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  Chapter Six:

  Religious Membership
  Roman Catholics
  Other Religions
  Religious Attendance
  Religious Attitudes


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Religious Attitudes

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While levels of religious belief and practice remained relatively stable, the character of religion in the United States changed in important ways.
Religious ethnocentrism declined significantly during the century. As the upper chart shows, 91 percent of the Middletown high school students surveyed in 1924 were comfortable with the statement, “Christianity is the one true religion and all peoples should be converted to it.” When the same questionnaire was administered to Middletown high school students in 1977, only 38 percent agreed. When it was administered again in Middletown high schools in 1999, 42 percent agreed, a statistically insignificant difference from 1977. 

The majority view that one’s own creed held a monopoly of religious truth gave way to a majority opinion that all religions were equally good—a view that 62 percent of Protestants and 74 percent of Catholics held in a 1996 Princeton survey. 

The lower chart, which displays attitudes toward attending movies on Sunday, helps to clarify the implications of this shift in opinion. As recently as the 1920s, church membership was routinely inherited and implied obedience to a set of behavioral rules. Over the years, church membership became elective and behavioral rules lost their importance. 

American religion lost much of its authoritative character. The mainline Protestant churches no longer applied their traditional sanctions against fornication, illegitimacy, divorce, homosexuality, suicide, and blasphemy. The majority of Catholics favored and practiced birth control, contrary to church doctrine. 

The growth of evangelical denominations committed to biblical literalism can be interpreted as a reaction against this general trend, as the 1999 figures in the two charts suggest (see page 108). But even in that conservative sector of the religious spectrum, some old prohibitions—including those against fornication, illegitimacy, drinking, dancing, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, and illegal drug use—often appeared less enforceable by the end of the century.

Chapter 6 chart 6

Source Notes
Source Abbreviations

CB, Census of Religious Bodies 1910 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1916), and Middletown I, III, and IV. See Theodore Caplow, Howard M. Bahr, and Bruce A. Chadwick, All Faithful People (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pages 12–13. For the decline in religious ethnocentrism, see Gallup Poll at (accessed September 14, 2000).


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