Very close readers of this blog will notice a little dispute I’ve been having with SIU sociology professor Darren Sherkat (Go, Salukis!) over how to think about the tendency of Americans to fib about their church attendence. I made the argument that there may be less regional variation than Gallup indicates, because people in states where regular church attendance is more the norm are more likely to over-report their churchgoing. Sherkat takes me to task for not applying this logic to aggregate American church attendance over time. His point is that in all likelihood, the alleged decline in attendance over the past half century is a figment of self-reporting, because fibbing was more likely decades back when weekly churchgoing was more the norm nationwide. So if anything, I suppose, church attendance should actually be up from what it used to be.
That there is a fibbing problem has been clear for a while now, thanks to studies by Hadaway et al. from the early 1990s showing that Gallup’s steady 40-percent weekly attendance rate is off by a good 15 points. Has actual attendance actually been just 25 percent all the way along? Presser and Stinson’s 1998 article using time-use studies compiled by the government suggests otherwise.
I propose a Catholic-Evangelical seesaw. Very high Catholic attendance rates prior to Vatican II made for an actual national attendance rate approaching 40 percent. Post-Vatican II, Catholics stopped going to Mass as often, but felt guilty about it, and so began fibbing more. Over time, Catholics have become less guilty about not attending, but meanwhile, in the evangelical heartland the churchgoing norm was ratcheting up, leaving non-churchgoers more guilty and thus more likely to fib. The result of all this is the substantial differentiation Gallup finds between Catholic and evangelical regions, but with the average self-reporting rate remaining constant.