Pollster George H. Gallup Jr., whose family pioneered surveys probing American attitudes, has focused that work increasingly on religion, convinced of heightened interest in it.
"It's the new frontier of the social sciences," he said.
Gallup's expanding studies in this area have made him a prime diagnostician of the nation's spiritual condition, with his counsel and pulse-taking operations in that field enlisted by various organizations.
"We have concentrated a great deal more on religion and the inner life," he said. "There's rising interest in it. Society is more concerned. The news media is giving it more attention."
But not enough, he added, considering religion's pervasive influence, with 42% of the population--about 105 million people--attending church or synagogue each week.
Noting that findings show that religious organizations rank in the forefront of institutions people trust, Gallup said this gives clergy an inside track into people's views and needs.
"Nobody has an ear to the ground as much as clergy," he said, adding that they are much more attuned to people's thinking on issues than politicians. He says for that reason their opinions should be sought more by the media.
Gallup is chairman of the Gallup International Institute Inc., and also executive director of an expanding branch in Princeton, N.J., the Princeton Religion Research Center.
A genial, 6-foot-3 man of 61, Gallup has been in the polling business for about 40 years, a successor to his father, a journalist-professor who started the enterprise in 1935.
"I've always wanted to see surveys that probe beneath the surface of life," Gallup said. "We've learned a great deal about the breadth of religion, but not about the depth of religion. We're now trying to explore that more."
He said initial probing of this "depth dimension" reveals that the most committed 13% of believers are the happiest, most charitable, tolerant, ethical and concerned for a better society.
"They're a breed apart from the rest of the population," he said.
In contrast, he said the typical "churched" and "unchurched" do not differ greatly, except the "churched" tend to have a "brighter outlook and be more active in civic affairs."
"But when you get to the level of the truly, devotionally committed who live out their faith, they are dramatically different," he said. "They are more involved in charity, more tolerant, more ethical and much happier."
Gallup details those findings in a coming book--"The Saints Among Us"--due in June. "We're now going back with depth interviews to discover how these people found their transforming faith," he said.
The Gallup study used factors on a 1 to l2 scale to gauge levels of religious commitment.
By those measurements, developed by the Gallup Institute's expanding Religion Research Center in Princeton, N.J., only 13% of believers were found in the category of the most religiously committed. People who have this strong, transforming faith were found to share a number of positive attributes, including greater tolerance, social concern and charitable leanings.
"We've all heard stories of people of deep faith rising above circumstances to heroic altruism," Gallup said. "Here we have full-scale statistical evidence of it."
Gallup, an Episcopalian who once considered entering the ministry, said most Americans affirm religious faith, but are not informed about its premises or the faiths of others.
"They're unable to defend their faith," he said. "A climate of pluralism has stifled them, stifled their religious convictions. People are afraid to talk about it.
"There's a feeling they have to go underground. That's sad. On college campuses, students should be discussing and debating from their own religious traditions. But you don't find it.
"So nobody learns, nobody is served. People should be able to speak (of) their religious convictions in a forthright way, explaining it, talking about it. But there's not much public discourse about it.
"Part of the problem is that many people are so ill-informed about their faith and tradition. They're ill-equipped to engage in discussion."
Gallup said churches need to put more stress on religious education, and also be more directly inviting and welcoming to outsiders--usually called evangelism.
The word evangelism is unpopular, he said. "It's equated with a lapel-latching type of proselytizing." The better approach, he says, "is living in a way that draws people."
He also advised stronger youth programs and formation of small groups for discussion and mutual support. He said a third of Americans participate in a variety of small, shared-interest groups, 60% church-related.
"That's quite a phenomenal finding," he said. "It's very important in our fragmented society."
In such small, intimate groups, he said, people "are finding themselves, finding each other and finding God."
Gallup said modern times have confronted Americans with a "bewildering array of problems," including disappointment with materialism as a measure of success. "It's the failure of the American dream if you will.
"It's not only discouragement at the failure of the material world, but disenchantment with lifestyles that we fall into. Loneliness is a factor. We're acutely lonely. We're searching for meaningful relationships."