No Consensus on Census

No Consensus on Census

One thing has remained fixed about the U.S. Census: It has never included a question about religion. According to one scholar, that's not likely to change.

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The source: “Religion as Identity in Postwar America: The Last Serious Attempt to Put a Question on Religion in the United States Census” by Kevin M. Schultz, in The Journal of American History, Sept. ­2006.

In traditional histories of the 1950s, religion united Americans in a way of life that contrasted with that of their godless Soviet counterparts across the Cold War divide. Not so, writes historian Kevin M. Schultz, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. In 1956 and ’57, deep rifts among American Catholics, Protes­tants, and Jews became evident in a fierce debate sparked by something no less mun­dane than the U.S. Census. On a 1956 list of official considerations for the 1960 census, one question topped them all: Should the census for the first time gather data on religious ­affiliation?

Catholics came out in strong support. Knowing where their parish­ioners resided would enable them to better locate hospitals and parochial schools. Less overtly, many Catholics hoped that statistical proof of their numbers would enhance their political power. Protestants largely steered clear of the debate, realizing that the data would probably affect them ­little.

The Jewish community, however, raged in opposition. Publicly, Jewish leaders built their argument upon the great bedrock of constitutional ­law—­the separation of church and ­state—­while they ac­knowl­edged quietly that their opposition sprang from the concerns that such statistics could be misused. With the horrors of the Holocaust never too far from memory, Jews feared that correlating wealth and education with religion would feed latent ­anti-­Semitism in the American public. One com­men­tator wrote that such information “might become the entering wedge for the kind of secret government files . . . that were detested features of the Nazi and Fascist regimes.”

By late November 1957, Robert W. Burgess, director of the Bureau of the Census, realized that he could no longer let the debate fester; he risked stirring opposition to the entire census and losing re­spon­dents en masse. Upon the removal of the question from for­mal consideration, the American Jewish community proclaimed “a victory for religious liberty.” The success, due in no small part to a ­writing cam­paign aimed at congres­sional represen­tatives, demonstrated Jews’ influence in political life.

The Census Bureau had conducted two trial surveys of the religion question. The answers had been as expected. Two of every three people over age 14 regarded themselves as Protestant, one of four as Roman Catholic, and about three of 100 as Jewish. But the full report was never released. The Commerce Depart­ment, in consultation with the White House, said it was “not feasible” to release statistics of such nature. It was an enduring result: To this day, the census has never included a question about ­religion.

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