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George Gallup Jr: The Pollster Saint [updated]

The pioneering opinion researcher remembered.

George Gallup Jr.'s family name was to opinion polls what iPod is to mp3 players. Gallup died this week at age 81, and merited obituaries in both theNew York Timesand theWall Street Journal. George Jr., as he was known professionally, was noted not only for his careful work in polling, but also for expanding and applying that methodology to the study of American religion. Former Christianity Today associate editor Timothy K. Jones collaborated with Gallup on two books:

The Saints Among UsandThe Next American Spirituality. Here he remembers the George Gallup he came to know.

We have updated this post with additional comments from D. Michael Lindsay and Ed Stetzer, as well as information on an upcoming memorial service at Princeton University, after the jump. –David Neff

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This week the world of trend watching and election forecasting lost a pioneer. For readers of newspapers and political blogs, he owned one of the most recognizable names in America. But there was more to him than the research firm that so captured the attention of pundits and politicians.

Through my years as a CT editor, I got to know the person behind the public opinion polling. I saw not only his fascination with cultural currents, but also his even deeper running love of the historic Christian faith.

I first met George Gallup, Jr., when I interviewed him for the magazine. A calendar milestone was approaching, and we knew he was a key person to consult on the coming decade, especially since he had been shifting some research focus to religion, having founded the Princeton Religion Research Project with sociologist and Catholic nun Miriam Murphy in 1977.

During the interview, I learned that he had just completed a research project on what Americans believed and the potential impact of that faith on how they behaved. He wanted to do more than chart the percentages of people who subscribed to certain doctrinal norms. He wondered how faith affected their actions: Did people who profess strong convictions about Christ and the Bible act more generously, for instance?

I eventually signed on as his cowriter for the book project that emerged. At one point we considered titling the book America's Hidden Saints, but we ended up calling it The Saints Among Us.

I wouldn't have guessed from George's manner that he had grown up in privileged circumstances. His father, George Gallup, Sr., founded the institution that made its name by predicting Franklin D. Roosevelt's lopsided victory over Alf Landon in 1936.

The son expanded on his father's efforts, and the Gallup organization created branches around the world. His base in Princeton, New Jersey, placed him at another spot on the cultural map. One of the times we conferred on a book project we met, at his invitation, at the Princeton Club of New York, a mid-Manhattan club (with squash courts and an inn and restaurant) for alums of the prestigious school. It breathed heady notes of affluence and achievement.

I was a bit awed during our first interview, and when I listened to the tape, I realized I ummed and aahed in getting out my questions more than I would have liked. But George was unfailingly gracious, just as he was when, later, I sent stressed and urgent faxes asking for the data I needed for the next batch of our writing. He never relented in his kindness. I have known few people more gentle and genuinely humble, all the more striking given his big-boned frame and square-jawed profile.

Gentle though he was, he was never shy about his Christian convictions. His faith was evangelical at the core, and he regularly attended an Episcopal congregation. He loved to speak at churches and Christian conferences, telling of heartening signs of a "groundswell" of spiritual interest in America. And he told me of how as a young man he thought for a while that he would be an Episcopal priest, even though he eventually returned, after a stint as a lay youth minister, to the family business.

I think of him today not so much as a household name, but rather as a man of quiet conviction who longed to live out his faith. I consider him, to echo the titles we considered for our book, a hidden saint. A saint among us.

Timothy Jones is senior associate rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and the director of St. George's Institute of Church and Cultural Life and its annual C3 Conference. He is the author of several books, including The Art of Prayer.

D. Michael Lindsay: Gave journalists empirical data on the rise of religion in political life

Sociologist D. Michael Lindsay also wrote two books with George Gallup Jr. : Surveying the Religious Landscape and The Gallup Guide: Reality Check for 21st-Century Churches.

Now president of Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, Lindsay is known for his sociological studies of leadership. But earlier in his career, he served as a consultant for religion and culture to the George H. Gallup International Institute, where he directed several national surveys.

Christianity Today's Sarah Bailey talked with Lindsay by telephone just before he boarded a plane the day before Thanksgiving.

"George was a tremendous mentor to me," said Lindsay. "I don't think I would be where I am if it weren't for George. He introduced me to ... my adviser at Princeton." He said the Gallups "were like second parents to us. He was an incredibly warm and generous guy."

Lindsay said George Jr. was "the most religious member of his family." His interest in studying religion "can be traced back to early conversations George had with his family around the kitchen table. He was a religion major at Princeton when that was not a popular major." In pre-Civil Rights days, Lindsay reported, Gallup went to an African American church in Texas.

George Gallup Jr. was "an early advocate... [of] shaping interest in religion in the national media, " Lindsay said. Gallup's organization "provided material that journalists were eager to use. Religion is an inherently fuzzy matter. He was able to provide empirical data to them, especially on the rise of religion in political life."

"George created the context in which religion and public life could be seen as a legitimate topic for the media and the academy," Lindsay said. "After Gallup gave more attention to that part of the business, … it percolated out in the mainstream media."

Lindsay argued that "the modern megachurch movement," with its sensitivity to the values and perceptions of the unchurched, "would not have taken place in the same way without Gallup's influence."

Campus Crusade for Christ's Bill Bright was also influenced by Gallup, Lindsay said. These movements "can be traced to looking closer to the ground at what people really believed," Lindsay said.

Ed Stetzer: Gave pastors a whole new toolbox of facts

Sarah Bailey was also able to interview Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, and a prolific blogger, speaker, and missiologist.

Stetzer called George Gallup Jr "the pioneer in religion research. … In a lot of ways, he created the field that others are [now] involved in." Gallup "set a standard," Stetzer said, "but I don't think everyone necessarily follows [that standard]." Gallup's team "brought the methods of quantitative research into the religion field" and used "widely accepted methodology."

"Gallup was everywhere," Stetzer said. "There was a widespread affirmation of his work."

Before Gallup brought quantitative research techniques to religion, "everybody would have [only] anecdotal information," Stetzer said. But Gallup's numbers gave pastors "credible evidence that a fact or trend existed."

"People could quote Gallup," said Stetzer. His was the "first widely used research in evangelical culture." Pastors used it as "a credible evidence that a fact or trend existed.," Stetzer told CT. "They used it to bolster their case when they could find information from Gallup."

Stetzer said that Gallup made it possible for him to do his work, by making polling "accessible and credible." "He not only responded to a need, but he also created the desire to have that kind of research," Stetzer said. "One of the reasons people quote Lifeway is because two decades ago, people said ‘this makes sense.'

"George Gallup gave pastors a whole new toolbox of facts," Stetzer concluded. "I wish many of the stats pastors would use were as credible as Gallup's."

Update on memorial service for George Gallup Jr. (h/t Robert Hill Durham via Facebook): The memorial service for Mr. Gallup will be at 11 A.M., Saturday, January 14, 2012 in Princeton University Chapel.

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