A RECENT survey of Americans' religious identification has come up with far different numbers of adherents for several denominations than the churches themselves list as members. The telephone survey of 113,000 adults in the continental United States was conducted by the Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York between April 1989 and April 1990. Based on responses, the study estimated nationwide totals of religious identification by denomination.
Last week the United Church of Christ (UCC), the main religious descendent of the early Pilgrims and Puritans, protested that many of its adherents were incorrectly counted in the survey's "Church of Christ" category. The latter is a separate denomination.
"It is a shame that the scholars who did such far-reaching and influential research did not understand American church denominational differences," said Dr. Beverly Chain, the UCC's communications director, in a written statement. "Nor did they use an advisory committee or any similar means of checking the survey's coding categories before telephone research began."
But study director Barry Kosmin says the survey was not intended to count members. "The task we did is a study of religious identification on the part of the public. We asked simply 'What is your religion?' It's an open-ended question. Both they [the church] and we can be right." He admits that in some cases, the word "united" might have been dropped, and UCC adherents counted in the "Church of Christ" category.
The UCC was formed in 1957 in a merger of the Congregational Christian Churches, descended from the Pilgrims, with the Evangelical and Reformed Church, whose membership descended from 18th- and 19th-century German settlers. The Church of Christ, on the other hand, is broadly fundamentalist and noted for the lack of instrumental music in its services. It grew up in the same early 19th-century "restorationist" movement on the American frontier that spawned the more-liberal Disciples of Christ denomination .
CUNY estimated that the Church of Christ has 1.8 million adherents, while the "Congregational" category was estimated at 438,000. The UCC says it would have formed a significant category in the survey if the classification had been correct. The denomination has 1.6 million members. The main Church of Christ denomination also has about 1.6 million members. The survey estimated 144,000 people identified themselves as members of the Disciples of Christ; that denomination has more than 1 million members.
Also underrepresented in the survey statistics are the various Dutch-descended Reformed churches in the US. CUNY estimates that 40,000 identify as "Christian Reformed" adherents, while it counts 19,000 "Dutch Reformed" believers. However, the Reformed Church in America, the most liberal Dutch-descended Calvinist body, counts 333,798 members, while the more-conservative Christian Reformed Church in North America has 222,408 members.
In explaining such discrepencies, Dr. Kosmin says that adherents of some denominations have a very strong denominational identity, while others see themselves as "Christian" or "Protestant," even though they are church members. He points out that more than 8 million people in the survey said they were Christian, without giving a denomination, while 17 million simply identified themselves as "Protestant."
The Rev. Wayne Antworth, director of communications for the Reformed Church in America, agrees, that "unless pressed," most members of his denomination would not necessarily say they were members of the Reformed Church. Many newer Reformed Church denominations, he says, identify themselves simply as "community churches." "A small percentage of our membership - a third or less - come from a Dutch or Reformed Church background," he says.
The study found 60.3 percent of Americans call themselves Protestants, while 26.2 percent say they are Roman Catholics. It estimates that religious Jews make up around 2 percent of the population, while Muslims account for 0.5 percent. Only 7.5 percent of those surveyed said they had no religion.
The data produced by the study contradict several popular stereotypes:
* Nearly 6 percent of all US Roman Catholics are black. More than 9 percent of blacks are Catholic; half profess to be Baptists. While less than 2 percent of blacks say they are Muslims, 40 percent of US Muslims are black.
* Most Americans who say they are of Irish ancestry say they are Protestant.
* While 14 percent of all Catholics are Hispanic, one-third of Hispanics identify with other religions.
* More than half the country's 1.5 million Arab-Americans are Christians.
* Most Asian-Americans are Christians, particularly Baptists and Catholics.
* Rates of marriage breakup are similar across religious groups. Those identifying as Catholics have rates similar to Lutherans and other mainstream Protestant groups.