Journalists, pollsters, and academics launched a debate two weeks ago over whether the recession creates a boom in attendance at evangelical churches. The debate began after Paul Vitello wrote a page-one article for The New York Times on the positive effects the recession is having in evangelical churches. In addition to anecdotal evidence, Vitello used an unpublished (and largely unknown) paper written in 2007 by David Beckworth, professor of economics at Texas State University. Vitello found that Beckworth's results may justify what is considered only an unproven (if not disproven) notion that religious revivals result from economic panics:
… During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.
The little-noticed study began receiving attention from some preachers in September, when the stock market began its free fall. With the swelling attendance they were seeing, and a sense that worldwide calamities come along only once in an evangelist's lifetime, the study has encouraged some to think big.
Based on his own observations and Beckworth's paper, Vitello concluded, "Bad times are good for evangelical churches." Since Vitello's article, other news outlets have played copycat. Beckworth himself was interviewed by CNN on the supposed surge.
A week ago, Frank Newport of Gallup Poll offered counterevidence to Vitello's article. In daily polls conducted by Gallup since February, the percentage reporting that they attend church regularly has remained steady, even as the recession has worsened. Part of Newport's response was published as a letter to ...1
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