Who Do Christians Trust?

As houses of worship continue to reopen, most U.S. adults who regularly attend religious services voice confidence in their clergy to provide guidance on the coronavirus vaccines – and far more say they have heard their pastor, priest, rabbi or imam encourage people to get vaccinated than have heard their clergy raise doubts about COVID-19 vaccines. But a slim majority of regular worshippers say they have not heard their religious leaders say much about vaccinations either way, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted Sept. 20-26, 2021.

Also, among U.S. adults overall, there is no clear consensus about whether houses of worship have had a positive or negative impact on the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey finds that a growing share of Americans are now attending religious services in person. Among those who say they typically attend services at least once or twice a month, a clear majority (64%) report that they actually have gone in person in the past month, the first time that has been the case in three surveys conducted since the pandemic began.

The resumption of in-person attendance has been accompanied by a decline in the share of both U.S. adults overall and regular worshippers who say they have watched religious services online or on TV in the past month.

Many U.S. congregants – i.e., people who say either that they typically attend religious services at least monthly or that they have attended in person in the past month, who together comprise a little more than a third of all U.S. adults – say they have heard the clergy or religious leaders at their house of worship weigh in on coronavirus vaccines. And among those who have heard from their clergy on this issue, far more say their priest, pastor, rabbi, imam or other religious leader has encouraged people to get vaccinated (39% of all religious attenders) than say their clergy has discouraged getting the shots (5%).

Far more U.S. worshippers say their clergy have encouraged COVID-19 vaccines than discouraged them

Even among evangelical Protestants, who have tended to be relatively skeptical toward the vaccines, just 4% say their clergy have discouraged people from getting a vaccine. But more than half of U.S. congregants (54%) and nearly three-quarters of evangelical churchgoers (73%) say their clergy have not said much about COVID-19 vaccinations either way. Most members of the historically Black Protestant tradition, on the other hand, say their pastors have encouraged people to get a vaccine (64%).

There is a relatively high degree of trust in clergy to give advice on the coronavirus vaccines: Fully six-in-ten U.S. congregants (61%) say they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in their religious leaders to provide reliable guidance about getting a vaccine. This figure is virtually identical to the share who express confidence in public health officials, such as those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to give reliable guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations (60%), although Americans who attend religious services at least monthly are slightly more likely to say they have “a great deal” of confidence in guidance from public health officials than to say the same about their clergy (27% vs. 21%).

Religious attenders express more trust in their clergy on this issue than they do in state elected officials, local elected officials or news media. Among the options presented by the survey, only primary care doctors rank above clergy in the share of U.S. congregants who have at least “a fair amount” of trust in each group to provide guidance on vaccines.

Clergy have responded in differing ways to the COVID-19 outbreak that began in the United States in early 2020. At various points in the pandemic, some religious leaders have refused to limit attendance or enforce other public health restrictions at their houses of worship. At the same time, other members of the clergy have encouraged vaccinations and even hosted vaccination sites at their churches or other facilities.

Americans overall express ambivalent views about the broad impact of churches and other religious organizations on the U.S. response to the pandemic, with 25% saying that religious organizations have done “more harm than good” and 22% saying they have done “more good than harm.” About half (52%) say that religious organizations have not made much difference.

There is a substantial gap between the two major political parties on this question, with four-in-ten Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party saying that religious organizations have done more harm than good (39%), compared with just one-in-ten Republicans and GOP leaners who take that position (9%).

Democrats more likely than Republicans to see harm from religious groups in COVID-19 response

Even more broadly, there appears to have been a modest but noticeable change in recent years in the way Americans view the role of churches and other houses of worship when it comes to addressing social and political issues. Some pastors have waded into a wide range of political and social debates regarding not only the pandemic but also the 2020 presidential election and the national conversation on racial injustice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Fully seven-in-ten U.S. adults now say that, in general, churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters, up from 63% the last time this question was asked, in March 2019. Just three-in-ten Americans (29%) now say that churches should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions, down from 36% in 2019. Democrats remain more likely than Republicans to say that houses of worship should stay out of politics (76% vs. 62%), although members of both parties are more likely to express this view now than they were when the question was last asked.

There has been little change on two other questions about religion’s role in public life over the past few years: More people continue to say that churches and other religious organizations mostly bring people together (rather than push them apart), and that in general – not just regarding the pandemic – religious institutions do more good than harm (as opposed to more harm than good).

These are among the key findings from a new Pew Research Center survey of 6,485 U.S. adults, conducted on the Center’s American Trends Panel. Although the survey was conducted among Americans of all religious backgrounds, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons and more, it did not obtain enough respondents from these smaller religious groups to report separately on their views.

J. Nortey

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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