Religion Notes


Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

Telling the truth?

Are Americans lying to pollsters about their church attendance habits? Or are the "scientific" samples of interviewees flawed? Or both? Since 1939, Gallup polls have consistently shown about 40 percent of American adults attended church or synagogue in "the last seven days." Similar findings have been reported by other polls and even by some denominations. But that figure has come under increasing suspicion in recent years. For one thing, the percentage translates into about 73 million people age 20 and older attending some 300,000 houses of worship each weekend. That is an average of 245 adults in each building, even though the majority of churches in the United States have congregations under 200, including children. And how many churchgoers can say they live in a neighborhood where nearly half the adults attend weekly church services? For another, some studies are coming up with different figures.Sociologist C. Kirk Hadaway of the United Church of Christ and a team of researchers in 1992 counted attendance at all 172 Protestant congregations in one Ohio county. The worship attendance figure translated into 20 percent. In a recent issue of the American Sociological Review, he said the 20 percent figure held in only two other American settings. As a result, pollsters are beginning to refine their questions. The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found that respondents did not necessarily mean they attended a worship service when they indicated they "attended" a house of worship. When the question excludes everything but worship, attendance that week dips to 27 percent, NORC researcher Tom W. Smith told the Washington Times. He said the 1996 NORC General Social Survey found 7 percent of respondents saying they go to church more than once a week, 17 percent attend worship weekly, and 5 percent worship nearly every week. George Gallup defends his organization's 40 percent figure, insisting it has been thoroughly researched. But, he adds, a new question will ask respondents exactly what kind of event they attended.

Equal treatment in Peru

A Peruvian legislator who is Catholic is trying to help non-Catholic churches win exemption from a new tax that reportedly already has forced 60 evangelical churches in Peru to close, according to a Latin American news service. "I am a Catholic, but the constitution establishes that there should be no discrimination [based on religion]," Elferez Vidarte told reporters. Effective this year, the government requires churches to pay taxes to local jurisdictions on the land they occupy for religious, educational, or cultural purposes. However, Catholic churches are exempted under an agreement between the government and the Vatican.

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