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December 23, 2008

Bogus Bogus Trend Story?

Slate's media watchdog Jack Shafer thinks he's got the NYT dead to rights for Paul Vitello's December 14 story on how the recession is boosting worship attendance, at evangelical churches in particular. Not so, clucks Shafer, citing Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport's marshalling of evidence that there has, in fact, been no increase in church attendance in these hard times. Weekly attendance, saith Newport, has remained around 42 percent for months and months.

Unbeknownst to Shafer, however, is the bogosity of Gallup's church attendance numbers. What Newport doesn't say is that his company's surveys have shown church attendance to be in that exact numeric neighborhood ever since they began asking the question 60 years ago. As sure as death and taxes, two in five Americans will say they attend church weekly.

But for over a decade, sociologists of religion (and those who read them) have known that 1) a lot of those supposed weekly attenders are fibbing; and 2) more of them are fibbing now than used to. The evidence for this comes from multiple sources, including time-usage studies, on-the-ground observation of parking lots, church attendance records, interviews with clergy. These days, the real number for weekly attendance is in the low 20 percent range. (Here's a citation for one of the more important articles on the subject: C. Kirk Hadaway, Penny Long Marler and Mark Chaves, "Overreporting Church Attendance in America: Evidence That Demands the Same Verdict," American Sociological Review, Vol. 63, No. 1 [Feb., 1998], pp. 122-130.)

So does this meant that Vitello's article is on the money? Could be. A bunch of phone calls to pastors is more likely to turn up something new in the going-to-church department than Gallup's invariant two-in-five. Don't expect the phenomenon to last, though. After 9/11, a host of stories tracked a bump in churchgoing, and then a host tracked the quick reversion to the norm. As Yoda might have said, "Backsliding always we are."

(Originally published at Spiritual Politics.)