Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation's Faith

By Warner, R. Stephen | The Christian Century, March 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation's Faith


Warner, R. Stephen, The Christian Century


Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation's Faith

By Robert Wuthnow

Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $29.95

For a sociologist of religion like me, the cover of Robert Wuthnow's Inventing American Religion grabs at least as much attention as would the cover of a book by a church organist promising to give the lowdown on sex in the choir loft. The title calls out those who conduct polls and surveys on American religion and accuses them of inventing what they claim to measure.

Wuthnow began his distinguished career as an analyst of survey research on religion and later served on the boards of two of the most prominent organizations in polling (Gallup) and survey research (the General Social Survey), so he is privy to much of the story. Early chapters open with portentous vignettes of important scholars doing obscure things long ago in scattered locations (Chicago 1904, Princeton 1941, New York 1951). For the first hundred pages, I thought I could hear timpani and rolling pianissimo in the background: I was prepared for Robert Wuthnow, holder of an endowed chair at Princeton and author of over 30 books and countless articles on religion, to set off an explosion.

The blast never comes. The book contains valuable information on the history of surveys of religion, including portraits of George Gallup Jr. and George Barna, long the two most influential pollsters of religion, and an account of the recent rise to prominence of the Pew Research Center. Wuthnow explains why polls and surveys on religion are both necessary and problematic. Administrative rulings prohibit questions about religion in the decennial U.S. Census. And unlike political polls, where elections serve as real-world events against which predictions can be tested, polls and surveys on, say, the frequency of prayer and attitudes toward the Bible, refer to behaviors and dispositions known only to God.

It is not until chapter six that Wuthnow broaches the most serious issue for researchers: the declining rate of response to polls and surveys. Ironically, having raised it and detailed its extent, he does not zero in on what needs to be corrected in reports on polls or explain what we can reasonably rely on for our understanding of American religion.

Concerning himself with both surveys and polls, Wuthnow tries to reserve the term survey for high-quality and academic not-for-profit research, the best of which aspires to high rates of response from individuals chosen through random sampling and presented with pretested questions. Polls are typically less expensive and often fielded by for-profit organizations. In the past, polls were often based on "quota samples," people chosen by the interviewer to fit preset categories, but in recent years polls have relied primarily on samples achieved through random-digit dialing (RDD). Polls are also more likely than surveys to be used to tap responses to items in the news. As the book proceeds, pollster becomes a term of derision.

Wuthnow seems most upset by the use of polls in the coverage of evangelicalism at the time of Jimmy Carter's election to the presidency, when Carter was Time's, Man of the Year and Newsweek ran a cover story the week before the election titled "Born Again." To serve the needs of the media, pollsters sought to gauge the prevalence of what was a strange brand of religion in that historical context. Wuthnow faults the polls for their widely varying estimates of evangelicals' numbers (20 million or 50 million?), as well as for their lack of consensus on the criteria to be used to identify an evangelical respondent (having had a born-again experience, reading the Bible literally, seeking converts? …

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