Trends in Public Opinion: A Compendium of Survey Data

By Richard G. Niemi; John Mueller et al. | Go to book overview
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13 Religion

Two great, contradictory myths surround religion in contemporary America. The first is that secularization is rapidly and inevitably changing America from a religious nation into a secular state. This myth emerges from early sociological theorizing about how modernization in general and science and education in particular would undermine the superstitious and tribal basis of religion ( Hammond, 1985; Hadden, 1987; Wuthnow , 1976). The second holds that America is undergoing a great, religious revival. It is asserted that the televangelists and political preachers like Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority are not only reviving that old time religion, but also successfully placing the goals of the New Christian Right at the top of the political agenda ( Kelley, 1972; Mueller, 1983; Yinger and Cutler, 1982).

Survey data question both of these popular interpretations. Available data cover basic beliefs about God and an afterlife back to the 1940s and religious behaviors such as prayer, church attendance, and religious affiliation over the last two decades. In addition two key items closely related to Fundamentalism and the New Christian Right, belief in Bible inerrancy and attitudes toward school prayers, can be followed from the mid-1960s to the present.

Overall, the main pattern that emerges is not one of major change, but of basic stability. Religious beliefs, behaviors, and preferences have have not undergone striking shifts, but rather have been part of America's bedrock culture ( Greeley, forthcoming). Belief in God has been in the mid to upper 90s for the last forty years (Table 13.1) and faith in an afterlife has been around 75 percent in both the 1940s and the 1980s (with a slight dip to the upper 60s in the 1970s) (Table 13.8).

Religious behaviors have also shown basic consistency. During the 1970s and 1980s a little over half reported that

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