While the picture of religion in America today is complex, certain underlying themes emerge:
The widespread and continuing appeal of religion. Certain measurements show remarkable stability. For example, the percentage of Americans who believe in God or a universal spirit, the percentage who pray, and the percentage who say they attend church weekly. Other measurements, however, reveal sharp differences between the mid-'50s and nowparticularly in the number of biblical "literalists."
The glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, basic doctrines, and the traditions of one's church. There has been little improvement on this score over the last half-century, despite growth in the percentage of Americans who have attended college.
Inconsistencies of belief. For example, evangelical Christians occasionally express belief in New Age practices.
The superficiality of faith. Many people don't know exactly what they believe, or why.
Belief in God, but lack of trust in God.
Continuing high regard for the church as an institution. This regard includes one's church and the clergy. However, it is not as widespread as in past years.
Religious commitment is best described by what people say they believe and do. In other words, it cannot be predicted based on people's age, sex, politics, level of education, and the likedespite theories that play to such an assumption. Also, faith continues to play a huge role in the lives of many Americans, although this role goes unrecognized too often.
A surge of interest in spiritual matters over the last two decades. America still cannot be understood without an awareness and appreciation of our religious underpinnings.
A growing desire for closer, more meaningful relationships with other people.
Remarkably high figures of religious belief and practice compared to other Western nations.
A number of trends over the past 50 years can also be identified. One is Billy Graham's remarkable popularity and longevity. He has appeared in the top ten of the Gallup list of most admired men 48 times since 1948far more than any other public figure. His closest competitor is the late Ronald Reagan (31 times). According to a 2005 survey, one in six Americans has heard Graham speak in person. More than half (52 percent) have heard him on the radio, and 85 percent have watched him on television.
A comparison of statistics from the 1950s to more recent statistics reveals some further trends:
Americans who say that religion is very important in their lives.
Those who say they are members of a church.
Those who say they attended church or synagogue in the last seven days.
Those who say religion is increasing its influence on American life.
Those who believe in God or a universal spirit.
Mid-1950s 9 in 10
Latest 9 in 10
Those who pray to God or a higher power.
Mid-1950s 9 in 10
Latest 9 in 10
Those who say religion can answer all or most of today's problems.
Those who say the Bible is the Word of God and should be taken literally, word for word.
American religious preferences
George Gallup Jr. is co-chairman of The Gallup Organization, Inc. and a Christianity Today advisory editor.
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The Gallup Poll site has extensive polling data on religious attitudes, but it costs $95 a year.
Christianity Today's other articles on its 50th anniversary include:
Where We Are and How We Got Here | 50 years ago, evangelicals were a sideshow of American culture. Since then, it's been a long, strange trip. Here's a look at the influences that shaped the movement. By Mark A. Noll (Sept. 29, 2006)
Sidebar: 'Truth from the Evangelical Viewpoint' | What Christianity Today meant to the movement 50 years ago. (Sept. 29, 2006)
What's Next? | What evangelical leaders say are the priorities and challenges for the next 50 years. (Oct. 2006)
Evangelism Plus | John Stott reflects on where we've been and where we're going. (Oct. 13, 2006)
Sidebar: Legacy of a Global Leader | Less known than Stott's earlier work is his ministry with Langham Partnership International. (Oct. 13, 2006)
One Reader's Thoughts on Christianity Today's 50th Anniversary | After five decades of reading, I've clipped far too many articles. (Oct. 12, 2006)
Media in Motion | Evangelicalism's mission and message outlast evolving technologies. A Christianity Today editorial (Oct. 18, 1006)
Save the E-Word | Let's improve the public perception of evangelicalism. A Christianity Today editorial (Oct. 19, 1006)
A Greater Vision | Billy Graham's bottom line never changes: 'Are we really being used to change people?' (Oct. 24, 2006)