Most Mainline or Most Evangelical? Miscounts and Religious County Membership

In the race to produce relevant researched stories it’s important to know that error sometimes occurs that can radically alter what we know. A few months ago when I saw an announcement that the Association of Religion Data Archives had county-level information on religion, I of course wanted to know the spread for the area I live: McLennan County, TX. What I wanted to figure out was how evangelical was this city, as it seems that most everyone I run into seems to have faith of some sort.  Is this place the most evangelical in the US?

So when I saw this chart, I was really floored. The largest religious tradition in McLennan County was mainline Protestantism- really?

Screenshot from 07/17/12 at ARDA

So since my sociologist’s intuition signaled something might be amiss, I called the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and had a good conversation with Rich Houseal of the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, the folks who have given us the 2010 US Religion Census. These are the folks that help us to see the general spread of religious adherence through maps and extensive tables. They work very hard at getting the most accurate count of religious groups around the country. In order to do this they essentially reach out to actual religious leaders and ask them for help by volunteering any records they may have of the number of attenders on a typical week or service. Many leaders and organizations share their figures, and some don’t.

As it turns out I was mostly right that there was indeed a weird miscount of the mainline denominations in McLennan County. In the edited changes that are reported in this document nine counties had the wrong figures, and two were in Texas. McLennan County seems to have the largest range of denominations that fit the 236 religious bodies that reported numbers to ASARB. But the miscount affected one religious tradition, and sure enough, it was Mainline Protestantism, specifically the United Methodist Church. If the original report was 109,901 in the Mainline and the figure drops to 22,333, and the only figure that changes is the United Methodists, there was a miscount of 87,568 of Mainliners or United Methodists in this county. So all of a sudden it becomes clear that the Mainline is way smaller than their Evangelical counterparts, as you can see in this screenshot below.

Screenshot taken 8/3/12 from ARDA

However, the Evangelical Protestant number doesn’t change. Where did these 87,000 adherents go? They fall into a category called “unclaimed.” Unclaimed refers to adherents that did not belong to the 236 religious bodies that are recorded by ASARB in a given county.  This could mean for example that there are a lot of independent churches in Waco that have no major denomination and are reasonably small that they don’t bother keeping count nor are all that helpful to those that want to know. In the specific case of the largest historically African-American denominations, they have also not divulged their numbers. So “unclaimed’ could refer to this combination of groups that didn’t respond to ASARB.

So does this mean McLennan County is the most evangelical county? Can’t quite tell, but it’s certainly not the most Mainline.


Faith and the Duty Work of Fathering

When I teach sociology I usually think about daily life examples to stress the value of concepts in sociology, and it’s one of the reasons I enjoy blogging here, to test these examples and connect them to concepts. One of the big draws to sociology for me was the importance that good concepts can have in rethinking how our daily lives function. This is actually a key matter when we think about religion. Religion as a way to view reality, a worldview, changes the way we think about how we live life. As many a religious leader has noted, religious people make real decisions that radically alter the way their lives run. We’re invited to reconsider our priorities in life and how they mesh (or fail to mesh) with our lived reality. In the world of evangelicals they use phrases like “walk like you talk” or “having a consistent witness.”

Sociologist Mark Chaves noted however that this is a bad assumption to start with regarding the personal lives of religious people. We’re highly inconsistent or “incongruous” when it comes to what we believe and what we do. At its worst it’s popularly defined as hypocrisy and at best it’s being a “goody-goody” at some things but not others.  [Read more…]

The Top 11 from ’11: Religion Research Studies in Sociology

The new year is always a time for lists, all kinds of lists. So I decided to try a new list, and one that hopefully helps readers learn what sociology profs do with all these charts, graphs and theories when they don’t teach it or blog on it. I’m teaching a graduate seminar class on how to publish in sociology, a kind of reverse engineering of the basic “product” that academic sociologists are known for: the research article. To that end, and since it’s the beginning of the new year, I thought this might be a useful experiment to review how religion shows up in the top research journals in sociology.

Like any job that has products attached with it, some are better than others and this inevitably means there’s a ranking. Scientists of all stripes rely on auxiliary and neutral organizations like ISI Web of Knowledge (which is part of Thomson Reuters) to create databases that list the research journals where scholars get their work published. But what’s more these lists include formulas to determine which journals are “better” than others. One way to measure quality is by “impact” or the degree of influence that a journal has on other journals. Basically if more papers in journal A are cited in the references of journals B, C, and D, then that journal is said to have a greater impact. And therefore if you get published in a journal with a higher impact score, you and your research supposedly gained more visibility and consequently more prestige. You can see what the “Impact Factor” rankings look like in the Social Sciences Edition of the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) [access might be limited if you’re not linked with a university library]

That said, I selected only the sociology journals and the JCR gives me 132 journals (that’s actually not a lot compared to other sciences but regardless, we read a lot of research papers). When we look at them by impact factor we get this list of “top 19” journals (as of January 2012): [Read more…]