Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll, has a new book, "God is Alive and Well," which argues that the aging of the baby boomers, the influx of Hispanic immigrants and the links between religion and health could portend a bright future for faith in America. RNS photo courtesy Frank Newport.

God is alive and well in America, says Gallup chief

(RNS) Despite a deep drop in the number of Americans who identify with a particular faith, the country could be on the cusp of a religious renaissance, says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll.

Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll, has a new book, "God is Alive and Well," which argues that the aging of the baby boomers, the influx of Hispanic immigrants and the links between religion and health could portend a bright future for faith in America. RNS photo courtesy Frank Newport.

Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll, and author of the new book, "God is Alive and Well." RNS photo courtesy of Gallup.

Grounded in more than a million Gallup interviews, Newport's new book, "God is Alive and Well," argues that the aging of the baby boomers, the influx of Hispanic immigrants and the links between religion and health could portend a bright future for faith in America.

He spoke recently to Religion News Service about his Southern Baptist roots, why mainline Protestants need to have more babies, and why companies should reward employees who attend church.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I think religion is extremely important in America today. All of our research shows that, and I wanted to get empirical data about religion out there, rather than just speculation.

We here at Gallup have had a tracking project since 2008. We do 350,000 interviews a year, which is a huge and unique dataset that nobody else has. And personally, I grew up in a religious background and always found it interesting.

Q: Your grandfather was somewhat of a Southern Baptist bigwig, no?

A: His name was Frank Leavell, and he was one of nine brothers, all born and raised in Oxford, Miss. All, in one way or another, went into religious service. One was a missionary to China, one was a pastor, one was president of a New Orleans Baptist seminary. My grandfather was convinced that it is important to reach out to college students, and is credited with founding the Baptist Student Union.

Q: And your father was a Southern Baptist theologian and minister. Are you still religious?

A: Yes, I would say that I'm religious, but like a lot of people, in a somewhat different way (than my forebears). I moved up to New Jersey and go to a Presbyterian church. I'm not sure there are Southern Baptist churches here, and the Southern Baptist (Convention) itself has changed.

Q: Getting back to your work, what's the single most important trend in American religion today?

A: One trend that I'm asked a lot about is the rise of the "nones," about which there's a huge amount of publicity, but which is often misinterpreted. When Gallup asked the question about religious identity back in the 1950s, almost zero would say they have "none." People would say "Baptist" or "Catholic" even if they were not particularly religious. Now, 18 percent of Americans, according to Gallup polls, say they do not have a particular religious identity. That doesn't mean that 18 percent are atheists -- only 5 or 6 percent say they don't believe in God -- but people are changing how they express their religiosity.

Q: So is the rise of the nones basically a matter of more Americans admitting the truth about their religiosity to pollsters?

A: That's one hypothesis. Back in the 1950s, 99 percent of people had a religious identity. That was the cultural norm. Some people call it the "dog-tag religion." Like, if you were raised Catholic but never went to Mass after you left home, but when asked what you would put on your dog tag you'd say "Catholic." Today, though, Americans are freer from those social norms and express their identity in different ways.

Q: Despite the rise of the nones, you say that religion is poised for a renaissance in America.

A: Well, I wouldn't predict it. But it certainly is a possibility that, rather than continuing to decrease, religious identity could increase. We've been analyzing data from 350,000 interviews since 2008, and 2012 showed the lowest increase in the percentage who said they have no religious identity, so that might be leveling off.

Q: Do other trends point to a religious revival?

A: If you look at age, the baby boomers are approaching 65-85 years old, which we've seen as the most religious age group for decades. It's a reasonable expectation that the huge group of boomers is going to become more religious, and because they are so big, they'll make the country more religious in the aggregate.

In addition, the country's increasing Hispanic population tends to be more religious. Religion has been correlated to health, so more people may seek out religion because it's good for them. And Americans are migrating to states that are more religious, which tends to make (the travelers) more religious.

Q: Gallup uses worship attendance as a key barometer of religiosity. But haven't studies shown that Americans often overstate how often they attend religious services?

A: That's an interesting area of inquiry that we've looked at very carefully. That's probably true that people overstate how often they go to church. But it's a generalization. It doesn't mean that someone attends church 52 weeks a year. But we've found that church attendance is a good surrogate for religiosity. People who report to an interviewer that they attend services often are in fact more religious than others, even if they don't actually attend services as often as they say they do.

Q: In other words, overstating how often you attend church is a good indicator that you think religion is important enough to, ah, fib about?

A: That's exactly right.

Q: Along those lines, Gallup says Southern states are the most religious because lots of Southerners go to church and tell pollsters that faith is important to them. But Southern states also have higher divorce rates, a large number of abortions, and an unhealthy amount of obesity -- or gluttony, as Christians might say. How do you square that?

A: That's a good question. Basically, we're dealing with religion as defined by self-reported identity. I don't get into manifestation of religion in terms of personal behavior in the book. We don't have data on that, but it's an interesting area to look at. Certainly you have  people who attend church weekly who still engage in behavior that could be defined as sin. But it's also important to know where that behavior in those states is coming from -- the more religious or the less religious (people)?

Q: You write that mainline Protestants are pretty much doing everything wrong in terms of growing their churches. Why's that?

A: For any group to grow, whether it's a country or a church, you have to have more people coming in than going out. For example, the Catholic Church holds its own in terms of percentage of the American population because of the in-migration of Hispanics. But there is no massive in-migration of Protestants. Secondly, there's been no evidence that they've been able to evangelize effectively. And thirdly, one way you grow is to have high fertility rates. Mormons are doing that well because their theology encourages big families. But Presbyterians, for example, have less children on average (than other Americans).

So, if you look at all the ways churches could grow, the mainline Protestants haven't been able to hit the nail on the head with any of them.

Q: Is there any evidence that mainline Protestants' fierce debates over homosexuality are costing them church members?

A: That's an interesting hypothesis that you hear a lot: Nondenominational churches can focus more on active ministry to parishioners, while mainline churches' annual meetings are spent arguing these issues. But the empirical data on that is lacking. It certainly seems to be a viable hypothesis.

Q: You mention that the Catholic Church has held its own thus far, but suggest that it faces trouble ahead.

A:  That data clearly shows that in-migration of Spanish-speaking people has really slowed down recently with the economy slowing down. On the other hand, Hispanics typically have more children (than other Americans) and many of them are in the fertile age range. Still, it's clear that the Catholic Church can't count on the same in-migration of Spanish-speaking Catholics that it had over the last 20 years or so.

Q: Why do you propose that the government and companies promote religion as a means to reduce health-care costs?

A: That certainly is controversial. We have separation of church and state in this country. But the correlation between religion and well-being has been established by Gallup and many other organizations. The question is causality: Maybe healthier people choose to be more religious. But it's clear that religious (people) are less of a drain on our mental and physical health systems. So, a company may want to give discounts for employees who attend church four or five times a month, just as many give discounts for employees who go to the gym. If America were to become more religious, and this is controversial, it would become healthier.

 

Comments

  1. Newport may have done little research in answering questions. . . (quote) “And thirdly, one way you grow is to have high fertility rates. Mormons are doing that well because their theology encourages big families”. . . maybe too little in his explanations. . .

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is mainly a church of converts. It was formally organized in 1830 with 6 members and today (as of 2010) has a membership of over 14 million with approximately 8 million residing outside the United States. There are members now in 176 nations/territories. This growth has continued with almost a million new members now being added every three years. Growth consists both of convert baptisms and natural growth through the birth of children. Children on record (birth of children in the church – 2009) increase was approx. 120,000. Converts were 280,000 (2009).

  2. “While most Americans believe that getting rid of religion is an impossible goal, much of the developed world has already accomplished it. Any account of a “god gene” that causes the majority of Americans to helplessly organize their lives around ancient works of religious fiction must explain why so many inhabitants of other First World societies apparently lack such a gene. The level of atheism throughout the rest of the developed world refutes any argument that religion is somehow a moral necessity. Countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on Earth. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005) they are also the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate and infant mortality. Conversely, the 50 nations now ranked lowest in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious. Other analyses paint the same picture: The United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious literalism and opposition to evolutionary theory; it is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STD infection and infant mortality. The same comparison holds true within the United States itself: Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious superstition and hostility to evolutionary theory, are especially plagued by the above indicators of societal dysfunction, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms. Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality–belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction; societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God; each factor may enable the other; or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief. Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, these facts prove that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a society’s health.
    Countries with high levels of atheism also are the most charitable in terms of giving foreign aid to the developing world. The dubious link between Christian literalism and Christian values is also belied by other indices of charity. Consider the ratio in salaries between top-tier CEOs and their average employee: in Britain it is 24 to 1; France 15 to 1; Sweden 13 to 1; in the United States, where 83% of the population believes that Jesus literally rose from the dead, it is 475 to 1. Many a camel, it would seem, expects to squeeze easily through the eye of a needle.” —- Sam Harris

  3. Where to start? Let’s see…regarding the specious argument that the Bible is myth and legend, this lie has been demonstrably proven false by hundreds of books that show the archaeological references of the Old and New Testaments to be historically accurate, along with many of the events recorded therein. As for the opposition to evolutionary thought, there are active debates on both sides of that theory with the most important conclusion being that evolution cannot explain the ultimate origin of matter and order in the universe we see or the universes about which some hypothesize. God is essential for there to be morality because where else would absolute standards of right and wrong have their genesis if not in One who is has established all things and set them in place. Surely we don’t have to look very far to see that human beings are incapable of governing themselves based on their own sin tainted values. And while Christians may not be perfect, which is a given since we know that Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of sins, the world has been an immeasurably better place for the impact of Christ and his followers. Statistics have shown for decades that Christians are the most generous people on the planet, having established hospitals, nursing homes, child-care facilities, and a host of charities too numerous to count simply out of obedience to Jesus. There is more indeed to be done and Christians have failed miserably to do the right things throughout history but it is laughable to think that humanity out of its own conscience would ever achieve the same level of love and concern for others.

  4. In the above passage Sam Harris is as deceitful as always. His many lies only prove that atheists are amoral because they have no fear of God. Thank you for posting this example of atheist deceit, David.

  5. @ Terry

    Where to start? Let’s do a bullet-point response:

    1. “hundreds of books that show the archaeological references of the Old and New Testaments to be historically accurate, along with many of the events recorded therein.”

    Response: Hundreds? Not that I’m aware of… I think maybe you don’t understand what a myth is. Most myths do in fact contain historical references. We don’t assume that, because The Iliad mentions Troy that the Greek gods are real. We don’t assume that, because Geo. Washington was a real historical figure that the myth of the cherry-tree chopping is real. The power of myths is that they integrate a people’s real history with non-literal morality tales. Unless you assert that snakes and donkeys used to have verbal abilities, we have to admit that the Bible is a myth in the precise academic sense.

    2. “evolution cannot explain the ultimate origin of matter.”
    Response: Why would a biological theory (and a theory means that there is a lot of data to justify it by the way) attempt to explain questions of physics? Of course, evolution has nothing to do with cosmology. That’s like insisting that the heliocentric model of the solar system must be invalid because it can’t explain how the lungs work.

    3. “God is essential for there to be morality because where else would absolute standards of right and wrong have their genesis if not in One who is has established all things and set them in place.”

    Response: Is this the same God who ordered through his servants the slaughter of women and children in Joshua? Is it the same God who prompted his servant to say “kill all the boys” in Numbers 31? Thankfully, we recognize these as ahistorical myths. The idea that morals are absolute is laughable. Various cultures establish a variety of morals based on several factors…geography, history, etc. Morals develop as humans (social animals) seek the best way to allow the social group to survive and thrive. Those behaviors that encourage thriving stay on and are codified as “morals.” It’s a pretty simple process. We also see moral codes in the higher primates (bonobos display altruism for example).

    4. “Statistics have shown for decades that Christians are the most generous people on the planet, having established hospitals, nursing homes, child-care facilities, and a host of charities too numerous to count simply out of obedience to Jesus.”

    Response: While I notice you didn’t actually post these alleged statistics, I agree that religious people may tend to be more charitable, but we are basically talking about religion as a social-connecting agency. In cultures where people have the opportunity to connect (as in meeting as a church or other religious body), it is natural that they will then take care of their own communities. As shown in the previous comment, nations that score the highest on happiness index studies also tend to be the most irreligious. Christianity is like any human belief system -capable of doing good and, when coupled with absolute government power (as in the Middle Ages), capable of committing the most heinous of atrocities. What we really see is that, left to their own reason and rationality, humans join together to do good things.

  6. Jonathan:

    Can you please explain how these are lies with actual data? Thank you.

  7. I find it interesting that you slam the post about not stating where his data comes from. It might interest you to know that, contrary to your assertion (and the assertion of other posters) that many ‘First World’ countries are mostly atheists or non-believers, these statistics belie your comment:

    1) Finland- 77% identify as Lutheran
    2) Norway- 79% identify as Protestant
    3) Australia- 61% identify as Christian, another 18% as other religions
    4) Sweden- 69% of the population belongs to the Church of Sweden
    5) Switzerland- 72% identify as Christian, another 8% as other religions
    6) Iceland- 77% of the population belongs to the Church of Iceland (Lutheran)
    7) Canada- 77% identify as Christian, 9% as other religions
    8) Belgium- 56% identify as Catholic, 12% as other religions
    9) United Kingdom- 71% identify as Christian, 6% as other religions
    10) Denmark- 80% of the population belong to the Church of Denmark

    Most of the countries that you asserted were atheist or non-religious are, in fact, not so. They are predominantly religious, and, coincidentally, predominantly Christian.

    While it is true that the level of religious adherence in all areas of the First World has waned, people there still believe in their religion enough to identify as being a member. They are not atheists. In Japan, it is true that most people do not consider themselves to be religious, about 80% of the population. In the Netherlands, about 50% of the population identifies as religious. Those are the only two of those you claimed to be non-religious that actually are. However, in Japan, most of the 80% who do not adhere to a religion do participate in Shinto-Buddhist ceremonies throughout the year. Only 20% of those in the Netherlands identify as atheist, The rest just say: non-religious.

  8. While it’s true that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints grows more by converts than by high fertility rates, I read it as him using our church as the best example there is of his high fertility comment. I did not read it as saying that it is the highest growth method for our church.

  9. I don’t agree with where Harris’ reasoning takes him — to atheism (but I do appreciate his data and analytic processes most of the way). I’m a complicated animal as a “panentheist”. Whether it is this “3rd option” or one called something else, my several decades of study of Christianity, its foundations and theology, other religions, human development and sociology, etc., tells me neither traditional theism NOR atheism is up to explaining root issues, including the MECHANISMS that appear to drive evolution and provide for some amount of social cohesion, etc.

    Harris has some valid points about the down-side of religion, and he does seem to single out the less sophisticated “literalist” type as involving much of that. As to citing the % of people in numerous countries he refers to as
    “the least religious societies”, I think his statement holds, while the stats cited by NHMtnClimber are also probably correct and valid (I’ll trust the author). Beneath those surface numbers, however, I don’t think there is much doubt that Lutheran or other church membership means something much less religiously involved or biblically literalist and morally “conservative” in, say Scandinavia, than it does in the U.S. If you do doubt this, do a little checking.

    By the way, for anyone interested in something “between” traditional Christian theology and total disbelief, the “panentheism” I cited is the understanding of and way of explaining God the best some of us think anyone can, to this point. The broader system in which it sits is often called Process Theology. (Wikipedia has a good summary.)

  10. Harris, unfortunately, is an idiot. But it isn’t really surprising. Being religious has been proven to correlate with lower intelligence, after all. But he doesn’t note that, now does he?

    No, he pretends that it makes you healthier. But it doesn’t. The reality is that the reason that religious people have historically lived slightly longer has to do with the fact that they have built-in social support groups as they get older, and having friends makes you live longer. Thus, -any- social activity will improve your health.

    Had he ever actually done any research on this, he would know this. But sadly, he did not.

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