The U.S. Census Bureau has not asked questions about religion since the 1950s, but the
federal government did gather some information about religion for about a century before
that. Starting in 1850, census takers began asking a few questions about religious organizations
as part of the decennial census that collected demographic and social statistics from the general
population as well as economic data from business establishments. Federal marshals and
assistant marshals, who acted as census takers until after the Civil War, collected information
from members of the clergy and other religious leaders on the number of houses of worship in
the U.S. and their respective denominations, seating capacities and property values. Although the
census takers did not interview individual worshipers or ask about the religious affiliations of the
general population, they did ask members of the clergy to identify their denomination – such as
Methodist, Roman Catholic or Old School Presbyterian. The 1850 census found that there were
18 principal denominations in the U.S.
The same basic questions on religious institutions were included in the 1860 and 1870 censuses. In
1880, census takers started collecting more in-depth information from religious leaders on topics
ranging from average worship attendance to church income, expenditures and debt. The scope
of inquiry about religion was expanded again in 1890, when census takers gathered information
about the number of ministers in each denomination. Classifications for the denominations also
were more detailed. The reported number of denominations in the 1890 census totaled 145,
most grouped into 18 families.
There were no other significant changes in data collection on religious bodies until 1902, when
the U.S. Census Bureau was established as a permanent government agency and census officials
decided to separate some data collection from the regular decennial census. This led to the
statutory creation of the Census of Religious Bodies, which began in 1906 as a stand-alone
census to be taken every 10 years.
The first Census of Religious Bodies, which was conducted through questionnaires mailed to
religious leaders, asked many of the same questions as the 1890 census did, plus added a few new
questions. It included, for example, questions on the year the congregations were established;
amount of congregational debt; language in which services were conducted; number of ministers
and their salaries; number of congregation-operated schools, teachers, scholars and officers; and
demographic characteristics of congregation members, such as gender. As in the past, census
collectors relied on denominational officers to supply the information.
“As its name implies, this is a census of the religious organizations in the United States rather
than of individuals classified according to their religious affiliation,” the Census Bureau explained
in its report on the 1906 Census of Religious Bodies. The 1906 Census of Religious Bodies
was the most thorough compilation of religious organizations to date. It reported a total of
186 denominations, most grouped into 27 families. One reason for the increased number of
denominations since 1890 was the influx of immigrants to America.
The Census of Religious Bodies was conducted every 10 years until 1946. The 1936 Census
of Religious Bodies was the last one published, however, because the U.S. Congress failed to
appropriate money either to tabulate or to publish the information collected in the 1946 census.
By 1956, Congress had discontinued the funding for this census altogether.
The unpublished results of the Census of Religious Bodies in 1946 and its ultimate demise in
1956 stemmed in part from a growing public debate over the propriety, merit and feasibility of the
Census Bureau asking questions about religion. During the 1950s, religious groups, civil liberty
groups, social scientists and even the Census Bureau’s own staff were sharply divided over
the issue. Those opposed to including questions on religion had concerns about the protection
of religious liberty and privacy rights, and whether the government was overstepping the
constitutional boundaries separating church and state. Those who favored including questions
on religion felt there was some value in learning about people’s religious affiliations in states
and localities, and that it could help religious leaders in planning for future building programs and
There was a concerted campaign by researchers, some leaders in the Catholic Church and Census
Bureau Director Robert W. Burgess, an economist and statistician, to include a “What is your
religion?” question in the 1960 Census of Population. But Burgess eventually decided against it
after receiving vocal opposition from some religious and civil liberties groups. “[A]t this time a
considerable number of persons would be reluctant to answer such a question in the [c]ensus
where a reply is mandatory,” Burgess stated in 1957 when he agreed not to include a question
on religion. “Under the circumstances, it was not believed that the value of the statistics based
on this question would be great enough to justify overriding such an attitude. Cost factors were
also a consideration.” Burgess said the decision did not preclude the inclusion of a question on
religion in a future census.
Neither Burgess’ decision nor the discontinuation of the Census of
Religious Bodies signaled
the complete end to data collection on religion by the Census Bureau,
however. In 1957, the
Census Bureau included a few questions on religious affiliation in its
Current Population Survey,
the nation’s primary source of information on America’s labor force.
This marked the first time that
individuals rather than religious leaders were asked about their
religious affiliation in a census.
Individuals’ religious affiliations were classified into major faith
traditions, other religions, no
religion and religion not reported. Because respondents were classified
by age, race, gender and
education, the Census Bureau was able to produce a set of tables
showing intermarriage, fertility,
employment, income, urban residence and education among various
religious faiths. Several reports from this data were originally
planned for publication, but the Census Bureau ultimately
released only a short pamphlet that included some of the information
from the cross-referenced
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Census Bureau again considered a number of requests from individuals
and organizations to include a question on religion in the regular decennial census. The Census
Bureau, however, decided the question would not be included in the 1970 census because it felt
the question would “infringe upon the traditional separation of church and state.”
By the mid-1970s, the issue arose again and was discussed at public meetings held in cities
around the nation about the Census Bureau’s plans. Proponents of including a question on religion
stressed the importance of religion in American life and noted that a question on religion was
included in the censuses of other countries, such as Canada and Australia.
However, the Census Bureau director at that time, Vincent P. Barabba, announced in April 1976
that a question on religion would not be included. “The decision not to add this question is based
essentially on the fact that asking such a question in the decennial census, in which replies
are mandatory, would appear to infringe upon the traditional separation of church and [s]tate,”
according to a 1976 press release drafted by the Census Bureau. “Regardless of whether this
perception is legally sound, controversy on this very sensitive issue could affect public cooperation
in the census and thus jeopardize the success of the census.”
Barabba’s decision was reinforced in October 1976 when Congress enacted a law containing a
number of amendments to the basic census law, including a prohibition against any mandatory
question concerning a person’s “religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.”
Since then, the Census Bureau has been allowed to ask questions about religious practices only
on a voluntary basis in some population and household surveys, but it has not opted to do so.
The only information the Census Bureau now collects and publishes about religion and religious
bodies is county-by-county economic data on places of worship and other establishments
operated by religious organizations. This information is included in an annual series on County
Business Patterns that reports on most of the nation’s economic activity. The Census Bureau also
publishes information about religious bodies and religious affiliation in the Statistical Abstract of
the United States, but this information is derived and reprinted from nongovernmental survey
organizations, such as the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches and The American
Religious Identification Survey, which are not related to the Census Bureau.
This essay was originally published in 2008 as an appendix to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and was written by Anne Farris Rosen for the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
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