Surveying the Religious Landscape

By George Gallup Jr. and Michael Lindsay
Morehouse. 1999. 171 pp. Pb. $ 17.95. ISBN 0-9192-1796-4

Reviewed by Edward A. White, Washington, D.C.


This study reflects the glaring incongruities of the religious situation in the United States today. Religion in general (whatever that may mean) remains popular but for many there is little substance.

Two out of three believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems” (p. 20) even though they appear not to be very clear what their religion is or what difference it really makes in the conduct of their life.

I was struck by the statistic that among those who claim to be born again: 41 percent smoke cigarettes; 44 percent keep a gun in their household, 33 percent hold a pro-choice stance in the abortion debate; 28 percent believe in ghosts; and 26 percent believe in astrology (p. 40).

With respect to knowledge of the Bible, only 34 percent of the population know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount and 40 percent know what the Holy Trinity is (p. 49).

Among Catholics, the Pope appears to be revered but not followed in terms of convictions: 84 percent believe that Catholics should be allowed to practice artificial means of birth control; 78 percent believe that divorced Catholics should be permitted to remarry in the Catholic church; 58 percent believe that the Catholic church should relax its stance on forbidding abortions; 58 percent believe that those who have sex outside of marriage are still good Catholics; 47 percent believe that those who engage in homosexual acts are still good Catholics; and 63 percent believe it would be a good thing if women were allowed to be priests (p. 85).

Cynicism about our institutions is certainly reflected in the Gallup statistics. In response to the question, “What kind of a job do you think the following have been doing in raising the moral and ethical standards of the nation?”, the following percentages reflected “now doing a good job”: church or religious leaders –36 percent; recent presidents — 13 percent; newspapers — 13 percent; advertising — 12 percent; big business — 11 percent; movies — 5 percent; television — 5 percent; and Congress — 5 percent (p. 109).

Two-thirds of the population apparently favor prayer in the schools. The problem becomes “Whose prayers?” In response to the question, “Who should choose the spoken school prayer?” the breakdown is as follows: 32 percent say parents; 30 percent say students; 13 percent say the school board; 5 percent say the principal; 5 percent say the teacher; and 9 percent offered other options (p. 153).

This dilemma seems to me to reflect the dilemma of religion in America today. Most of us are for it, whatever it is. We may not understand it and we may not agree on what it means, but we are for it — generally speaking. The tragedy is not in the diversity. The tragedy is that we don’t seem to make the diversity work for us in a manner that would help us all to grow.