During the 1990s, pollster George Barna released many reports showing that Americans were growing less traditional on issues of sin, salvation and the scriptures.
Church leaders found his data disturbing. On many occasions they asked: Could anything reverse these trends? What would it take to inspire significant numbers of Americans to repent and return to their roots?
"I told people that I thought it was going to take something big, some kind of genuinely shocking event that would show that there is right and wrong and good and evil," said Barna. "I sincerely thought that if something like that happened, many people would turn to God and that we would see lives changed."
Apparently not, he said.
The Barna Research Group's latest data indicate that nearly half of the Americans polled say faith has played a vital role in helping them cope with the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. In poll after poll, Americans claim their interest in spirituality is rising.
But Barna said there is no evidence Sept. 11 that had any lasting impact on how ordinary people practice their faith or live their daily lives. Worship attendance quickly returned to normal -- 43 percent. Bible reading is par for the course -- 41 percent. It is especially interesting that the "unchurched," the percentage of Americans with few or no ties to organized religion, is precisely the same as before the attacks -- 33 percent.
Barna said it didn't help that 41 percent of churchgoers said their congregation did nothing at all during the past 12 months to address issues raised by the attacks. Only 16 percent said they had heard sermons or other teachings focusing on Sept. 11.
"It's clear that our churches did little to try to crack the spiritual complacency of the American public," said Barna.
Researchers at the Gallup Organization have been looking at similar numbers.
"People are talking about how they are more spiritual now," said Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup Poll. "But this just isn't showing up in any way that we can measure. Maybe they are more spiritual. Maybe that statement is true. But this new interest in spirituality is showing up in what people are feeling, not what they are doing."
The bottom line: ask Americans questions about how Sept. 11 affected their religious feelings and the poll numbers will soar. Ask them questions about specific religious beliefs and practices and the numbers will plateau or even decline. The emerging consensus seems to be that vague, comforting spirituality is healthy, but that doctrinal, authoritative religion may even be dangerous.
That may be a hard news story to report and write, but it is still a major story, according to Steven Waldman, editor and chief at Beliefnet.com. When probing the impact of Sept. 11 on religious life in America and abroad, it is fairly easy to note what did happen. Yes, Americans responded with character and compassion. American attitudes toward Islam have seemed to change on a daily basis. There has been shocking evidence of brutal anti-Semitism.
But Waldman believes the big news is "what didn't happen. The fact that people initially went to houses of worship -- and then stopped -- should be viewed as a huge story, not a non-event." The bottom line, he said, is that "Americans didn't view organized religion as much help. ... While the pews were emptying out, psychologists' offices were filling up."
And as the 12 months passed, Barna's staff kept asking a series of tough questions about right and wrong and about good and evil.
Barna was stunned to find that, soon after Sept. 11, the percentage of Americans affirming that they believe in "moral truths or principles" that are eternal and unchanging actually declined -- from 38 to 22 percent. Only 32 percent of born-again Christians still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.
"Those numbers have not risen" in recent months, said Barna. "Why is that? ... Perhaps many Americans have simply decided that it's just too much work to claim very specific and detailed beliefs and then to try to follow them in daily life. It's just too hard. It's too limiting on their behavior.
"I think most Americans want to keep their options open."