Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Since the 1980s, interest in the public role of religion has increased in both the journalistic and the scholarly communities. Because of this rise in the visibility of religious phenomena, there has been a corresponding increase in the attention paid to religion by analysts of public opinion.

Any discussion of public opinion polling must begin with the Gallup Organization, which is perhaps the best-known polling entity in the United States. Indeed, the Gallup Poll has long been a leader in the measurement of religious phenomena among the mass public. For approximately four decades, George Gallup, Jr., has evinced a strong interest in religion in the United States. The Gallup polls have consistently contained items relating to religious belief and practice, and Gallup has frequently conducted special surveys for religious organizations. The result of this sustained attention to American religion is an extensive set of longitudinal data, which has enabled researchers to track elements of stability and change in religion in the United States.

During the period in which Gallup has been studying American religion, certain continuities have stood out. Americans, by and large, are a very religious people who have held a number of consistent beliefs throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, Gallup reports that large majorities of the American public believe in a personal, "heavenly father" God, in the divinity of Jesus Christ, in life after death, and in the existence of a literal heaven. Comparably large majorities of Americans regard religion as personally very important and have high levels of confidence in the clergy. Over time, a bare majority has expressed a belief in a literal hell. Thus Gallup has recorded something of a consensus in the United States concerning what might be considered the minimal doctrinal essentials of Christianity. Despite major social changes, the past three decades have witnessed little change in the distribution of these core beliefs. In terms of religious practice, the frequency of church attendance and personal prayer has been quite stable and consistently higher in the United States than elsewhere.

In the midst of this overall level of stability, Gallup also has recorded some important changes in American religion. Due to a number of processes, which include differential fertility rates, changes in immigration rates, and denomination switching, American denominational affiliation has become generally less Protestant, and affiliation with mainline denominations (e.g., Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian) has declined. Increases have occurred in fundamentalist or pentecostal churches, and among the ranks of the unchurched (although most people without formal denominational affiliations remain "believers" in the sense described above). Another important change is that Americans are progressively less inclined to accept religious authority: Over time, Gallup has shown that Americans increasingly believe that religious leaders should pay more attention to the opinions of the laity, and that church decisions should be made in consultation between the pulpit and the pew. Americans expect religious denominations to provide spiritual services, and most of these relate to the "comforting" function of religion. While Gallup reports that the trend away from the acceptance of religious authority is strongest among the "unchurched," the tendency toward individualized religious beliefs and practices is increasingly frequent among all denominations and all levels of religious observance. Even actively practicing Catholics (from a denomination that consistently has asserted its teaching authority), majorities reject church teachings in such areas as personal morality, abortion, or birth control. In response to declining commitments to institutionalized religious authority, Americans are increasingly supplementing their religious practice with more intimate, informal, religious observances such as Bible-reading groups, prayer meetings, and the like (Poloma and Gallup 1991).

Despite the importance of religion to the American public, Gallup has shown that many Americans are not particularly knowledgeable about religion. For example, the Christianity Today survey (1979) showed that fewer than half of Gallup's respondents could name five of the Ten Commandments, and fewer than one-third could identify the scriptural context of the quote, "Ye must be born again."

In recent years, Gallup has shown a great interest in the rise of American evangelicalism. Perhaps in response to the general weakening of denominational ties, Gallup has emphasized doctrinal and experiential criteria in operationalizing "evangelicalism." For example, in the Christianity Today survey, Gallup distinguished between "orthodox" and "conversionalist" evangelicals. The former are characterized by a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, a belief that salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ, and a conviction that the Bible is inerrant. To be considered orthodox evangelicals, respondents also had to report monthly (or more frequent) church attendance and Bible reading. A "conversionalist" evangelical is a person who reads the Bible, attends religious services at least monthly, and reports a powerful religious experience that remains personally important. This experience is understood as a religious conversion, in which Jesus Christ becomes one's personal savior. Gallup reports considerable, but by no means complete, overlap between the two groups.

Other survey organizations also have made important contributions to the measurement of religious phenomena. Under the guidance of Andrew Greeley (1981, 1982), several versions of the General Social Surveys (conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago) have included items measuring personal images of God. Using both adjective ratings and semantic differentials, respondents are asked (for example) to characterize God as male or female, as interventionist or passive, and as judgmental or forgiving. These image items have added a cognitive dimension to some of the doctrinal questions that the Gallup organization has made standard.

More recently, the American National Election Studies (conducted out of the University of Michigan) also have incorporated religious items into their national surveys. Based on a pilot study conducted in 1989, recent versions of the ANES have included relatively sophisticated and precise measures of denominational affiliation as well as batteries of items measuring religious individualism or communalism, religious self-identifications, and various aspects of religious salience. In general, the ANES have advanced our understanding of the political role of religion by measuring aspects of religion as social group membership rather than as a set of individualized beliefs or values (see Leege and Kellstedt 1993).

Finally, numerous scholars have conducted specialized surveys for the purpose of investigating specific religious topics in greater depth than the typical national survey might allow. For example, Marler and Hadaway (1993) have conducted a four-state telephone survey, supplemented by intensive, face-to-face interviews, to examine the phenomenon of religious marginality. Based on these quantitative and qualitative data, Marler and Hadaway were able to produce a fourfold typology of persons who are nominally affiliated with Protestant denominations but who are religiously inactive. Similarly, James Davison Hunter (1990) conducted a survey for the Williamsburg Charter organization in 1987 to provide detailed information about public attitudes toward church-state relations in the United States. These data were analyzed by Jelen and Wilcox (1995), who supplemented the Williamsburg data with their own telephone survey of attitudes toward church-state relations in the Washington, D.C., area. The analyses of these data have generally suggested that public disagreement about the political role of religion is not simply a matter of disagreement about the value of religion per se. Rather, many devout citizens oppose religious involvement in politics for theological, rather than political, reasons. Although studies such as these are often limited in geographic scope or in the range of topics considered, they can provide detailed insight into particular questions regarding the sociology of religion. Such studies also can offer research innovations, which can then be incorporated into larger scale surveys of the mass public.

See also Church-and-State Issues, Evangelicalism, Andrew M. Greeley, Particularism, Politics

Ted G. Jelen


G. Gallup, Jr., The Unchurched American (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Religious Research Center, 1978)

G. Gallup, Jr., "The Christianity Today -Gallup Poll," Christianity Today 23(1979):1663-1673

G. Gallup, Jr., Religion in America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Religious Research Center, 1982)

G. Gallup, Jr., and J. Castelli, The American Catholic People (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987)

G. Gallup, Jr., and J. Castelli, The People's Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1989)

G. Gallup, Jr., and D. Poling, The Search for America's Faith (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980)

A. M. Greeley, The Religious Imagination (New York: Sadlier, 1981)

A. M. Greeley, Religion (New York: Free Press, 1982)

J. D. Hunter, "The Williamsburg Charter Survey," Journal of Law and Religion 8(1990):257-271

T. G. Jelen and C. Wilcox, Public Attitudes Toward Church and State (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1995)

D. C. Leege and L. A. Kellstedt (eds.), Rediscovering the Impact of Religion on Political Behavior (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1993)

P. L. Marler and C. K. Hadaway, "Toward a Typology of 'Marginal Member'," Review of Religious Research 35(1993):34-54

M. M. Poloma and G. Gallup, Jr., Varieties of Prayer (Philadelphia: Trinity, 1991).

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