Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs
by George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay
(MorehousePublishing, 1999). In the field of religion, the most egregious example of Mark Twain's Rule--that there are three species of deception: lies, damned lies, and statistics--relates to membership statistics. For decades,sociologists have reckoned Protestant strength on membership figures,rarely stopping to realize the wildly divergent ways in which differentProtestant churches and denominations calculate their numbers. Inmainline denominations, typically, membership is almost pro forma, where the real challenge lies in getting yourself off of the membershiprolls. In more evangelical congregations (many of which have nodenominational affiliation at all), membership standards are far morestringent and recall those of the seventeenth-century Puritans. Veryoften, a candidate for membership in an evangelical congregation will be expected to stand before a committee of church elders - or the entire congregation - and give and account of her conversion and spiritual pilgrimage. This divergence gives rise to the fairly commoncircumstance of an evangelical congregation with, say, 200 members and a weekly attendance of 1500, whereas a more mainline church may haveprecisely the opposite figures.

Numbers like those provided in Surveying the Religious Landscape:Trends in U.S. Beliefs, however, can be useful, especially whenapproached with Twain-like caution. For more than half a century theGallup organization has furnished us with a more-or-less steady diet ofdata, and part of the advantage this offers is a rough continuity ofquestions over the decades. This allows for more meaningfulcomparisons, but it may also account for unnecessary calcification.Gallup, for example, still asks "Do you happen to be a member of achurch or synagogue?" (Sixty-nine percent, by the way, say yes.) Butthe complexion of the population wrought by changes to the immigrationlaws in 1965 have rendered that question less useful than it was in1950. Why not include mosque or gurdwara in the query or ask it in amore generic way?

There are few surprises here. Women continue to outnumber men in thechurches, two-thirds of us believe in life after death, and Americanspersist in denomination switching, which has been common since World War II. The number of Americans expressing a preference for the Methodists, Presbyterians, or the Episcopalians has dropped by a third over the past three decades (a circumstance that makes the Lutherans' August 1999 decision to climb aboard the sinking ship of the Episcopal Church even more imponderable). Lutherans have pretty much held their own, and Baptists continue to flourish. Eighty percent of Americans believe that the Bible is inspired, and 44 percent would fit the definition of "creationist."

If the data are solid, the narrative occasionally produces someclunkers. The authors use the questionable label of "born-againChristian" to identify both Ronald Reagan and George Bush, andthey attribute the rise of evangelicalism in the twentieth century toNeo-orthodoxy. Gallup sensibly applies a three-part criteria for classifying someone as evangelical: a born again orconversion experience, a belief that the Bible is the actual Word ofGod, and a desire to convert nonbelievers to Christianity. He findsthat 39 percent of the U.S. population fits that definition, a figurewell within the range of 25 to 46 percent suggested by other surveys.

The most surprising findings concern Roman Catholicism. The number ofCatholics willing to identify themselves as born again or evangelicalrose from 12 percent in 1988 to 21 percent eight years later; perhapsnot coincidentally, only one in three Catholics in America "regularlypractice the Church's requirements for personal devotion." Fully 82 percent of Catholics believe that a Catholic can practiceartificial means of birth control and still be considered goodCatholics, two-thirds support women's ordination to the priesthood, afigure that has doubled in the last two decades, yet 73 percent approveof the way John Paul II leads the church. Go figure.

We Americans are consistently inconsistent. Gallup found that 79percent of us support the principle of the separation of church andstate, but nearly as many, 67 percent, favor a Constitutional amendment"that would permit prayers to be spoken in public schools" .Again, go figure.

The history of Gallup data-gathering permits useful comparisons, but theoverwhelming impression is that we Americans remain an incurablyreligious people despite the pressures of modernization that weresupposed to bring on secularization. In 1947, 95 percent of Americansprofessed a belief in God; the most recent poll shows that number up onepercentage point to 96. Gallup data reveal little about the quality ofreligious life in America, but the quantity remains high.

As another pundit might say - Yogi Berra, perhaps - the more thingschange, the more they stay the same.