An interview with George Gallup, Jr.

George Gallup, Jr., and the art and science of poll-taking are synonymous all over the world. His expertise has been called on by those in the communications media as well as by leaders in business, education, politics, and religion. CHRISTIANITY TODAY interviewed Gallup, to answer questions about him and his work that readers may have in mind as they read the results of the poll in this issue. Our questions have also sought to delve into Gallup’s own interpretation of the data, so that an outsider’s perspective can be added to that of our writers.


Question: How pervasive is the influence of evangelicalism today?

Answer: I really feel that from the variety of survey evidence, the 1980s could be described as the decade of the evangelicals, because that is where the action is. The fact that 20 percent of all adults today are evangelicals—and their influence certainly extends beyond that number—and that we find in our surveys of teen-agers that they are more evangelical than their elders, all indicate that the movement will gain in strength. Given the fact that evangelicals give more of their time and money to their churches than do nonevangelicals, that they are more likely to want their pastors to speak out on social and political issues, and that they are more ready to speak to others about their faith, it is hard to escape the conclusion that evangelicals will have much to do with how religion shapes up in the U.S. in the 1980s. If evangelical ministers are able to mobilize the large number of evangelicals, their effect on the shape of the 1980s could be profound.

Q: Are evangelicals really beginning to have an impact on, say, the denominations as a whole?

A: Yes, because evangelicals are becoming more mobile, more “up-scale.” They constitute a higher proportion of opinion leaders and, therefore, they are having a greater influence. Also, in terms of speaking out on issues of public policy, evangelicals are having more influence.

Q: On the question of public policy, are there any indications that anybody in Congress, or among government leaders, is taking evangelicals more seriously?

A: I can’t answer that, really; I just don’t know.

Q: One of the impressions one gets from the CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup Poll is the strength and vitality of evangelicals. Do you see any weak points?

A: Basically, I really feel strongly that the evangelical movement will grow because not only are youngsters leaning more as a whole in that direction, but also because the clergy are speaking out on public issues and getting involved not so much in social protest as in social action in a day-to-day kind of involvement. So, I don’t see any evidence that would make it go in the other direction. But there are some danger signals in terms of the things to watch out for. There are people, of course, who feel that the evangelicals’ approach is simplistic. There are strong objections to style, that some evangelicals come on a little too hard. There is a reaction, obviously, to certain evangelical television shows, and that is a potential problem. I think it is important for evangelicals who are witnessing to be very good listeners.

Article continues below

Q: Following through on your point about witnessing, do you see the country as being ripe for evangelism and church growth, or do you think hardness is setting in?

A: No, I really don’t think there will be a hardness setting in. I think young people are very receptive; and if the approach is right, they will be caught up in the spiritual surge. I know there are lots of reports that there is a trend toward hedonism and self-indulgence—self-centeredness in the “me” generation—but there are also very strong trends toward spirituality, if you will: wanting to get deeper, desiring to make a commitment, and desiring to help society. We can see that in their career choices. I don’t think there’s a turning away or a hardness, really. I know in the mainline churches there is some reluctance and lack of understanding of open expressions of piety, and a little bit of nervousness about it; it is just an uncomfortable feeling. That kind of thing needs to be broken down.

Q: By way of summary, would you add any other guidelines for evangelical action in the 1980s?

A: Speak out on issues, particularly close at home issues, such as alcoholism (from what we can tell in terms of lives lost, in terms of death, it would have to be the number one social problem), drug abuse, and reaching unemployed youths, too, because that is the basis for the crime problem. In witnessing, listen—that is an important part of it. Continue to do what is already being done; it is obviously meeting with great success. Person-to-person, practical Christianity has to have a real influence on society.

Q: Switching to your own faith for a moment, what is your church affiliation?

A: I am Episcopalian, a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton, New Jersey. I was with a smaller Episcopal church for about 15 years, where I was lay reader, sang in the choir, and taught Sunday school.

Article continues below

Q: You know how we struggled to come up with a definition of an evangelical for this poll. Do you fit any of those categories, or what label do you prefer to use for yourself?

A: I am evangelically oriented. I feel very strongly that a conversion experience is absolutely focal, whether it is gradual or a sudden growth experience. I feel it is extremely important to witness; if people feel this way and have had this kind of experience, it doesn’t make any sense not to tell others about it and let them share the same kind of joy. I would say that I tend to be orthodox. In terms of creation, for example, I accept the authority of the Bible, but I would stop short of a literal interpretation.

Q: Regarding one of the major findings of the CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup poll, do you really believe that one of every five people you might meet on the street is an evangelical?

A: Yes, I do, because in terms of people’s belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible, we find half of all Protestants at least say they do. Now, quite frankly, there may be some problem with the wording of the question. That is probably one of the most difficult that we dealt with. What they may be saying in almost every instance is that they accept the absolute authority of the Bible, and I am sure they believe in miracles and all. Yes, I accept that finding; it doesn’t surprise me.

Q: As a pollster, how can you tell whether a person’s answer is an opinion or a real conviction—or can’t you tell?

A: You have to rely on the person himself. You can ask how strongly he feels, and you can look at his answer to other questions, and if he knows what he is talking about. You can’t do that so much in the area of religion, but there is a good deal of validity in people’s appraisals of themselves, because nobody knows a person but himself and God. That’s why an important question to ask is: How important is religion in your life? Regardless of the dimension of the answer, it is either very important or it isn’t.

Q: On a religious poll like this, as opposed to a political poll, what checks do you run periodically to stay on top of things?

A: We include the question, “How important is religion in your life?” (that’s a paraphrase) usually several times during the year. We also ask about church attendance and about church membership. We try to update our belief items whenever possible. In a given year we may ask 30 or 40 questions related to religion.

Article continues below

Q: Religious persons generally, and often evangelicals particularly, have been accused of taking little or no interest in things pertaining to this world. What do you have to say to this point?

A: Americans want a vocal church on spiritual, moral, and ethical matters. People of all faiths want churches and other religious organizations to speak out. However, there is a sharp divergence of opinion among members of various denominations and faiths when it comes to political and economic matters. This, of course, should not surprise us.

Interestingly, Catholics and evangelicals are most inclined to favor the churches speaking out on political and economic issues, as they are most in favor also of churches trying to persuade legislators to take certain actions. It can be assumed from the CHRISTIANITY TODAY survey results that there will be a continuing controversy in the 1980s on the key issue of whether or not the nation’s clergymen should take a stand on current political and economic issues. However, evangelicals appear to be of one mind and want the churches and clergymen to speak out.

Q: Does the CHRISTIANITY TODAY poll generally fit those other polls?

A: Whenever possible, we use trend wording to develop trends, but the CHRISTIANITY TODAY poll was the most comprehensive study we have ever done in the area of religion, because it included interviews with the clergy, too. I would say it is even bigger than the study we did for the Catholic Digest in 1952 and again in 1965. We did one for Ladies’ Home Journal in 1948. I don’t want to review them all, but there were several—Look, and so forth. We also did a big one a year ago on the unchurched American.

Q: Would you say that the validity, or accuracy, of the poll really depends on constant checking of both your demographics and your replies?

A: Absolutely. One of the best tests, of course, is matching up all our preelection survey results with actual election results. That’s really the acid test of a poll’s methodology. But there are internal checks all the time, of course.

Q: The same checks you use on the political polls are applicable to any other poll?

A: Absolutely.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.