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 In addition to anecdotal evidence, Vitello used an unpublished (and largely unknown) paper written in 2007 by David Beckworth, professor of economics at Texas State University.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 The New York Times. Jack Shafer of Slate used the Newport letter as the basis for his "Bogus Trend of the Week: Booming Evangelical Attendance." Shafer did not offer much to the dispute other than a sarcastic restatement of Newport's letter. Still, his post raised the profile of the debate.
The next day, Trinity College political science professor Mark Silk, on the blog Spiritual Politics, took issue with both Newport and Shafer (cross-posted on Christianity Today's Politics Blog). He warned that Gallup is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to measuring religiosity, and accused Shafer of being ignorant of the "bogosity of Gallup's church attendance numbers." The survey is bogus, claimed Silk. As a result, Vitello's story could be measuring a change in behavior that the Gallup poll is not measuring, because the poll may be incapable of doing so.
The debate over the veracity of the evangelical boom is important. Unfortunately, the debate over Vitello's article has featured few legitimate comparisons and a mishmash of statistics that have little to do with each other.
The mismatch between types of evidence began when The Times's Vitello cited Beckworth's paper, suggesting Beckworth had found the same pattern Vitello saw in his anecdotal evidence. Not quite. This may seem subtle, but Beckworth's findings were limited to changes in total annual membership of 24 Protestant denominations. Beckworth acknowledges that this is merely a proxy for other types of religious activities such as attending worship. But as CT readers well know, church membership means different things in different denominations. Some have been members since infancy. Others attend the same church for decades and never become members. Membership also changes for reasons other than changes in religiosity. When a diocese, synod, or other group of churches leaves in protest, the membership numbers decline dramatically (see examples here and here). At other times, church membership numbers may be inflated and need to be corrected (see example here).
The incongruity between facts continued when Gallup's Newport and Slate's Shafer argued that because surveys did not show an increase in attendance, Vitello's report of an evangelical boom was bogus. Contrary to Newport and Shafer's conclusion, it merely suggests that Vitello overstated his evidence. Surveys do not tell us everything we want to know. Like membership rolls, survey results can measure religious activity for groups as a whole, but don't tell us much about individuals' behavior. Just as macroeconomic indicators do not tell us how specific businesses are reacting to the recession, surveys and membership numbers cannot reveal how congregations are responding to the economy. This is one of the useful points made by Trinity College's Silk: Survey results are not the only way to gauge religion (or anything).
That said, Silk's other points, particularly his attacks on the legitimacy of Gallup's survey results, are tangential. Newport reported that Gallup had seen little changes in the public over the past few months. Silk, however, wants to discuss the problems of comparing attendance over the past few decades. Gallup's measure may overestimate church attendance. However, at issue is not the exact percentage of those attending church. The question is whether more people attend church today than people did a couple of months ago. Gallup's report suggests that the recession has not had an effect on the percentage of people in the pews. This does not mean that the people The Times discussed are not experiencing a growth because of the recession. But it does suggest that people, on average, are not attending church more now than they did before the financial crisis.
The result of the debate is less, not more, clarity caused by a mishmash of information. Much of it could have been avoided if The New York Times had followed a more careful practice. Shafer wrote that typically, the paper "indemnifies itself by quoting a skeptic on the other side of the issue or tosses a 'to be sure' paragraph noting the weakness of its anecdotal evidence. Not here." Instead of relying on an unpublished, unnoticed, and (to date) unimportant paper to justify his conclusions, Vitello should have interviewed a few more sociologists or economists, who would have told him that the link between recessions and revivals is just myth. This may have helped avoid the back-and-forth that has resulted in confusion over a topic where we need much more clarity.
What he would have heard would likely have been something like:
The economic downturn could increase church attendance. We know that people are less likely to be involved with churches as their income and wealth increase, but it is tough to say how many people will start attending church because of specific changes in the economy. But if they did, I'm not sure that there is any evidence that evangelical churches would benefit more than other religious groups.
Tobin Grant is an associate professor of political science at Southern Illinois University — Carbondale. He is co-author of Expression vs. Equality: The Politics of Campaign Finance Reform and dozens of academic articles on politics and religion.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today has regular politics coverage on the politics blog.