The introduction to Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U..S. Beliefs begins by saying, “One cannot understand America if one does not have an awareness and appreciation of the religious underpinnings of our society.” Authors George Gallup Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay have accumulated a comprehensive body of information in support of this proposition, and they have laid it out with clarity and care. To some degree this book seems prompted by the desire to understand the internal source for externally observable phenomena.A mounting body of survey findings and data from other sources points to the power of what is called the “faith factor” in American life: 

The deeply spiritual or religiously committed among the American population have less stress and cope better with it. They have fewer drug and alcohol problems, less depression, and lower rates of suicide. They enjoy their lives and marriages more than do the less religious in society.

Surveying the Religious Landscape reveals the basic religious beliefs, practices, knowledge, and experience of the U.S. public, as well as their attitudes about the church, the state of morality in the nation, and a number of other topics.

Graph photographs are from a noontime Lenten mass in the Washington Theological Union chapel, Washington, D.C. 

For larger view of charts, click here

In weighing the multitude of data made available in this book, the authors suggest that an assessment of the religious state of the nation be made “on three levels: (1) spirituality; (2) support for the church and organized religion; and (3) sincere and transforming faith.” The disparity that is sometimes evident among and within these three elements paints a complex, occasionally disturbing picture. 

For those in leadership positions at America’s theological schools, this book should prove enlightening from three perspectives: First, the society profiled is the pool from which such schools draw their student bodies. Second, this society is the harvest field to which our schools are sending their graduates. For instance, admissions officers and curriculum designers might find it interesting and useful to know that “substantial proportions of traditional Christians” subscribe to such non-Christian beliefs and practices as reincarnation, channeling, astrology, and fortune-telling. Finally, in terms of projecting financial and other support, the eroding of mainline religious preferences may have far-reaching implications; the percentage of adults expressing a preference for Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Methodist denominations is an ominous one-third lower than it was just three decades ago.

The overlaps and conflicts found in religious beliefs prompt the authors to the conclusion that “people tend to pick and choose the items of belief that best suit them. Reginald Bibby, the Canadian sociologist, calls this ‘religion a la carte.’”

Despite the complexity of the picture that emerges from the data, Gallup and Lindsay identify six underlying themes:

  1. The widespread and continuing appeal or popularity of religion. 
  2. The glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, basic doctrines, and the traditions of one’s church. 
  3. The inconsistencies of belief—for example, evangelical Christians expressing belief in New Age practices. 
  4. The superficiality of faith, with many people not knowing what they believe, or why. 
  5. A belief in God, but a lack of trust in God. 
  6. A failure on the part of organized religion in some respects to make a profound difference in our society, despite the fact that churches reach six out of ten Americans in a given month.

Conflicting Opinions
Surveying the Religious Landscape brings out an apparent contradiction between reality and perception regarding the place religion holds in the lives of Americans. In comparing the results of 1998 surveys with Gallup surveys from the 1950s, the decline seems slight: 

feel that religion is very important in their lives.
feel that religion is fairly important in their lives.
are members of a church or synagogue.
attended a church or synagogue within the previous week (interestingly, a 1995 poll showed teen attendance at 50%).

In seven surveys taken between 1944 and 1997, the percentage of Americans claiming a belief in God or a Higher Power consistently hovered in the low- to mid-nineties.Surveys showing how people feel about the influence of religion on American life, however, paint a more dire picture: 

felt religion as a whole was increasing its influence.
felt religion as a whole was losing its influence.

Apparently, Americans feel that religion’s impact has deteriorated more than is indicated by the numbers.

Walking the Walk
While people may feel that the influence of religion is waning, individually they appear to have a keen concern with their spiritual well-being. 

82% responded “yes” to the question, “Do you feel the need to experience spiritual growth?”
50% say they have thought “a lot” about developing their faith during the past two years.
82% are “sometimes very conscious of the presence of God.”
58% say they have thought about their relationship to God “a lot” during the past two years.
36% claim to have had a religious experience—“a particularly powerful, sudden religious insight or awakening.”
80% turn to prayer when faced with a problem or crisis.
64% read the Bible or other inspired literature when faced with a problem or crisis.
90% of adults say they pray.
55% say prayer is more important to them now than five years ago (43% say the importance is about the same as five years ago).
62% say their prayers have been answered by feeling divinely inspired or “led by God.”

Souls or Statistics
However one interprets the data, the comprehensive scope of the book provides intriguing insights into America on the brink of the twenty-first century. In an age of scientific discovery and rapidly accelerating technology, faith—or at least religion—is still an important and integral part of most people’s lives. Designers of curricula and teachers of the next generation of pastors may find it useful to consider the shifts in thought and the apparent constants.

A particular plus for this book is that it can draw on Gallup data going as far back as the 1940s, presenting a fair assessment of the nature of certain trends in the last half of the twentieth century. This long-term view added to the extensive surveys conducted in the past few years results in a challenge as much as a conclusion in their introduction.

Gallup and Lindsay emphasize that organized religion continues to play a major, pivotal role in our society, while acknowledging that “faith communities” (as they call them) don’t necessarily succeed in getting believers to live up to their calling. Religion apparently has breadth, but depth of faith is not as clear. Since a level of deep commitment is more likely to change lives and motivate outreach with an impact on societal issues, the authors wonder whether America’s faith communities will challenge as well as comfort their members and raise the level of “religious literacy.” They suggest that these are the issues that need to be addressed by the clergy and religious educators of all faiths.

Current surveys clearly demonstrate that Americans have two strong underlying desires: (1) to “find deeper meaning in life” and (2) to “build deeper, more trusting relations with other people” in a society that is often fragmented and impersonal. If our churches can sincerely and creatively address these desires, the authors think the vitality of churches may be the surprise of the twenty- first century.

Even while faith communities face enormous challenges, certain factors are at work which can improve the prospects for deepening religious faith. “To a considerable extent, the soil has been prepared for a possible reinvigoration of religious faith,” they say, noting that the U.S. is essentially a “churched” nation. Most Americans:

  • Attest to religious beliefs.
  • Adhere to a particular denomination.
  • Believe religion is important,.
  • Have had some form of religious training.
  • Believe in the power of prayer
  • Pray frequently.
  • Believe prayers are answered.

Other pluses are that the church or organized religion is held in higher esteem than most of society’s institutions, positioning it for a leadership role, and that churches generally are perceived to do a good job in meeting the physical and spiritual needs of community members. Individually, clergy also continue to receive high ratings of respect. These societal attributes form a foundation which could support a revitalized faith.

Finally, Gallup and Lindsay are encouraged by the willingness of rank-and-file churchgoers to become more involved. By a six-to-one margin, Americans feel members should have greater influence in their churches; the ratio is even higher among the young upscale groups who can be expected to provide future leadership in churches. If, as the authors seem to feel, America is poised for a religious revival, they also point out that faith communities need to seize the opportunity with alacrity:

Whatever strategies are developed to revitalize religious faith in our churches and in society as a whole, they should be considered with urgency. The observation that the church is “only one generation from extinction” applies today as perhaps never before.

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