Four in ten Americans observe Lent or have fasted

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: March 04, 2003

Millions of Americans are beginning an annual ritual of fasting and prayer on Ash Wednesday, which is the start of the somber 40-day season of Lent.

Forty-one percent of Americans report they have observed Lent by making changes in their personal lifestyles, according to a survey of 1,039 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University. Thirty-eight percent also said they have abstained from food for religious and spiritual reasons at least once in their lives.

"The church calls her members to fast to raise our prayers to a higher level," said the Rev. Edward Burns, executive director of the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Lent is a time for conversion. We fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and there are other days when we abstain from eating meat."

The poll found that 75 percent of Roman Catholics have observed Lent by making changes in how they live. Nearly half of Catholics have fasted at least once.

But the idea of abstaining from food as an act of spiritual cleansing is on the rise with Protestants in the United States, as well. The poll found slightly more than a third of Protestants have fasted at least once.

"Fasting is a tradition that had been forsaken by our churches for many years. It just was not talked about and many people perceived of it as a radical practice," said the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of the 13,000-member First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., and co-author of a best-selling book on fasting.

"But it has become more popular. I have fasted for a 40-day period four times in my life. It is a challenge. But fasting makes you aware of God's holiness, and it makes you more aware of your own sinfulness. Fasting with a spiritual goal is a proven Biblical principle," Floyd said.

The observance of Lent - the 40 days before Easter in which Christians symbolically repeat Jesus' self-denial when he went into the wilderness at the start of his ministry - is closely associated with Catholicism and some Protestants such as Lutherans and Episcopalians.

As a result, the practice of Lent varies with geography in the United States. Sixty percent of residents of Northeastern states have kept Lenten traditions, compared to less than half of Midwesterners and about a third of Southerners and residents of the West Coast. The Catholic population is concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest.

The practice of spiritual fasting is more evenly distributed throughout America, cutting across many racial, ethnic and social boundaries. Highly educated and wealthy Americans are about as likely to practice religious self-denial as are the economically disadvantaged.

People who report they have attended a church or synagogue recently are twice as likely to have fasted as are people who did not go to an organized worship service recently.

"There is a universal call in proclaiming the Gospel and in accepting the call of atonement and repentance. It is wonderful to hear that that call is being heard by so many others and that they are responding," Burns said.

Christians are somewhat behind the curve in their rate of fasting compared to other faiths. Although they represented a small portion of the survey, all of the Muslims and three-quarters of the Jews reported they have abstained from food for religious reasons. Most of the world's major religions practice fasting.

The survey also found that nearly a fifth of people with no religious preference have abstained from food.

"After all, fasting has a physical benefit, as well. It is a cleansing issue for the body," Floyd said.

The poll was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Jan. 17-30 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The poll has an overall 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey. The margin among Catholics, for example, is 6 percent.