Widespread speculation about the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Americans' faith raises questions about the impact of earlier crises in U.S. history. Survey trend data on the effect of these traumatic events is sketchy, but certain patterns emerge. Public perceptions of religion's importance in society tend to spike following crises, but those perceptions are often short-lived, and don't frequently translate into behavioral changes.
One year after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, concerns about the war led increasing numbers of Americans -- particularly young adults -- to say that they were reading the Bible more intently and with a greater sense of purpose. In the immediate post-war period, many Americans felt the need to grow spiritually. Huge numbers of people that Gallup surveyed in the late 1940s expressed enthusiasm for retreats and quiet places for meditation and spiritual growth.
The growing religiosity, or piety, of the 1940s spilled over into the 1950s. This decade was one of religious revival, with rapid growth in church membership, especially in the booming new suburbs. At the end of the 1950s, nearly three-quarters of the population were members of churches or other faith communities, and no fewer than eight in 10 expressed the belief that religion can answer "all or most of today's problems."
The 1960s was a decade of change and upheaval. The Vietnam War had a devastating effect on the public's confidence in government, as well as in other social institutions, including the church. Though Americans' basic beliefs remained intact, confidence in organized religion plunged. Gallup's Index of Leading Religious Indicators dropped 57 points -- from 741 to 684 -- between 1961 and 1974. While Vietnam was a key factor in the decline in many of the standard Gallup indicators of religiosity, defection among young Catholics was another. This segment of the populace felt they could not oppose Pope Paul VI's 1962 encyclical on birth control and remain in the church.
The next major commitment of U.S. troops came during the Persian Gulf War. On Jan. 16, 1991, a U.S.-led international force launched air and missile attacks on Iraq and Iraq-occupied Kuwait. At that time, six in 10 Americans told Gallup interviewers that they were praying more than they usually do, and eight in 10 said that prayers in such situations can be "very" or "fairly" effective.
Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001. In the attacks' immediate, anguished aftermath, three-fourths of Americans said they prayed more frequently and fervently than usual and six in 10 attended memorial services.
A Gallup survey conducted 10 days later (Sept. 21-22) recorded an increase in religiosity. The percentage of people normally attending church in a typical week increased by six percentage points, and those who said religion is "very important" in their lives increased by seven points. By December, however, self-reported church attendance returned to its normal level (see trend above), as did the percentage saying religion is "very important" to them. As of this writing, there appears to be little evidence of a religious revival or awakening, although the public's perception is that religion has greatly increased its influence on U. S. society (see "What Were Sept. 11's Effects on Religion in America?" under Related Items below).
It remains to be seen whether the attacks and America's ongoing war on terrorism will affect Americans' spirituality and religious faith over the long run. But the survey evidence that is available for the last seven decades suggests that wartime years more often tend to support religious faith on a limited basis, rather than undercut it.