Five months after the coronavirus forced houses of worship across the country to close their doors, a new survey finds that two-thirds of regular churchgoers feel it's now safe to resume in-person worship.
The Pew Research Survey nonetheless found that an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults also believe that houses of worship should be subject to the same restrictions on public gatherings that apply to other organizations or businesses in their local area. Although Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats to favor special treatment for houses of worship, they still oppose such exemptions by a 2-to-1 margin.
Among the respondents to the Pew survey who said they previously attended worship services at least once a month, 6% said their congregations were operating just as they had before the coronavirus outbreak. About half the respondents said they have personally engaged in worship only online or via television.
About 8 in 10 of all U.S. adults surveyed by Pew don't expect their church attendance or nonattendance habits to change as a result of the pandemic. Of those who do anticipate a change, some said they will be more inclined to attend church when life returns to normal, with a smaller margin saying they will be less likely to go back to worship.
The strong support for reopening houses of worship suggests that Americans are eager to resume their routines, though important distinctions remain, especially along racial lines.
"White Christians are much more confident that it is safe to go to religious services right now than Black and Hispanic worshippers," says Claire Gecewicz, the primary researcher on the Pew survey.
The greater reluctance to go back to church among people of color is not surprising, given that they have been hit much harder by the COVID-19 pandemic. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be essential workers, so they have faced more exposure to the coronavirus on the job. In addition, many people of color live in extended family households. A return to in-person worship would expose them to even greater risk of infection.
With respect to religious groups, the Pew survey found that Catholics and evangelical Protestants are more ready than other Christians to return to regular worship. Catholics are obligated under church teachings to attend Mass weekly. Evangelical Protestants may be generally less deferential to governmental authority.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
A new survey has some interesting findings on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the way Americans think about going to church. The Pew Research Center says most Americans seem comfortable with restrictions placed on worship services. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: By a 4 to 1 margin, Americans in the Pew survey say houses of worship should have to follow the same rules on public gatherings that apply to other institutions in their local area - no special dispensation or exemptions. That holds across all religious denominations and for Republicans and Democrats alike - or generally alike. More Republicans than Democrats think churches should be given extra flexibility in reopening. But even so, two-thirds of Republicans don't think houses of worship deserve special treatment.
Another important finding concerns how church attendance patterns will be changed by this pandemic. Claire Gecewicz was the lead researcher on the Pew survey.
CLAIRE GECEWICZ: So about 8 in 10 U.S. adults say basically that their habits won't change after the outbreak. They say either that they intend to go to religious services in person at the same rate as they did before the outbreak or that they just didn't go to services before the outbreak, and they don't intend to go after.
GJELTEN: Of the other 20%, some say they'll be more inclined to attend church when the pandemic is over. A few say they'll be less likely. Another interesting finding - 2 out of 3 regular churchgoers say they think it's now safe to resume in-person worship, that they can do so without catching or spreading the coronavirus. Still, Gecewicz says there are some distinctions.
GECEWICZ: We do see some divisions on this question between racial and ethnic groups and also among religious groups.
GJELTEN: With respect to religious groups, Catholics and evangelical Protestants are more ready than other Christians to return to regular worship. Catholics are obligated under church teachings to attend Mass weekly. Evangelical Protestants may be generally less deferential to government authority.
GECEWICZ: We also see a similar breakdown among racial and ethnic groups. White worshippers are much more confident that it is safe to go to religious services right now than Black and Hispanic worshippers.
GJELTEN: That's logical. Blacks and Hispanics have been hit harder by COVID-19. They're more likely to be essential workers, so they have more exposure while on the job. Plus, many live in extended family households - no surprise they're less inclined to take any added risk at church.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.