Religion and faith have played an important part in the United States going all the way back to our founding fathers. Denied religious freedom in England, they sought to protect their liberty with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. President Dwight Eisenhower prompted Congress to add the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, due to the threat of Communism at the time.

Times have certainly changed since then. Gone are the days of full pews in church, even before the pandemic occurred. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, secularism in the United States is on the rise. Religiously unaffiliated or “nones” are up 10% from a decade ago. More than 60% identify as Christian, while 29% are atheist, agnostic, or other. The remaining 8% did not identify with a belief at all.

Protestants account for 40% of the U.S. population, down 10 points in 10 years, while 21% identify as Catholic, identical from 2014 numbers.

Change is not just in Christianity. In a separate poll from June, 88% of those raised Jewish still consider themselves Jewish today, but there has been a shift from Conservative Judaism, 15%, to Reform Judaism, 33%, as opposed to how they were raised, with 25% as Conservative to 28% for Reformed. Of those polled, 29% have no branch of Judaism.

While it is evident that secularism is growing in popularity, polls are only a snapshot.

“Without Christianity, Americans no longer have a common culture in which to fall back,” author Shadi Hamid wrote in “America Without God,” an April article in The Atlantic.

christmas, Christmas tree, Christmas carols
Song lyrics at a Christmas tree lighting at St. David’s school in Raleigh. Photo by Maya Reagan, Carolina Journal

“Faith plays a tremendous role in our lives,” said Rep. Phil Shepard, R-Onslow, who has also been pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Jacksonville since 1997. “The stronger your faith in Jesus Christ, the stronger the person you will be, especially when you are going through difficult times.”

He said people’s faith has helped them through tough times in our country, like the Great Depression and now the pandemic.

“I believe that God allows us to go through circumstances and situations,” he added. “He promises us that he will never leave or forsake us.”

Shepard has his own personal story of faith.  He is a kidney transplant survivor, as he calls it.  His kidney function was down to 3%. Amazingly, before the transplant, he never went on dialysis and carried on with normal functions, like his role as a representative in the General Assembly.

“God brought me through those circumstances,” he said. “I can’t attribute it to anyone else. It’s a gift from God. It’s God working in my life.”

Shepard said he has seen changes in his church since the pandemic. While he has seen some not return, there have been others who have found his church as a new place to worship.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in summer 2020 found that 28% of Americans polled reported their personal faith has gotten stronger because of the pandemic, and think Americans’ religious faith has actually gotten stronger. That is more than any of the other 14 economically developed countries surveyed.

When the government shut down houses of worship during the early stages of the pandemic, it may have led people to examine their faith and question their government, but it also forced them to get creative.

A report showed that online services made it easier for people to participate in religious services, opening up a new world to those who may have never attended or fallen away from worshipping in person.

“What is tangible is that people are watching,” said Monsignor David Brockman of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh. “Some may say they aren’t really ‘there,’ but I beg to differ. I speak to people following, and it’s clear they were there watching. I don’t think it is insignificant.”

There are about 1,200-1,400 converts to Catholicism in the Diocese of Raleigh each year, according to Brockman, who converted to the faith in his 20s before discerning a vocation to the priesthood.

While technology may have opened some doors, attending Mass in person was something that many people, whether converts or “Cradle Catholics,” missed during the early stages of the pandemic and couldn’t wait to get back to.

“A lot of times I would be giving somebody Holy Communion, and they would burst into tears because they missed receiving our Lord,” Brockman said. “For us as Catholics, that is what Jesus communicates in the Gospel: This is my body, this is my blood. People need that.”

Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh also switched to online services when the pandemic hit, but Rabbi Eric Solomon said not being able to worship together in person was detrimental to the congregation. He said now people are slowly returning to Shabbat on a weekly basis.

“Isolation is deadly as COVID,” said Solomon. “It has a deep effect on the mental health and spiritual health of all Americans.”

He said the pandemic made people really look at their lives and question what was important, including having a higher power to give them strength in their most difficult moments and help them understand their life and its meaning.

“Contentment and meaning are not about how much money that you have in your bank account … and having nice things,” said Solomon, “It’s about a way of looking at your life that serves beyond yourself. That understands that you are made in God’s image.”

According to Solomon, a community of faith serves as a connection for people who will walk the journey together, even when it is difficult.

“In the Christian context, you have that encounter with the Lord happening on a very intimate level, God coming as a baby,” Brockman said. “That isn’t a mystery of faith in any other major religion in the world. That sense of hope, that sense of closeness of God with us and not God with me but God with us reaches one on a very personal level that they need. We found out about that during the pandemic, that sense of the community life together. That aspect of fellowship.  God comes in the midst of that as well.”