Church, Synagogue Membership Reaches New Lows, Poll Finds

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The percentage of Americans who identified themselves as members of a church or synagogue in 1988--65%--was the lowest since the Gallup Poll began tracking such figures in 1937.

Church membership and attendance figures for 1988 were also unprecedented for American Catholics:

- For the first time, Catholics were no more likely than Protestants to be church members.

- Church attendance among Catholics reached an all-time low, with 48% saying they had attended church in the past seven days.

- The historic gap between Catholics and Protestants on church attendance all but disappeared. Catholics were only three percentage points more likely than Protestants to attend church weekly; the gap had never fallen below double figures before.

The previous low for overall church attendance was 67% in 1982. As recently as 1985, 71% of Americans claimed membership in a church or synagogue. In 1987, 69% of Americans were church members.

Decreases were largest among college graduates, those with less than a high school education, adults under 30 and Catholics.

Church membership declined sharply among Catholics and remained fairly stable among Protestants, so that 72% of each group claimed church membership. Catholics have historically been more likely than Protestants to claim church membership. In 1987, for example, 79% of Catholics and 73% of Protestants were church members.

Ironically, church attendance actually increased by two percentage points in 1988, when 42% of Americans said they had attended church or synagogue in the past seven days. While attendance declined among Catholics (from 52% to 48%), it increased significantly among Protestants (from 38% to 45%).

The largest single decrease in church membership was among college graduates. While 74% were church members in 1987, membership fell by 10 percentage points to 64% in 1988. There was a similar nine-point decline at the other end of the educational scale. Among those with less than a high school degree, membership fell from 69% to 60%.

The membership decline was consistent by region. Membership in the East fell by five points, to 64%; by three points in the Midwest, to 68%; by five points in the South, to 71% and by five points in the West, to 53%.

Among evangelicals, those who describe themselves as "born-again Christians," membership fell by only one point, to 87%. Among non-evangelicals, membership fell by three points, to 59%.

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