Questions and Answers About Americans’ Religion

by Frank Newport

More than 8 out of 10 Americans identify with a Christian faith

PRINCETON, NJ -- This time of year provides an opportunity to answer frequently asked questions about exactly where America stands today in regard to religion, based on Gallup's extensive archives.

Christmas is obviously a Christian holiday. But what percentage of Americans today identify with a Christian religion?

About 82% of Americans in 2007 told Gallup interviewers that they identified with a Christian religion. That includes 51% who said they were Protestant, 5% who were "other Christian," 23% Roman Catholic, and 3% who named another Christian faith, including 2% Mormon.

Because 11% said they had no religious identity at all, and another 2% didn't answer, these results suggest that well more than 9 out of 10 Americans who identify with a religion are Christian in one way or the other.

Has this changed over time?

Yes. The percentage of Americans who identify with a Christian religion is down some over the decades. This is not so much because Americans have shifted to other religions, but because a significantly higher percentage of Americans today say they don't have a religious identity. In the late 1940s, when Gallup began summarizing these data, a very small percentage explicitly told interviewers they did not identify with any religion. But of those who did have a religion, Gallup classified -- in 1948, for example -- 69% as Protestant and 22% as Roman Catholic, or about 91% Christian.

It's one thing to identify with a religion, and another to be actively religious. What percentage of Americans are actually members of a church?

Sixty-two percent of Americans in Gallup's latest poll, conducted in December, say they are members of a "church or synagogue," a question Gallup has been asking since 1937.

And how has that changed over time?

It's down in the recent years of this decade and down a little more compared to the time period prior to the late 1970s. In the 1937 Gallup Poll, for example, 73% of Americans said they were church members. That number stayed in the 70% range in polls conducted in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. By the 1970s, however, the number began to slip below 70% in some polls, although as recently as 1999, 70% said they were church members. Since 2002, self-reported church membership has been between 63% and 65%.

OK, but being carried on a church's roll doesn't necessarily mean one is active in that church, does it?

It does not. That carries us into the realm of self-reported church attendance, which is a complex arena. Scholars over the years have argued about the precise validity of self-reported attendance data. Some argue that respondents either a) deliberately over-report the frequency of their church attendance because it is socially desirable, or b) generalize and guess at the frequency of their church attendance rather than pinning it down specifically.

Having said that, the most recent Gallup assessment shows that when given a choice between five response categories to describe how frequently they go to church -- "once a week," "almost every week," "about once a month," "seldom," and "never" -- only 17% of adult Americans say they never attend church. In other words, more than 8 out of 10 Americans say they attend church or other worship services at least "seldom."

But attending church could mean attending a wedding or a funeral, for example.

Yes. The question simply asks: "How often do you attend church or synagogue?" and doesn't specify for what reason. So some of those who say they seldom attend could be reporting that they go for weddings or funerals rather than to personally worship.

How many Americans can be classified as frequent church attenders?

Based on the responses to this question, about a third say they attend once a week, with another 12% saying they attend almost every week. This means that about 44% of Americans report what can be called frequent church attendance -- almost every week or every week.

Are there other ways of measuring church attendance?

Yes. Gallup has long used a somewhat controversial question: "Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days, or not?" In recent years, between 40% and 45% of Americans have said "yes" to that question, yielding an estimate that is similar to the one derived from the question reviewed above about frequency of attendance.

Why is this question controversial?

Sociologists and other scholars have attempted to calibrate the "last seven days" response against other ways of measuring church attendance, and have argued that it produces an overestimate. Some scholars actually traveled around an Ohio county and totaled the attendance at every church in that county, even including counting cars in parking lots.

They found that the actual "warm bodies" in churches added up to a significantly lower number than what the residents of that county had reported in a survey. Other scholars have looked at church attendance as reported in time diaries where people mark down everything they do day after day. In these instances, the diary entries for church attendance appear to be less than the 40% to 45% figure that people report in response to survey questions.

Nevertheless, the self-reported data give us a useful measure to trend over time. We find that it's remarkably stable. The high point in "last seven day attendance" appears to have come in the 1950s, when at one point 49% of Americans said they had attended church in the last seven days. In 1940, at the end of the Depression and just before America's involvement in World War II, the figure was 37%, and has been in the high 30% range in just a couple of years since then.

But in general, year after year, roughly the same percentage of Americans -- in the low 40% range -- report to survey interviewers that they have gone to church within the last seven days.

Are there other measures of the actual impact of religion in Americans' daily lives?

Yes. One measure Gallup has tracked over time asks respondents to indicate how important religion is in their own lives -- very, fairly, or not very important.

This year, 56% of Americans have said religion is very important. Only 17% say religion is not very important.

Has this changed over time?

Yes. A couple of measures of this question from the 1950s and 1960s indicated that at that time, over 70% of Americans said religion was very important in their daily lives. That percentage dropped into the 50% range by the 1970s, and since then it has fluctuated somewhat, but has generally been in the 55% to 65% range.

The responses to the "importance of religion" question -- taken together with some of the previous data discussed -- seem to suggest a pattern by which at least 80% of Americans are religious on one indicator or the other.

Yes. To summarize, more than 8 in 10 Americans identify with a religion and 8 out of 10 say that religion is at least fairly important in their daily lives; more than 8 out of 10 say they attend church at least "seldom"; and again more than 8 out of 10 identify with a Christian religion.

Do you ask Americans about the influence of religion in society?

Yes, since 1957 Gallup has periodically asked this question: "At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?"

In December of this year, 32% said religion was increasing its influence, and 61% losing its influence, with the rest volunteering that it was staying the same or not giving an answer.

How does that compare historically?

There's been a lot of variance in these responses over the decades. Back in 1957 -- during the halcyon days of the Eisenhower administration -- 69% of Americans said religion was increasing its influence. And in December 2001 -- just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States -- 71% said religion was increasing its influence in American life, which is the highest reading on that measure in Gallup Poll history. But by 2003, the percentage saying religion was increasing its influence had dropped back into the 30% range and though it has been as high as 50% since then, it is just 32% today.

On the other hand, in a couple of polls conducted in 1969 and 1970, only 14% said religion was increasing its influence -- the lowest readings on record. That of course was during an era replete with hippies, protests, Woodstock, drug use, and other indications of a less than devout, religious population. Another time period with a low "increasing its influence" percentage was in the early 1990s.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,027 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 6-9, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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