American's are almost exactly divided on the importance of church, according to a new Barna study. They split down the middle. Slightly more than half say going to a religious service regularly is not too important or not at all important, while slightly less than half say it is somewhat or very important to them.
Barna, which is an evangelical organization, sees this as a sign of secularization. The polling group claims that "church involvement was once a cornerstone of American life," but "while tens of millions of Americans attend church each weekend, the practice has declined in recent years."
There may not really be much a decline, though. E. Brooks Holified, author of Theology in America and an emeritus professor of church history at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, has surveyed reports of church attendance. Speaking at the University of Heidelberg in 2011, Holifield said that reports of regular church attendance were pretty consistent throughout the 20th century.
Americans seem to have thought church was less important in the 1920s. They seem to have thought it was most important in the 1950s. Generally, though, about half of Americans have thought the practice of going to church was important.
Holifield found that between 1935 and 1985, between 40 and 49 percent of Americans said they attended a religious service regularly.
Self-reported church attendance is not a reliable indicator of church attendance, of course. It is, however, a pretty good indicator of the percentage of the population that thinks church attendance is important. If people are lying about being in church, it's because they want people to think they are the kind of people who go to church. Barna's study doesn't show that there's been a significant change in that sentiment.
This isn't secularization.
It is true -- as has been widely discussed -- that the percentage of Americans saying they have no religious affiliation has spiked dramatically since pollsters started asking that question. The "rise of the nones," though, doesn't seem to be at all connected with this other statistic, which has remained steady for most of the 20th century.