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Survey on religion finds major ideological differences between Republicans, Democrats

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Joining me now to dive deeper into the findings of this research and what it says about faith in America is Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas. She's dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Good morning. Thanks for being on the program, Reverend.

KELLY BROWN DOUGLAS: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: I want to start with why you think so many Americans are leaving the church.

BROWN DOUGLAS: Yeah. Well, what we see, first of all, is that there's not, since the last survey, a notable or a significant decline in terms of those who identify as religion - religious. But I think what you find is that Americans in general, as this survey reflects, are less trusting of institutions. And so you see this difference between those who claim to be religious or spiritual, as they will denote, and those who say they're spiritual and those who are religious. And those who are leaving the church are less trusting of institutions.

FADEL: Why do you think that's happening? I mean, also, this survey found really ideological differences that break down along partisan lines in some cases and in some cases by race. For example, the vast majority of Republicans and the vast majority of white churchgoers, according to this research, say they believe America is in danger of losing its, quote, "culture and identity," while fewer than half of Democrats think that. When you hear that, what do you think?

BROWN DOUGLAS: Yeah. You know, as you dig deeper into this survey, what we're seeing is the kind of partisanship or divisions, if you will, that we're seeing in the country in general that, in large measure, break down along racial and party lines. And so we're, of course, seeing that in the church as well. And so that - you will see, for instance, particularly this difference with white evangelical Protestants. And because white evangelical Protestants reflect the base of the Republican Party, then, of course, you're going to begin - you see this in terms of their religious associations. And so that partisan divide, if you will, that you're seeing in the church is reflective of what's going on in the country in general.

FADEL: Now, the church is also still a very segregated place...

BROWN DOUGLAS: Yes.

FADEL: ...Despite how diverse the country has become. Why?

BROWN DOUGLAS: Well, you know, people who have the same life experiences are people who tend to worship together. And so inasmuch as Black Americans, for instance, and white Americans or people of color and white Americans have different life experiences, then they will - you won't see them worshipping together because they expect the same things out of worship. And so - and the same kind of worship experience. And what we do know in a companion survey is that not only do white Americans and Americans of color - particularly Black Americans - have different life experiences, if you will, but we also know that they generally are not integrated in terms of their friend group or the people that they socialize with the most...

FADEL: True.

BROWN DOUGLAS: ...Particularly with white Americans, who 90% of their friend group are other white Americans. And so it would be unusual if those two things didn't also play out in terms of church attendance and who they worship with.

FADEL: You talked about how the church really reflects the society at large and the partisan divides in this country. Should faith leaders be trying to sort of heal that divide in this moment?

BROWN DOUGLAS: Well, I think if we're going to see particular changes in the country and the political divide, etc., that our churches and church leaders will have to become more engaged in sort of changing that - yes, healing that, but really transforming. What we have to see is not so much the concern for healing the divide. What we have to see is a concern for healing the inequality in our country, right? And so what church leaders have to, I think, be more engaged in are these social justice issues where people are indeed experiencing such radical differences in terms of the way in which they experience life. And so they should be concerned about issues such as poverty, concerned about issues such as racism, etc. If we begin to address that, then we can begin to address the divides.

FADEL: The Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas is the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Thank you so much for your insights on this.

BROWN DOUGLAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.