In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, many news reports claimed that stunned Americans were seeking solace in sanctuary pews and in private rites of faith.
But then the Gallup Poll came out, with its familiar question asking if people had recently attended worship services. The number who had, which has hovered between 38 percent and the low 40s for a generation or two, had risen to 47 percent -- a marginal increase. By mid-November, the Gallup number returned to 42 percent.
That 40-ish percent church-attendance estimate has long been an iconic number in American religion.
Thus, it's significant that a new Deseret News poll asked, "Which, if any, of the following activities do you usually do on a typical (Sabbath)?" and only 27 percent of the participants said they regularly attended worship services.
"Something is going on, and I think we see that in the 27 percent number," said Allison Pond, national editor for the Deseret News. "There appears to be a kind of consolidating going on among those who are loyal when it comes to practicing their faith. ... It appears that more people are losing a kind of appearance of religion, of any connection to what some used to call a Moral Majority. ...
"What we are seeing now is that the truly devoted really look different -- as a group -- when compared with other Americans."
The Deseret News poll, conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov, is part of its "The Ten Today" project exploring the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern American life. In this poll, the goal was to explore the implications of the familiar instruction, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
The study was built on questions to a panel of 1,500 participants, with an intentional over-sampling of Jews and Mormons -- resulting in a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. The Deseret News is operated by a division of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Some of results of this study, noted Pond, resembled the results of the famous 2012 Pew Research Center study documenting a rapid rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans. At that time, the so-called "Nones" were one-fifth of the American public and a third of adults under the age of 30.
Thus, this Deseret News study found that members of the millennial generation are less likely -- to the tune of 41 percent -- to believe that the Sabbath has a unique religious significance. Millennials were also much more likely to indicate that their jobs required them to work on the Sabbath.
Meanwhile, 51 percent of Generation X, 56 percent of baby boomers and 58 percent of older Americans affirmed a higher view of the Sabbath. In all, 50 percent of Americans said that the Sabbath retains religious significance, which the pollsters contrasted with a 74 percent result to a similar question in a 1978 Gallup Poll.
Broken down by religious tradition, 83 percent of Mormons, 79 percent of African-American Protestants and 69 percent of evangelicals said the Sabbath has retained a "religious or spiritual" meaning for them. Among Catholics, 58 percent agreed, along with 56 percent of those attending more liberal Protestant churches and 38 percent of American Jews. Only 16 percent of "Nones" affirmed that statement.
The high Mormon numbers could be linked to a determination among leaders to stress worship, prayer, the study of scripture and "family time" on Sundays. If anything, noted Pond, the church hierarchy has intensified these campaigns in the face of recent trends, seeking to preserve a "tight-knit" culture. It is also important, she said, that leaders of Mormon congregations are not ordained, which tends to produce dedicated webs of local leaders, starting at a young age.
"If you have a responsibility in that Sunday culture, then you simply need to be there," she said. "You're less likely to go shopping or to a sports event. You want to be there with your friends, doing your job."
If there was a surprise in the poll numbers, said Pond, it was that many Americans said they were actually spending less time with "family and friends" on Sundays.
"Americans keep saying that they want friends and community," she said, "but the whole 'bowling alone' phenomenon is out there and it's growing."
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)