Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs
by George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay
(Morehouse Publishing, 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 different Protestant churches and denominations calculate their numbers. In mainline denominations, typically, membership is almost pro forma, where the real challenge lies in getting yourself off of the membership rolls. In more evangelical congregations (many of which have no denominational affiliation at all), membership standards are far more stringent and recall those of the seventeenth-century Puritans. Very often, 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 common circumstance of an evangelical congregation with, say, 200 members and a weekly attendance of 1500, whereas a more mainline church may have precisely the opposite figures.

Numbers like those provided in Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs, however, can be useful, especially when approached with Twain-like caution. For more than half a century the Gallup organization has furnished us with a more-or-less steady diet of data, and part of the advantage this offers is a rough continuity of questions over the decades. This allows for more meaningful comparisons, but it may also account for unnecessary calcification. Gallup, for example, still asks "Do you happen to be a member of a church or synagogue?" (Sixty-nine percent, by the way, say yes.) But the complexion of the population wrought by changes to the immigration laws in 1965 have rendered that question less useful than it was in 1950. Why not include mosque or gurdwara in the query or ask it in a more generic way?

There are few surprises here. Women continue to outnumber men in the churches, two-thirds of us believe in life after death, and Americans persist 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 some clunkers. The authors use the questionable label of "born-again Christian" to identify both Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and they attribute the rise of evangelicalism in the twentieth century to Neo-orthodoxy. Gallup sensibly applies a three-part criteria for classifying someone as evangelical: a born again or conversion experience, a belief that the Bible is the actual Word of God, and a desire to convert nonbelievers to Christianity. He finds that 39 percent of the U.S. population fits that definition, a figure well within the range of 25 to 46 percent suggested by other surveys.

The most surprising findings concern Roman Catholicism. The number of Catholics willing to identify themselves as born again or evangelical rose from 12 percent in 1988 to 21 percent eight years later; perhaps not coincidentally, only one in three Catholics in America "regularly practice the Church's requirements for personal devotion." Fully 82 percent of Catholics believe that a Catholic can practice artificial means of birth control and still be considered good Catholics, two-thirds support women's ordination to the priesthood, a figure that has doubled in the last two decades, yet 73 percent approve of the way John Paul II leads the church. Go figure.

We Americans are consistently inconsistent. Gallup found that 79 percent of us support the principle of the separation of church and state, 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 the overwhelming impression is that we Americans remain an incurably religious people despite the pressures of modernization that were supposed to bring on secularization. In 1947, 95 percent of Americans professed a belief in God; the most recent poll shows that number up one percentage point to 96. Gallup data reveal little about the quality of religious life in America, but the quantity remains high.

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