In conducting their search for America's religious faith, the authors have used one of the favorite tools of political candidates -- the public-opinion poll.
Those who recall how far wrong the pollsters went in predicting the outcome of the November election may well question whether this sort of survey can reveal much about such a profound, personal, and hard-to- measure subject as religious experience. Still, this book has something to offer.
Poll enthusiasts and skeptics alike will find that co-authors George Gallup Jr., who runs a statistical religious research center as well as the famous poll founded by his father, and David Poling, a Presbyterian pastor and former president of the interdonominational Protestant monthly Christian Herald, offer interesting and provocative conclusions here. Among them:
* About 59 percent of the adults in the United States are committed believers and active churchgoers.
* Church attendance is rising modestly for the first time in more than 20 years.
* The authors believe a failure among churches to clarify the Scriptures for their members may be the factor that has led thousands of people to drop out in recent years.
* Many of America's 61 million nonchurchgoers profess the same beliefs as active Christians, yet complain that church practices do not square with the teachings of Jesus. Young people, the authors say, fault "the failure of churches genuinely to serve those whom Christ loved and sought and reclaimed; the shallow, superficial stance of so many church members; the inability of congregations to deal with the basics of faith and appeal to youth on a solid spiritual basis; the absence of a feeling of excitement or warmth within the church's fellowship; negative feelings about the clergy in charge."
* A significant number of those who aren't active in any church say they would become active if they could openly discuss their religious doubts with a pastor or church friends.
Drawing on polls taken over several years for a number of clients, Gallup and Poling devote considerable attention to the religious feelings of teen-agers, the role of faith in family life, and the beliefs of adults who aren't active in any Christian denomination (the authors make hardly any reference to Judaism). They write glowingly of a recent reversal in the decline of Roman Catholicism in the US and offer detailed suggestioins about how churches might improve their outreach to the young and to nonbelievers.
I found all this intriguing. Yet if asked to rate the book on the Gallup "10 -point scale ranging from extremely favorable to extremely unfavorable," I'd have to register 6 or 7 -- for seriously flawed.
For one thing, the averaging of poll data can paint a false picture that isn't strictly true of any of the diverse groups sampled. For another, the book's many, many statistics and surveys are guaranteed to leave anyone but Lou Harris or Daniel Yankelovich dazed and exhausted from flipping back over pages to cross-check one finding with another that seems closely related, yet different.
Consider, for example, a few of the voluminous statistics from the chapter on young people: 9 out of 10 pray, we're told (Page 16); 62 percent answered yes when asked if during a particular 24-hour period God or religion had been "on their minds" (Page 21); 26 percent attend church (Page 22); 71 percent say they are church members, and only 1 percent indicate no religious preference or affiliation (Page 24). One wishes the authors had drawn these and other figures together to present their composite picture more coherently.
Though appendixes offer examples of poll questions and responses, an inquisitive reader is left wondering about the size of most of the samplings, the geographical spread, and the survey dates.
It's unfortunate, too, that the lively, otherwise highly readable text shifts disconcertingly at times from the coolly analytical voice of a pollster/observer to the sometimes fervently admonishing tones of a minister/participant and then abruptly back again. The book is also marred by poor organization (a speaker quoted on Page 32 but not introduced until Page 118) and editorial lapses (a tally on Page 113 that adds up to 109 percent and several out-of-date passages like the one that makes it sound as if the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen were still preaching).
Nonetheless, the shortcomings don't invalidate many of this book's interesting observations, and its authors deserve credit for examining some of the tough questions that committed believers can't afford to ignore. Readers interested in the current state of religion and its future will find "The Search for America's Religious Faith" often rewarding , if occasionally annoying.