Is COVID-19 planting seeds for an American religious revival?

Written by William C. Duncan

December 9, 2020

Is the pandemic driving younger Americans to prioritize religion like their elders have done much of their lives? That is one striking implication of the second annual Religious Freedom Index, released in November by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Although older Americans in the index tend to be more religious and to say that faith was very important to them than younger Americans, the youngest group is more likely than any other to say that faith and religious have been important during the pandemic.

The index is a national survey of 1,000 respondents reflecting a nationally representative sample. The survey includes core questions that are repeated year after year to track changes and, this year, some additional questions related to the specific conditions of the COVID pandemic.

Some of the findings of the index are very relevant for this COVID year.

For instance: “More than 60 percent of respondents said that faith or religion was important to them during the pandemic.” On this point, the survey disclosed a surprising and encouraging note about younger respondents. The report shows that response varied by age: “Respondents older than 65, who across polls tend to be more religious and more at risk during the pandemic, were much more likely than the total sample to say that faith and religion were extremely or very important to dealing with the pandemic.”

Interestingly, though, “Gen Z respondents, who across polls tend to be less religious and least at risk during the pandemic, were also much more likely than the average to say faith and religion had been extremely or very important.” 74% said it was at least somewhat important while 51% said it was extremely or very important.

Related to this, there was a 7% increase since 2019 in the percentage of Americans who believed “people of faith are de­finitely part of the solution” to the problems facing the country. That answer was given by 62% of respondents.

A specific COVID-related question related to the priority for reopening businesses versus houses of worship. 57% of respondents believed that the priority for reopening businesses and churches are the same. An additional 13% said opening churches is a much higher priority and 9% said that the priority should be somewhat higher.

On the foundational question of how religious freedom should be protected, 60% “agree that religion for some people is a fundamental part of ‘who I am’ and should be protected accordingly.” A majority “agreed with the statements that religious freedom is inherently public and that religious exercise extends to school, work, social media, and other public places” with the former statement garnering particularly strong support from “Gen Z and Black respondents.”

Important question, of course, is how that protection should be provided. Here too the responses were Illuminating.

Respondents appeared to overwhelmingly recognize the importance of religious freedom protections. The index reports that “when it came to voting decisions, a candidate’s stance on religious freedom was an important factor to 78 percent of voters.”

Despite the importance of the issue to voters, though, the survey respondents expressed little confidence in the performance of elected officials in actually protecting religious freedom. In response to the question of “which branch of government does the best job of protecting religious freedom,” the respondents were most likely to point to unelected officials: the courts (27%), then “other” (21%). An elected official, the president, is only mentioned third (19%), followed by state governments (18%), and Congress is cited last (15%).

This survey is an important guide for policymakers. Americans see religion as a critical part of individual identity deserving of protection at the very least equal treatment with other elements of society, but they don’t look to elected officials to provide that protection.

With the pandemic bringing younger Americans around to the personal and social value of religion along with their older counterparts, that is something to work on.

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