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    What America Thinks
    Keeping the Faith

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, Jan. 12, 1998

    Believe it or not: America is the most religious country in the developed world, according to the World Values Survey conducted in 60 countries and directed by the University of Michigan.

    The latest round of surveys completed last year found that 44 percent of all Americans attended church once a week, a figure that doesn't count attendance at weddings, funerals, christenings and baptisms, reports Ronald Inglehart, a researcher at Michigan's Institute for Social Research and the director of the World Values Survey.

    But survey analysts reported that only 27 percent of people interviewed in Great Britain said they attended church once a week, as did 21 percent of those surveyed in France. Churches were virtually deserted in Sweden: Just 4 percent of those interviewed said they went to church weekly. And despite the fall of communism in Russia, only 2 percent of all Russians interviewed said they went to church once a week, the lowest level of weekly attendance of any of the countries included in the project. In Canada, attendance was closest to the United States, at 38 percent.

    Americans also were far more likely to say that religion was important to their lives. More than half – 53 percent – said religion was "very important" to them, a view expressed by 16 percent of all British respondents, 13 percent of those interviewed in France and 13 percent of the Germans questioned.

    "The stereotype that the American public is more materialistic than other peoples seems to be very misleading, at least by these criteria," Inglehart says.

    The World Values Survey is a series of global polls that began in 1981. The latest round was conducted between 1995 and 1997, using representative national samples of each nation's adult population. The results from the United States are based on a sample of 1,839 people.

    Inglehart says the survey has documented a sharp decline in the importance of religion in the developed world, particularly in Europe and Scandinavia. In sharp contrast, "in countries experiencing economic stagnation and political uncertainty, religion has remained strong."

    How bad is it? Not only has church attendance plummeted in Northern Europe, churches in Latin America are sending missionaries over to "save the souls of their former colonizers," according to a research summary announcing the latest round of data.

    While the United States fared well compared with other developed countries, it ranked well down the list when countries from the Third World were included in the ranking. Nigeria topped the list. There, 89 percent of those interviewed went to church at least once a week. In the Philippines, 68 percent were weekly church attendees, as were 56 percent in South Africa.

    Meanwhile, other surveys suggest that the United States has never been as religious as it is right now.

    About two out of three Americans currently say they belong to a church, according to Gallup surveys. That's about four times more than the 17 percent who were members of churches in 1776, according to Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religions at the University of Washington.

    Two reasons explain why so few of our Founding Fathers and Mothers belonged to a church, he says. Back in those days, the country was filled with large numbers of frontiersmen, adventurers and scalawags of various stripes and flavors, many of whom felt far more comfortable with the ways of the Devil.

    Besides, there weren't very many churches to belong to, Stark says. And many of the churches that did exist were led by ministers who had been booted out of England or the Continent for various legal and moral misdeeds, he says.

    Church membership has inched up gradually in the past 200 years. At the turn of this century, barely half of the country belonged to a church, Stark's review of census data and church membership rolls suggests. Even in the 1950s, when everybody thinks family values and religion had a tighter grip on America, 59 percent of those adults interviewed by Gallup said they were church members.

    Why are Americans so religious – or at least why do they say they are? Inglehart offers several explanations.

    He thinks religion may be a legacy of America's frontier mentality, in which faith in a higher power gave pioneers the will to brave the challenges of the wilderness. Then again, it may be all those aging boomers desperately seeking the meaning and purpose of life. "Besides providing a sense of orientation and insecurity in an insecure world, one of the functions of religion is to help satisfy the need to know where we come from and where we're going."

    That interest also has prompted many Americans to seek solace in the supernatural. A Washington Post-ABC News survey two years ago found that nearly one in three Americans believed that people's horoscopes "can affect the course of their future."

    One in five agreed that good-luck charms sometimes bring good luck. A third said they believe in faith healing, and a third said they've been in contact with someone who has died.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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