Religiosity Measure Shows Stalled Recovery

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

The Gallup Index of Leading Religious Indicators -- an annual measure of religiosity in America that Gallup has been conducting for the past six decades* -- stands remarkably unchanged from last year. The overall scores are identical -- 648 -- snuffing any signs of recovery suggested by the seven-point rise in 2003 from the historic low score of 641 in 2002. But even at its current low level, Americans' answers to the Index's component questions portray Americans as an extremely religious people.

That high degree of religiosity is perhaps most evident in the percentage of Americans who say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Fully 81% believe in God and 13% express belief in a universal spirit or a higher power; just 5% say they don't believe in either. And almost 9 in 10 Americans are willing to identify with a specific religious faith; 50% identify themselves as Protestants, while 24% identify themselves as Catholics.

Further evidence of the nation's robust religious life from the 2004 study: More than 4 in 10 Americans (44%) say they've attended church in the past week, and a majority -- 59% -- say that religion is very important in their own lives. Fifty-nine percent also choose the statement that religion can answer all or most of today's problems over the idea that religion is old-fashioned and out-of-date.

There has been overall stability on most of the measurements this year. All but two items -- confidence in the church and ratings of ethical standards of the clergy -- have moved little since even before news of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandals broke in 2002. But those two items, understandably, fell the most in 2002 and contributed most to the decline in the Index that year. Prior to the scandals in 2001, 60% of Americans said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the church or organized religion, but by the end of 2002, that figure had fallen to 45%. Confidence shows signs of recovering slowly -- standing today at 53%.

Ratings of the clergy fell almost as far in 2002. In 2001, 64% of Americans gave "very high" or "high" ratings to the ethical standards of the clergy prior to the sex-abuse scandals, but that measure, too, plunged to 52% in 2002. The same percentage of people (56%) gave the clergy high ratings in 2004 as did in 2003. 

Scandals Continue to Make News

That the Index isn't recovering to pre-2002 levels more quickly suggests some lingering impact of the Catholic Church scandals. A long-awaited study about the sexual abuse of minors, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and released in February 2004, acknowledged that the vast majority of priests are dedicated to the best interests of their parishioners -- but also found that between 1950 and 2002, more than 4,000 priests (about 4% of the priesthood) were accused of assaulting nearly 11,000 children. Adding to the Catholic Church's negative publicity in 2004, several high-profile lawsuits against dioceses accused of not protecting children from abusive priests resulted in large settlement payouts.

*Since 1941, Gallup has maintained an Index that provides broad annual assessment of religiosity among Americans, based on several measurements dealing with religious beliefs and practices.  A "perfect score" would be 1,000. The 2004 Religion Index was compiled from surveys of national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted throughout the year.
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