10 facts about religion and government in the United States (2023)

10 facts about religion and government in the United States (1)

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that the country shall have no official religion, and Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government since the country’s founding. The debate recently resurfaced with three new Supreme Court rulings over religious symbols on public property, prayer in public schools and state subsidies for religious schools.

Pew Research Center surveys in recent years have shown that far more Americans support than oppose the separation of church and state, although there sometimes are divisions on these questions by political identity and religious affiliation.

Here are 10 facts about some of the connections between religion and government in the U.S. – and the public’s current views on the matter – based on previously published analyses by the Center.

How we did this

Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to explore Americans’ attitudes about the relationship between church and state in the United States. It draws on a variety of studies the Center has published in recent years. These studies are based on a range of sources, including an original analysis of state constitutions and congressional data collected by CQ Roll Call. Statements about presidents’ religious affiliations are based on an analysis of information from sources including the Miller Center, the University of Virginia, PBS’s “God in the White House,” and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

Methodology for each Pew Research Center survey can be found through the links in the analysis. Everyone who took part in the surveys is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

10 facts about religion and government in the United States (2)

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults (73%) say religion should be kept separate from government policies, according to a survey conducted in spring 2022. Just 25% say government policies should support religious values and beliefs. While majorities of both Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (84%) and Republicans and Republican leaners (61%) say religion should be kept separate from government policies, Republicans are far more likely to say government should support religious values (38% vs. 16%).

About four-in-ten Protestants (39%) say government policies should support religious values and beliefs, compared with 24% of Catholics and 9% of religiously unaffiliated adults – those who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. White evangelical Protestants are split, with 49% saying that government policies should support religious values and an identical share saying they should be kept separate from religion.

The Johnson Amendment limits political activity by religious organizations, and most Americans (70%) want churches and other houses of worship to stay out of politics, according to a 2021 analysis. Still, a survey conducted during the presidential race in July 2020 found that some U.S. adults who had attended religious services in the month prior or watched services online said they had heard sermons expressing support for then-President Donald Trump (9%) or then-candidate Joe Biden (6%), while others had heard sermons expressing opposition to Trump (7%) or Biden (4%). Meanwhile, four-in-ten had heard sermons discussing the importance of voting, protesting or other forms of political engagement.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that it’s unconstitutional for a teacher to lead a class in prayer at a public school, but three-in-ten U.S. adults said in a March 2021 survey that public school educators should be allowed to do this. A considerably larger share of Americans (46%) said teachers in public schools should not be allowed to lead students in any kind of prayers, with Democrats twice as likely as Republicans to say this (60% vs. 30%). Another 24% did not prefer either option.

Among U.S. public school students ages 13 to 17, 41% said in a 2019 survey that it’s appropriate for a teacher to lead a class in prayer, including 29% of teens who knew that this practice was banned but said it was acceptable nevertheless.

This year, the Supreme Court decided another case that involved prayer at public schools. In that case, the high court ruled that a high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, had a constitutional right to pray at midfield following games.

10 facts about religion and government in the United States (3)

Americans are divided on whether local governments should be allowed to put religious symbols on public property, according to the same March 2021 survey. Nearly four-in-ten U.S. adults (39%) say cities and towns should be allowed to do this, while 35% say religious symbols should be kept off public property. Roughly a quarter (26%) don’t favor either option. While some Supreme Court cases have determined that religious displays on government property are constitutional in certain contexts, other cases have found that such displays can be endorsements of religion, violating the First Amendment.

While the U.S. Constitution does not mention God, nearly all state constitutions reference either God or the divine, according to a 2017 analysis. God also appears in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency.

Christmas Day is the only federal holiday that’s also a religious holiday, although many Americans view Christmas as a cultural holiday, too. Congress made Christmas – along with the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day – an unpaid holiday for the federal D.C. workforce in 1870; a later bill extended these as paid vacation days for all government employees. Courts have upheld Christmas Day’s constitutionality, arguing that federal office closures do not coerce citizens to engage in religious activities. Efforts to recognize other religious holidays, such as Muslim Eid al-Fitr, have been unsuccessful to date.

Almost all U.S. presidents, including Joe Biden, have been Christian. Biden is only the second Catholic president (after John F. Kennedy), while the vast majority of others have been Protestant – most often Episcopalian or Presbyterian. Two of the most famous presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, had no formal religious affiliation. Most presidents have been sworn in with a Bible, and they traditionally seal their oath of office with the phrase “so help me God.” Roughly half of Americans feel it is either very (20%) or somewhat (32%) important for a president to have strong religious beliefs (even if they are different from their own), according to a survey conducted in February 2020.

Congress has always been overwhelmingly Christian, and roughly nine-in-ten representatives (88%) in the current Congress – including 99% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats – identify as Christian, according to a January 2021 analysis. Congress is both more heavily Protestant than the U.S. population overall (55% vs. 40%) and more heavily Catholic (30% vs. 21%).

10 facts about religion and government in the United States (4)

The Constitution guarantees that religion can never be a requirement for holding public office, but most Americans don’t know this, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. When asked in a multiple choice question what the Constitution says about religion, only 27% of adults are able to correctly identify that “no religious test” is necessary to hold public office. Many U.S. adults incorrectly select that the Constitution requires federal officeholders to affirm that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights (15%), that the Constitution requires federal officeholders to be sworn in on the Holy Bible (12%), or that the Constitution says nothing about religion as it relates to federal officeholders (13%). Another 31% say they are not sure what the Constitution says about this.

10 facts about religion and government in the United States (5)

Americans are divided on the extent to which the country’s laws should reflect biblical teachings. Roughly half of adults say the Bible should influence U.S. laws either a great deal (23%) or some (26%), and more than a quarter (28%) say the Bible should prevail over the will of the people if the two are at odds, according to a February 2020 survey. Half of Americans, meanwhile, say the Bible shouldn’t influence U.S. laws much (19%) or at all (31%).

Note: This is an update of a post originally published July 16, 2020.

10 facts about religion and government in the United States (6)

Rebecca Leppert is an editorial assistant at Pew Research Center.

10 facts about religion and government in the United States (7)

Dalia Fahmy is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


What is the relationship between religion and the US government? ›

The First Amendment reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first part of that requirement (the Establishment Clause) means that not only should there be no official state church, but also that government should be prohibited from ...

What are the religious facts about the United States? ›

Roughly 48.9% of Americans are Protestants, 23.0% are Catholics, 1.8% are Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Christianity was introduced during the period of European colonization. The United States has the world's largest Christian population.

What does the government say about religion? ›

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that the country shall have no official religion, and Americans have been debating where to draw the line between religion and government since the country's founding.

Was the US government founded on religion? ›

A treaty of peace and friendship between the United States and Tripoli that was approved by George Washington explicitly stated: “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…” This treaty was negotiated by the American diplomat Joel Barlow during the administration of ...

Can the government support a religion? ›

Although most scholars agree that the establishment clause of the First Amendment forbids government from favoring any particular faith, they differ over whether government efforts to enlist the aid of religious social service organizations threaten the healthy separation of church and state, which the establishment ...

How does religion affect the U.S. economy? ›

Religion affects economic decision-making by establishing social standards and shaping individual personalities. Firms located in communities with higher religiosity tend to adhere to ethical norms that are conducive to a stable economy.

What is America's main religion? ›

Christianity in the United States

Christianity has been the most prevalent and influential religion in American society since its introduction during the colonial period. For instance, while non-Christian religious groups are growing, they represent less than 6% of the population.

What was the first religion in the US? ›

Because the Spanish were the first Europeans to establish settlements on the mainland of North America, such as St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, the earliest Christians in the territory which would eventually become the United States were Roman Catholics.

How many U.S. are religious? ›

Most Americans Identify With a Religion

According to an average of all 2021 Gallup polling, about three in four Americans said they identify with a specific religious faith.

How does the government protect freedom of religion? ›

The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment gives you the right to worship or not as you choose. The government can't penalize you because of your religious beliefs.

Is religion a form of government? ›

Religious democracy is a form of government where the values of a particular religion affect laws and rules. The term applies to all countries in which religion is incorporated into the form of government.

Why is religious freedom so important in the United States? ›

Religious freedom, or freedom of conscience, is critical to the health of a diverse society. It allows different faiths and beliefs to flourish. Religious freedom protects the rights of all groups and individuals, including the most vulnerable, whether religious or not.

Is religion part of US government? ›

Religion in the United States is remarkable in its high adherence level compared to other developed countries. The First Amendment to the country's Constitution prevents the government from having any authority in religion, and guarantees the free exercise of religion.

How did religion start in America? ›

Religion in the United States began with the religions and spiritual practices of Native Americans. Later, religion also played a role in the founding of some colonies, as many colonists, such as the Puritans, came to escape religious persecution.

What role did religion play in the founding of America? ›

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Religion and the American Revolution. Religion played a major role in the American Revolution by offering a moral sanction for opposition to the British--an assurance to the average American that revolution was justified in the sight of God.

What is the separation of religion and government? ›

The first clause in the Bill of Rights states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Is God mentioned in U.S. Constitution? ›

The U.S. Constitution never explicitly mentions God or the divine, but the same cannot be said of the nation's state constitutions. In fact, God or the divine is mentioned at least once in each of the 50 state constitutions and nearly 200 times overall, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

What is an example of a religion in politics? ›

Modern day recognised theocracies include the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Holy See, while the Taliban and Islamic State are insurgencies attempting to create such polities. Historical examples include the Islamic Caliphates and the Papal States.

What are the positive effects of religion to us? ›

Religion gives people something to believe in, provides a sense of structure and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs. These facets can have a large positive impact on mental health — research suggests that religiosity reduces suicide rates, alcoholism and drug use.

What is the power of religion? ›

It describes the way in which the dominant group rationalize its authority over minority by means of religion. Such as genocide of the Ezidi group and enslavement of their women under the title of religious power.

How much money does religion make in the US? ›

Religion in the United States is worth $1.2tn a year, making it equivalent to the 15th largest national economy in the world, according to a study.

Which religion is the biggest? ›

Largest religious groups
ReligionFollowers (billions)Cultural tradition
Christianity2.4Abrahamic religions
Islam1.9Abrahamic religions
Hinduism1.2Indian religions
Buddhism0.5Indian religions
1 more row

How many religions are there? ›

According to some estimates, there are over 4,000 religions, faiths groups, and denominations that exist around the world today. Researchers and academics generally categorize the world's religions into five major groups: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism.

How many people are religious? ›

A comprehensive demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life estimates that there are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe, representing 84% of the 2010 world population of 6.9 billion.

Who brought Christianity to USA? ›

Christianity was introduced during the period of European colonization. The Spanish and French brought Catholicism to the colonies of New Spain and New France respectively, while British and Germans introduced Protestantism.

When did America become religious? ›

Toward mid-century the country experienced its first major religious revival. The Great Awakening swept the English-speaking world, as religious energy vibrated between England, Wales, Scotland and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s.

What was the relationship between religion and government in the colonies? ›

Government in these colonies contained elements of theocracy, asserting that leaders and officials derived that authority from divine guidance and that civil authority ought to be used to enforce religious conformity.

How much of U.S. is not religious? ›

The percentage of Americans without religious affiliation, often labeled as "Nones", is around 20-29% – with people who identify as "nothing in particular" accounting for the growing majority of this demographic, and both atheists and agnostics accounting for the relatively unchanged minority of this demographic.

How many Americans go to Church? ›

Fewer people in the pews

In March 2020, 75 percent of Americans reported that they attended a religious service at least once a year. That number dropped to about 66 percent by spring of 2022. Over the same timeline, the percentage of Americans said they "never" attended church rose from 25 percent to 33 percent.

Why do people become religious? ›

The quick and easy answer to why people are religious is that God – in whichever form you believe he/she/they take(s) – is real and people believe because they communicate with it and perceive evidence of its involvement in the world.

Why is religion important? ›

Religion ideally serves several functions. It gives meaning and purpose to life, reinforces social unity and stability, serves as an agent of social control, promotes psychological and physical well-being, and may motivate people to work for positive social change.

What are religious rules called? ›

Religious law refers to ethical and moral codes taught by religions. Examples include Christian canon law, Islamic sharia, Jewish halakha and Hindu law.

Who came to America for religious freedom? ›

In the storybook version most of us learned in school, the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in 1620. The Puritans soon followed, for the same reason.

What is a government without religion called? ›

State atheism is the incorporation of hard atheism or non-theism into political regimes. It may also refer to large-scale secularization attempts by governments.

Is the church owned by the government? ›

Because of the clear separation of church and state in the US Government system, there is no example of when a state or federal government will own a church property. As such, work on churches is always private, commercial work. And, of course, you can file a lien on a church just like any other property.

Does the church have a form of government? ›

The Roman Catholic Church understands herself as a single polity whose supreme earthly authority is the Supreme Pontiff (Pope). In Anglicanism the churches are autonomous, though the majority of members are organizationally united in the Anglican Communion, which has no governmental authority.

Does the US have freedom of religion? ›

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What is an example of religious freedom? ›

The Free Exercise Clause gives everyone the right to choose to worship or not. Here's an example that puts the Free Exercise Clause into practice: Ex) If reciting the Pledge of Allegiance goes against a student's religious beliefs, a public school teacher cannot coerce or pressure the student into reciting it.

What are the benefits of religious freedom? ›

Religious freedom protects people's right to live, speak, and act according to their beliefs peacefully and publicly. It protects their ability to be themselves at work, in class, and at social activities. Religious freedom is more than the “freedom to worship” at a synagogue, church, or mosque.

What is the history of religious freedom in the United States? ›

The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791. It established a separation of church and state that prohibited the federal government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also prohibits the government, in most cases, from interfering with a person's religious beliefs or practices.

What role does religion play in political conflicts? ›

Religious communities also directly oppose repression and promote peace and reconciliation. Religious leaders and institutions can mediate in conflict situations, serve as a communication link between opposing sides, and provide training in peacemaking methodologies.

How did religion affect early America? ›

Religion in early America allowed disenfranchised groups such as these to take on a larger role in local communities, even if they weren't fully embraced as equal members of society. Many African American converts became preachers and led independent African American congregations of their own (4).

How has religion impacted society? ›

Religious belief and practice contribute substantially to the formation of personal moral criteria and sound moral judgment. Regular religious practice generally inoculates individuals against a host of social problems, including suicide, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, crime, and divorce.

What religions were created in America? ›

19th century
  • Black church, 1790s-onward. ...
  • Reformed Mennonites, 1812.
  • various subgroups of Amish, throughout 19th and 20th centuries.
  • American Unitarian Association, 1825. ...
  • Latter Day Saint movement/Mormonism, 1830.
  • New Thought Movement, 1830s-onward. ...
  • Adventist/Millerites, 1840s. ...
  • Spiritualism, 1840s.

Which colonies had religious freedom? ›

Many of the early colonies were founded because people were seeking religious freedom — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland all had those roots.

How does the Constitution deal with the relationship between religion and the government? ›

The First Amendment has two provisions concerning religion: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment clause prohibits the government from "establishing" a religion.

What rule government is based on religion? ›

theocracy, government by divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. In many theocracies, government leaders are members of the clergy, and the state's legal system is based on religious law. Theocratic rule was typical of early civilizations.

Does the United States government have the right to dictate the religion of its citizens? ›

Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another.

How did religion influence the U.S. Constitution? ›

The members of the Constitutional Convention, the group charged with authoring the Constitution, believed that the government should have no power to influence its citizens toward or away from a religion. The principle of separating church from state was integral to the framers' understanding of religious freedom.

What is the religious freedom of the United States? ›

Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

What is the relationship between the church and the government? ›

Rather, the First Amendment ensures both that the government does not show preference to a certain religion and that the government does not take away an individual's ability to exercise religion. In other words, the church should not rule over the state, and the state cannot rule over the church.

When can the government restrict religion? ›

The Supreme Court has said the federal government may limit religious freedom – but only when it has a “compelling interest” to do so in order to protect the common good and limit people's ability to harm others.

Why is it important to separate religion and government? ›

There are many religions in America, and many separate sects within those religions. Separation helps to prevent government from promoting one religion or one sect over the others. That really helps protect religious pluralism so that government can't impose one religion on everyone.

Does the Constitution say freedom of religion? ›

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What is a religious government called? ›

Theocracy, government by divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. In many theocracies, government leaders are members of the clergy, and the state's legal system is based on religious law.

Can the United States not have an official religion? ›

The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another.

How many religions are in the United States? ›

According to the census, religion in the United States is comprised of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the unaffiliated, including atheists or agnostics. The largest religion in the United States is Christianity, practiced by the majority of the population.

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