A Look at Americans and Religion Today

by Frank Newport, Editor in Chief
The Gallup Poll

The phenomenal success of the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, has focused attention once again on the power of religion in the daily lives of Americans today.

The Gallup Poll has been collecting data on Americans' religious affiliations, attitudes, and behavior for many years. An analysis of data from the last decade allows us to reach several interesting conclusions about the state of religion in the United States today, some of which make the success of "The Passion" perhaps not so surprising.

America Is a Dominantly Christian Nation

The fact that America is a predominantly Christian nation will not come as a great surprise to many observers, yet is a finding that is often lost in discussion of reasons why a movie about Jesus Christ might do so well on American movie screens.

Gallup's aggregated analysis of responses in 2003 of more than 12,000 randomly selected Americans* to the question: "What is your religious preference — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish or an Orthodox religion such as the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church?" shows the following breakdown of self-reported religious identification:

What is your religious preference — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish or an Orthodox religion such as the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church?

Gallup Polls 2003
   

Protestant

49.4%

Roman Catholic

23.7

Judaism

2.2

Other Christian

9.1

Other

5.0

No religion, atheist or agnostic

10.6

As these data show, about 82% of American adults can be classified as Christian. Given that more than 10% of Americans express no religious preference, it is clear that by far the dominant religious affiliation of those Americans who claim any religious preference at all is with a Christian faith.

Americans Are Very Religious

More than 6 in 10 Americans say that religion is very important to them in their own lives, and another 24% say that religion in fairly important in their lives. That leaves only 15% who say that religion is not very important.

These levels of self-reported religious importance have not changed greatly over the years.

How important would you say religion is in your own life — very important, fairly important, or not very important?

Gallup Poll Yearly Aggregates
 

Very
important

Fairly
important

Not very
important

No
opinion

 

%

%

%

%

2003

61

24

15

*

2002

60

27

13

*

2001

58

28

14

*

2000

59

29

12

*

1999

59

29

11

1

1998

61

27

12

1

1997

60

27

12

1

1996

57

28

15

*

1995

58

29

12

1

1994

58

29

12

1

1993

59

29

12

*

1992

58

29

12

1

It is interesting to note that religion is most important to Protestants, less important to Roman Catholics, and least important — not surprisingly — to those who have no specific religious affiliation at all:

How important would you say religion is in your own life — very important, fairly important, or not very important?

Gallup Poll Yearly Aggregates
 

Very
important

Fairly
important

Not very
important

No
opinion

         

Protestants

69%

22

9

*

Roman Catholics

55%

33

12

*

No religious affiliation

20%

21

59

-

Americans Attend Church Quite Frequently

The Gallup Poll asks a number of questions each year measuring the degree to which Americans practice religion.

About two-thirds of American adults report being a member of a specific church or synagogue, which is slightly less than the 69% average found in Gallup polling conducted in 1992 through 1995.

Do you happen to be a member of a church or synagogue?

Gallup Poll Yearly Aggregates
 

Yes

No

 

%

%

2003

65

35

2002

65

35

2001

66

34

2000

68

32

1999

70

30

1998

68

32

1997

67

33

1996

65

35

1995

69

31

1994

69

31

1993

69

31

1992

70

29

Being a member of a church or synagogue, of course, does not necessarily translate into active participation in that church. One way to measure church attendance is to ask respondents if they have been to church or synagogue within the last seven days or not (i.e., in the seven days preceding the interview). This self-report measure of church attendance has become somewhat controversial over the years, with some sociologists and other analysts arguing that it leads to over-reporting. There are in fact a variety of reasons why the responses to this question might not correspond perfectly with the actual number of parishioners in the pews at church in a given week, including in particular the fact that some people may define Bible study or even private worship as "attending church."

Nevertheless, whether or not the figures represent precisely the actual percentage of people in church in a traditional sense on the weekend, the trend figures have been, as can be seen, remarkably stable from year to year over the last decade. Roughly 4 in 10 Americans in any given year tell an interviewer that they have in fact been to church:

Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days, or not?

Gallup Poll Yearly Aggregates
 

Yes

No

 

%

%

2003

41

59

2002

44

56

2001

41

59

2000

44

56

1999

43

57

1998

40

60

1997

40

60

1996

38

62

1995

43

57

1994

42

58

1993

40

60

1992

40

59

Another way of getting at the degree to which Americans attend church is to ask a more general question: "How often do you attend church or synagogue -- at least once a week, almost every week, about once a month, seldom, or never?", which produces the following results:

How often do you attend church or synagogue — at least once a week, almost every week, about once a month, seldom, or never?

Gallup Poll Yearly Aggregates
 

At least
once a
week

Almost
every
week

About
once a
month

Seldom

Never

No
opinion

 

%

%

%

%

%

%

2003

32

13

13

30

11

1

2002

32

13

15

29

10

1

2001

32

11

15

29

13

*

2000

35

11

14

29

10

1

1999

32

12

15

27

13

1

1998

32

13

17

28

10

1

1997

29

13

17

29

11

1

1996

29

12

15

32

11

1

1995

31

12

16

30

10

1

1994

32

13

16

28

10

1

1993

--

--

--

--

--

--

1992

34

10

14

27

14

1

These data suggest that a solid core of about a third of American adults go to church every week, with another 13% attending quite regularly.

One interesting finding from these data is the fact that a very small percent of Americans, 11%, say that they never attend church, although another 30% say the "seldom" go.

From the most general perspective, these data allow us to say that about 6 in 10 Americans — about the same percentage who say that religion is very important in their lives — attend church on at least a semi-regular basis.

There used to be evidence that Catholics were the most frequent church attenders, but that pattern has changed in more recent years. The 2003 aggregated data show that Protestants are slightly more likely to attend church almost every week or more frequently than is the case for Catholics, by a 51% to 46% margin. Naturally, those who have no religious affiliation are least likely to attend church.

How often do you attend church or synagogue — at least once a week, almost every week, about once a month, seldom, or never?

Gallup Poll Yearly Aggregates
 

At least
once a
week

Almost
every
week

About
once a
month

Seldom

Never

No
opinion

             

Protestants

35%

16

14

27

7

1%

Roman Catholics

33%

13

17

31

6

*

No religious affiliation

6%

2

1

34

55

2

Four in 10 Americans Are "Born Again"

Forty-two percent of Americans say that they would describe themselves as "born again" or evangelical Christians. This figure, based on 2003 data, is slightly lower than has been the case in recent years, but not out of line with the answers Gallup found in the early to mid-1990s.

Would you describe yourself as a "born-again" or evangelical Christian?

Gallup Poll Yearly Aggregates
 

Yes

No

No opinion

 

%

%

%

2003

42

54

4

2002

46

49

5

2001

44

49

7

2000

45

49

6

1999

46

47

7

1998

47

46

7

1997

44

49

7

1996

39

54

7

1995

41

53

6

1994

36

59

5

1993

42

54

4

1992

36

59

5

It's worth pointing out that this estimate of the percentage of the population that is "born again" is very dependent on how the question is asked. Note that the question wording above includes the phrase "evangelical" Christian, which probably has the impact of enlarging the number of people who respond "yes." A more complex question pattern Gallup has used in the past involves three separate questions, asking: a) if the person has had a "born again" experience ".when you committed yourself to Jesus Christ," b) has the person ever tried to encourage someone to believe in Jesus Christ or to accept him as your savior, and c) does the person believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word. The results found, in 1995, that just 19% of American adults answered affirmatively to all three questions.

Most Religious Groups of Americans

The table below displays a variety of demographic and geographic subgroups within the American adult population, ranked by the percentage saying that religion is very important in their daily lives.

How important would you say religion is in your own life — very important, fairly important, or not very important?

Gallup Poll Yearly Aggregates
  % Very important
   

Blacks

88

65-74

73

75+

72

South

72

Conservative

71

Women

69

No college

68

Republican

66

50-64

65

Democrat

63

   

SAMPLE AVERAGE

61

   

30-49

59

Midwest

59

Some college

59

Moderate

57

Whites

57

East

54

Independent

54

West

52

College graduate

52

Postgraduate education

51

Men

51

18-29

48

Liberal

47

Several conclusions are immediately apparent:

  1. Blacks constitute the subgroup in American society today for whom religion is most important.
  2. Religion becomes much more important to Americans the older one gets.
  3. Those living in the South are much more likely to say that religion is important in their daily lives than those living elsewhere in the nation.
  4. Conservatives and Republicans are more religious than moderates, liberals, or independents.
  5. Women are much more religious than men are.
  6. Those with lower levels of educational attainment are more religious than those with more formal education.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample adults, aged 18 and older, conducted throughout 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±2 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


Copyright © 2004 The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ. All rights reserved.
Shortened URL
0 ReflectionsRead/Add Yours

Voices on the Radio

is Director of Executive and Organizational Development at the Wolfsberg Centre, a subsidiary of UBS of Switzerland. He writes and lectures about issues at the intersection of business practices, religious worldviews, and ethics.