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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 15,
1999. All rights reserved.
Taking the Pulse of American Religion
Confession is good for the soul, say the clerics. Unless
you are a celebrity, confessions are usually made privately, one by
one, shared only — on this earth — with a priest or trusted
friend. Yet some confessions are made anonymously, to poll takers,
the ones who roust you away from the TV to probe for intimate details
about the toothpaste you use and the car you drive.
For more than 50 years the Gallup Poll has been asking intimate
and getting earnest, revealing answers — and not always about
crassly commercial topics. As long ago as 1937, pollsters were asking
their carefully selected subjects this question: "Do you happen
to be a member of a church or synagogue?" And they asked it again
in 1998. The surprising answer — not much has changed. The answer
has changed only four percentage points in 60 years. Nationally, 73
percent said yes in 1937, and 69 percent said yes in 1968.
The expert on polling, particularly in the area of religion, is of
course George Gallup Jr. He and D. Michael Lindsay reviewed 50 years
of research into religious attitudes in America, and wrote
the Religious Landscape" (published by Morehouse). They have a
book signing and reading at Borders Books in Nassau Park on Saturday,
December 18, at 3 p.m., and they will be interviewed on CNN on Sunday,
December 19, at 9:30 a.m.
Gallup is the son of the founder of the oldest instrument of public
opinion in the world, the Gallup Poll, based at 47 Hulfish Street.
It created the presidential approval rating during Franklin D.
tenure, and for decades it enjoyed a near-monopoly on the industry.
Currently the Gallup Poll is syndicated by the Los Angeles Times
and has a partnership with CNN and USA. Gallup has the title of
of the George H. Gallup International Institute, co-chair of the
Organization, and executive director of the Princeton Religious
Center. His other books include "The Saints Among Us" and
"Scared: Growing Up in America."
Lindsay is a consultant in theology, religion, and culture for the
Gallup Institute, and is concurrently pursuing a master’s degree at
Princeton Theological Seminary. His father, Ken Lindsay, is the
of the Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) of America, and his
mother is a teacher. He majored in English and speech at Baylor
Class of 1994, and has worked as a computer trainer and at Dallas
Baptist University. Next year he and his wife, Rebecca, who teaches
at Crossroads Middle School in South Brunswick, will live in England,
where he will do a master of theological studies at Oxford University.
Based on surveys of 1,000 adults, the book represents
the most comprehensive source of religious data that Gallup has ever
done, says Lindsay. "It looks at 75 different topics of interest,
from religion and ethics to beliefs about the supernatural to church
attendance to the church and young people." Those surveyed had
their opinions tracked according to their faith perspective, race,
age group, gender, and geographic locations.
Scientific pollsters try to mark trends, and many of the questions
have remained the same for nearly three decades. "Some of our
questions go back to the late ’30s with the beginning of scientific
polling, and all items in the book have been updated in the last five
years, some in the last year," says Lindsay.
"One of the biggest surprises relates to spiritual growth,"
says Lindsay. "We asked, `Do you want to grow spiritually in the
next year,’ and 82 said percent yes. In 1994, 58 percent said yes.
That is a dramatic increase in four years."
Why such a dramatic change? Lindsay attributes it to an "almost
fever pitch interest" in spirituality at the New Year. "The
millennial push has piqued the interest in spirituality in pockets
of the population." Another surprise is that spirituality and
organized religion are linked so closely. "The media often
it as two different things, but we found it is not."
Also contrary to what you would think, religion has not been losing
influence since the 1950s, says Lindsay. "While the ’50s did
a high point, organized religion is about the same today as it was
in the ’40s," he says.
To be extra sure that those surveyed didn’t feel pressure to give
goody-goody answers — after all, it is still considered laudable
today to attend worship services — the questions were carefully
worded. Not: "Do you go to church?" But: "Did you happen
to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days." Pollsters
are aiming for accurate responses, not confessions.
— Barbara Fox
The pollster presents "Surveying the Religious Landscape,"
a new book co-authored with D. Michael Lindsay. Free. Saturday,
December 18, 3 p.m.
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