more discipline. “More than half of both very religious and nonreligious Americans say that parents not teaching or disciplining their children is one of the most important issues facing families,” says Karpowitz.

In other words: We all love our own kids to pieces, but we also think that other parents need to do a better job teaching theirs.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.