Americans believe churches shouldn’t have special privileges to be open when other similar venues are closed, but they also believe their churches should be open already — even though few people are actually attending in-person worship.
These seemingly contradictory views of American religious life in the age of coronavirus emerged from the latest polling done by the Pew Research Center.
Pew surveyed 10,211 U.S. adults between July 13 and 19 to ask their views on churches being open or closed for in-person worship and about their own current worship practices.
Debate over whether churches must abide by local or state prohibitions on mass gatherings has reached the U.S. Supreme Court twice since the pandemic’s arrival in March. And prominent pastors have weighed in on both sides of the open-or-close question, with Andy Stanley of Northpoint Church in Atlanta saying his congregation will not meet in person the rest of this year and John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles defying government orders by opening with neither social distancing nor masks required.
An overwhelming percentage of Americans agree with the Supreme Court that churches should be required to follow the same mandates that apply to other large gatherings and businesses in their area.
About 80% believe churches should be subject to the same rules on being open and on requiring social distancing practices as other organizations.
About 80% believe churches should be subject to the same rules on being open and on requiring social distancing practices as other organizations. That’s four times the number of Americans who believe churches should be given special deference. Those who want special treatment for churches are most likely to be evangelical Christians and Republicans, the poll found. However, even two-thirds of Republicans said churches should be required to follow the same public health rules as everyone else.
When the question turns to whether an individual’s own house of worship should be open right now, Americans are more likely to say yes. Only 28% said they believe their own place of worship should be closed for in-person meetings, while 57% said their own churches should be open but with modifications and 13% said their congregations should be open just like before the pandemic.
The most commonly expected modifications are required social distancing, required face masks and restricting attendance. While studies have shown a significant risk of spreading infection through singing, most Americans don’t seem convinced that’s a problem; less than a third said communal singing should be limited in their own public worship.
Americans’ views on what their churches ought to be doing closely mirror what they report their congregations actually are doing. A little more than half report their congregations are open with modifications in place, and 6% say their congregations are open with no restrictions.
Overall, the survey found mainline Protestant and historically Black Protestant churches are nearly twice as likely to remain closed as evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches. Only a quarter of evangelical Protestants and Catholics report their places of worship remain closed for in-person services.
Fewer than 1-in-6 adults who want their churches open say they are attending themselves.
That doesn’t mean Americans are showing up to these open churches, however.
The Pew study found only 12% of American adults reporting they have personally attended an in-person worship service in the past month. That compares with 70% of American adults who believe their churches should be open in one form or another. Fewer than 1-in-6 adults who want their churches open say they are attending themselves.
When the latest survey is narrowed to adults who typically attended religious services at least monthly pre-pandemic, the current reported attendance rate jumps to 33% — still less than half the number who believe their churches should be open.
Participation in in-person worship differs significantly among those who live in counties with 100 or more COVID-19 deaths compared to the those who live in less-hard-hit counties. Only 26% of regular worshipers in hard-hit counties say they have attended in-person worship in the past month, compared to 47% of those who live in counties with 10 or fewer deaths.
Again, evangelical Christians and Catholics are most likely to say they have attended in-person worship within the past month. Evangelicals top that list at 44%, followed by Catholics at 32%. On the other hand, historically Black Protestants and evangelical Protestants are the most likely to have watched an online religious service in the past month — whether they attended an in-person service or not.
That number of people saying they have attended worship in the past month becomes more important when laid against a known confirmation bias in polling that causes Americans to overstate their actual church attendance even in good times. Pre-pandemic research documented that for years, Americans have said they attend church much more than they actually do.
Online worship participation ranks high among all Americans who identify as regular churchgoers, with 72% of such adults accessing online services. The data seem to suggest that, at least for now, online worship continues to replace in-person worship even when church buildings reopen.
Nevertheless, Americans say they intend to resume their previous church-attendance habits just as before once the pandemic threat is gone. That includes 43% of the adult population who say they didn’t attend worship before the pandemic and don’t plan to afterward either. Among the other half of American adults, 42% say they intend to attend at the same rate as before — whatever that rate of attendance was.
In the meantime, most worshipers report satisfaction with the online services they are accessing now. And among adults who watched online religious services in the past month, more than half said they watched the services of a house of worship other than their own — either instead of or in addition to watching their own congregation.
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