The vitality of religious life in the United States is remarkable. In 1989 there were more than 200 religious denominations in the United States. The 15 largest religious bodies encompassed 80 percent of the estimated 144 million total membership of congregations. The Roman Catholic church reports the largest membership (approximately 53.5 million), and the Southern Baptist Convention claims the largest Protestant Christian membership (approximately 14.75 million); the largest African American denomination is the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. (an estimated 5.5 million); Reform Judaism is the fifteenth largest religious group (slightly fewer than 2 million) (Jacquet, 1989). Although reports of membership from denominations cannot be easily compared due to different definitions of membership, by self-report approximately 90 percent of Americans identify with a denomination (Goldman, 1991). Frequency of attendance at services provides another measure of religious commitment. The 1988 General Social Survey found that 27 percent of respondents attended services once or more per week, 17 percent attended more than once a month, and 20 percent attend from once a month to several times per year. By most measurable indices, the United States is a more religious country than all European nations except Ireland and Poland (Gallup Organization, 1985; Reichley, 1985).

Claims of religious affiliations and reports of church attendance are not, of course, measures of religious dedication or fervor, and there are several indications of an increase in deeply personal affirmations of religious belief. Among Christians, the number of persons expressing ''commitment to Jesus Christ" indicates the importance of religious faith to many individuals. The Gallup Organization recently reported that 74 percent of adult U.S. citizens claimed such a commitment, compared with 66 percent in a 1988 survey and 60 percent in a 1978 survey (Christian Century, 1990). Even though many of America's 6 million Jews are not religiously observant or are only occasionally so, scholars note the emergence of a "committed minority … whose conscious choice of religious involvement has infused all branches of American Judaism with new energy and passion … that has virtually transformed American Judaism within the last two decades" (Wertheimer, 1989).

Religious affiliation and personal commitment to religious belief also find expression in patterns of charitable giving. Individual donors, who accounted for 84 percent of all giving in 1988, favored religious charities over all others. Of all households making contributions, 53 percent gave to religious organizations; human services and health were distant runners-up at 24 percent each. Religious organizations also ranked first in terms of average contribution per household: $375 to religious, $50 to human services, $44 to education, and $31 to health organizations (Independent Sector, 1990).

The place of religion in social life is indicated further by the ubiquitous

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement