Comparing Presidents, Regular Church Attendance

This post looks at the percentage of people who claim to regularly attend church every week or every other week, and as I’ve been doing for other series, I’m break things out by Presidential administration.

This is an unusual post for my series on Presidents since its not collected by the government, or which I found in the Statistical Abstract of the United States (and which therefore have an imprimatur of “good data” from the US government), but its tough to find data on religious affairs in the US. The government seems to go out of its way not to collect such data.

I used data from the American National Election Studies (thanks to reader Debbie for the pointer) – data is collected every two years, around election time. Data from 1952 to 1968 is here and data from 1970 to 2004 is here. Unfortunately, the questions asked changed… It does seem that Church attendance “every week or every other week” in the second set matches up with “Regular Church attendance” in the first set – there don’t seem to be structural breaks in the years the questions were changed. Otherwise, how accurate is the data? Well, who knows? And it is self-reported.

So with those caveats in mind, here’s a graph…

And a table to match…

From this, it seems that regular church attendance is decreasing in the US. Whether its an issue of people becoming less likely to attend religious services on a regular basis, or more comfortable owning up to not attending religious services on a regular basis, or becoming less comfortable owning up to attending religious services on a regular basis, or some combination of the three, its hard to say. The percentage of people claiming regular church attendance rose only during Ike’s and GHW’s term… Lord only knows, given how poorly the economy performed during those administrations, a lot of people really needed faith. And perhaps they got what they prayed for… after all, JFK/LBJ and Clinton were the administrations that seemed to perform better on economic measures from increasing real GDP per capita to increasing real median income.

Regular church attendance held steady under Carter… it may (or may not) have something to do with him being perceived as a religious guy himself. Otherwise, the percentage of people claiming regular church attendance declined the most under JFK/LBJ, then GW, and then Clinton.

So… from this, it really doesn’t seem like most Presidents have much to do with whether the population becomes more religious, even if one or another President had such an effect. Certainly, those professing to bring more morality into the public sphere don’t seem to add much to the public’s religious zeal. It also doesn’t seem like an increase in self-reported religious service attendance makes much difference when it comes to whether or not a President whose views are more acceptable to most of the more religious folks gets elected.

If anyone knows where I can get more time series data on religious issues, please let me know. Meanwhile, I think the next post in this series will be on charitable giving.