Bogus Bogus Trend Story?

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Slate’s media watchdog Jack Shafer thinks he’s got the NYT dead to rights for Paul Vitello’s December 14 story on how the recession is boosting worship attendance, at evangelical churches in particular. Not so, clucks Shafer, citing Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport’s marshalling of evidence that there has, in fact, been no increase in church attendance in these hard times. Weekly attendance, saith Newport, has remained around 42 percent for months and months.
Unbeknownst to Shafer, however, is the bogosity of Gallup’s church attendance numbers. What Newport doesn’t say is that his company’s surveys have shown church attendance to be in that exact numeric neighborhood ever since they began asking the question 60 years ago. As sure as death and taxes, two in five Americans will say they attend church weekly.
But for over a decade, sociologists of religion (and those who read them) have known that 1) a lot of those supposed weekly attenders are fibbing; and 2) more of them are fibbing now than used to. The evidence for this comes from multiple sources, including time-usage studies, on-the-ground observation of parking lots, church attendance records, interviews with clergy. These days, the real number for weekly attendance is in the low 20 percent range. (Here’s a citation for one of the more important articles on the subject: C. Kirk Hadaway, Penny Long Marler and Mark Chaves, “Overreporting Church Attendance in America: Evidence That Demands the Same Verdict,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 63, No. 1 [Feb., 1998], pp. 122-130.)
So does this meant that Vitello’s article is on the money? Could be. A bunch of phone calls to pastors is more likely to turn up something new in the going-to-church department than Gallup’s invariant two-in-five. Don’t expect the phenomenon to last, though. After 9/11, a host of stories tracked a bump in churchgoing, and then a host tracked the quick reversion to the norm. As Yoda might have said, “Backsliding always we are.”

  • Rob Winslow

    Mark, I love it! So much adoo about the fixation of homo sapiens on outdoing/outdueling death!

  • The supposed bump in church attendance is certainly bogus. If one finds any shift in the low quality monthly polls put out by beltway bandits, it’s a function of seasonal fluctuation. The holidays and Winter always bring a boost in church attendance from the doldrums of Summer. But, Hadaway et al go far beyond their data in concluding that social desireability biases have increased over time. There is no justification for concluding that. If Americans are less pious then there should be decreasing pressure to inflate attendance claims.
    However, change is evident in high quality studies. There is substantial intercohort decline in religious attendance, even taking into account a variety of potential factors which would explain this. Economic factors may play some role–in the opposite direction from what is assumed by the pundits you identify. Younger cohorts are forced into sectors of the economy which hinder all sorts of voluntary activities and family time. Overall, these cohort declines aren’t influencing rates of attendance, but this is because of positive aging effects accruing to the very large cohorts of baby boomers. As the older cohorts die off in the next few decades, we’ll see a real decline in attendance.

  • Mark Silk

    Certainly bogus? I don’t think we can be certain at all. The clergy interviewed for the story are well aware of annual cyclical patterns of attendance, and they claim they’re seeing something different this year. As I made clear at the end of the post, this would no doubt be just a short-term phenomenon, unrelated to larger, “secular” attendance trends. But no less real for that. And whether or not Hadaway et al. push their conclusions, there’s no question that Gallup’s data are essentially useless in this regard.