What do American Christians believe about their religion?
When referring to Christians, politicians and the media are often focusing on one group — politicized evangelicals.
But, in truth, they are a small slice of the broad spectrum of American Christianity.
A new survey finds that American Christians’ beliefs are as diverse as the country they live in. From the traditional:
“Jesus Christ, we believe is God incarnate who came, died a death on a cross and then rose again on the third day,” listener Peter Green says.
To the surprising number of regular churchgoers who believe Jesus was a great teacher, but not divine.
“Whether or not in fact he is divine, and the son of God is actually, well, it’s a little irrelevant to me personally,” listener Jennifer Hudson says.
Today, On Point: The voices we don’t often hear in American Christianity.
Jua Robinson, co-founder and executive director of Boston Collaborative, an organization that connects workplace Christians to each other and the Boston community. Chaplain of the New England Patriots. (@juarobinson)
Scott McConnell, executive director at LifeWay Research.
Kelli Masters, director of children’s ministry at Wayne Presbyterian Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: For decades, when covering the views of American Christians, the media, including this show, have often focused on right wing Christianity, largely because of its significant political influence. Think of groups such as the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, just to name a small few.
And more recently, the rise of Christian nationalist extremism cannot be denied, especially after the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
SCOTT McCONNELL: A growing movement led by right wing politicians is increasingly challenging a centuries old value of America’s political system, the separation of church and state.
During the January 6th attack on the Capitol, there were Trump banners and confederate flags, the Gadsden flags. There’s also Christian imagery. The wooden cross, people in prayer, the “Jesus saves” slogan.
CHAKRABARTI: And while these groups dominate media coverage of Christianity, and for good reason, they also represent only a fraction of the more than 60% of Americans who identify themselves as followers of the Christian faith.
And American Christians overall have a spectrum of belief as broad and diverse. As the country they live. In fact, many American Christians profess beliefs that their more conservative fellow churchgoers find outright heretical. We have a biblically heretical statement that says the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths, but it is not literally true.
McCONNELL: So essentially that statement saying the Bible is fiction, but it might be helpful. And that percentage has slowly grown and it’s now 53%.
CHAKRABARTI: This is Scott McConnell, executive director at the Nashville, Tennessee based LifeWay Research. It’s an arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing group of the Southern Baptist Convention.
And every two years, LifeWay conducts a fascinating survey of American Christian belief. They’ve been doing the survey since 2014. And McConnell says the 2022 survey has some surprising findings.
McCONNELL: One of those is the statement. Worshipping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church, that the percentage of Americans who agree is now two thirds.
It’s 66%. Whereas the last time we asked it in early 2020, just as COVID was hitting, was 58%. And so we see that Americans, including churchgoers are saying, attending church in person, more of them are saying that’s optional.
CHAKRABARTI: The most interesting set of findings in the LifeWay survey takes a look at the views of people who still are regular churchgoers.
And LifeWay found that more than two thirds of regular American churchgoers believe that God accepts the worship of all religions. 45% believe that religious belief is a matter of personal opinion rather than objective facts. And almost half replied that they view Jesus as a great teacher, but not as God incarnate.
And even among American evangelicals, specifically, more than 40% said they do not believe Jesus is God. Now, for LifeWay executive director Scott McConnell, some of these findings are a cause for concern. Recall that this is a research group of the Southern Baptist Convention. So McConnell says that part of the reason why they try to understand America’s state of theology is so that those who teach theology can better reach their audiences.
McCONNELL: It’s helpful for church leaders to understand, within their own congregations, which biblical teachings people are slower to accept. And also, which teachings people in their community may already accept and so they could start a conversation with a shared belief and then share more of the story that’s found in the Bible.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, thanks to the First Amendment, Americans can believe basically whatever they want in their religious lives. But from the organization’s point of view, there are right and wrong answers to the questions posed by the survey about, say, whether or not Jesus is God or that the Bible is myth.
And McConnell wishes that would be true among a broader swath of Americans, even though it is not.
McCONNELL: A typical church leader or pastor would read through these questions, and I think they would sort them the same. There could be a couple questions that they’d say, “That’s a debatable item.” That there’s something in the wording that some Christian teachers may teach one direction and others another.
But that would probably be only a couple out of all these questions we’ve asked. They would sort them very similarly based on a Protestant reading of the Bible.
CHAKRABARTI: But again, LifeWay’s own survey reveals that there is no such thing as one reading of the Bible or one view held by American Christians. In fact, when we asked On Point listeners: If you are a regular churchgoer, what do you believe? We got many diverse answers.
The core tenets come down to really three questions. Who is God, who is man, and who is this one Jesus Christ, who we believe is God incarnate, who came, lived a perfect life, died a death on a cross, and then rose again on the third day.
Whether or not, in fact, he is divine, and the son of God is actually it’s a little irrelevant to me personally, because his example of what we all should be aspiring to be is a miracle in itself.
Like most of our Christian friends, we stopped attending church around 2018. It just became too political. I’m not surprised there’s been a huge drop in church attendance in those who belong to a denomination. What sane Christian wants to be lumped in with non-stop mean-spirited Christianity that has been in the news the last four years.
CHAKRABARTI: Those are some On Point listeners sharing their thoughts about their faith.
Now, of course, you might be saying, “No duh, Meghna. There are a lot of different views within American Christianity.” But the question we’re asking today is, as the media continues to focus on the most vocal and politically active right wing of American Christianity, what are we also missing when we don’t talk about that broader swath of American belief?
So joining us now is Jonathan Tran. He’s Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology and Chair of Religion at Baylor University and he joins us from Waco, Texas. Professor Tran, welcome to On Point.
JONATHAN TRAN: Thank you for having me on.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, I acknowledged at the beginning that this State of Theology Survey is done by Lifeway Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
What’s your take overall about this survey and what it has found about American Christianity?
TRAN: I think the survey is helpful for studying, say, certain baseline realities. You study X in 2020, you check the results in 2022. It shows a growth or decline according to X. I think the researchers probably extrapolate a little bit more from it than that, than it allows. Then you begin to get the feeling that the books are somewhat cooked on the survey. That is, it’s asking for some very specific sets of criteria and then it draws too many implications from it.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So take me through then in more detail, like some of your concerns. First of all, I know that even just some of the questions you thought were not worded in the best way.
TRAN: Yeah, so take, for example, the question of Christ’s divinity. So it suggests that all Christians should believe this or that about Christ’s divinity, and it measures or tests respondents according to that, and then draws large conclusions about the Christian public accordingly. But the status of the question of Christ’s divinity, of course, is a hugely debated one.
It took about 700 years for the church to decide what it meant. So there’s that question. And then how you interpret people’s responses to it, of course, matter. So in some communities, saying Christ divinity or claiming Christ divinity looks like X, but in another community, it could very well look like Y, right?
So as well, you can look at other parts of the survey. It asks, for example, for certain lines in the sand, it draws very important, it puts a lot of significance on questions of, say, abortion or same sex marriage, whereas a lot of Christian communities, those would be important, but they wouldn’t be the all-important questions.
So by putting a lot of weight on those questions and making conclusions about how people decide about those questions, that’s what I mean by it’s somewhat, the books are already cooked on the survey.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. The sort of intent of the survey is clear based on where they’re focusing. Now, also. I know, I broadly use this phrase American Christianity throughout that whole introduction. But we should note, and you pointed this out to us, that what LifeWay Research defines as Christianity is actually more narrow than Christendom itself.
TRAN: Yeah, both in the American context. There’s a lot of different types of Christianity. So you can imagine some Christianites in America are going to have different lines in the sand. So in the way that this one talked about questions of abortion or same sex marriage, you can imagine other communities talking a lot about immigration or racial justice.
So it’s narrow both in the American context, though certainly representative of a broad swath of Christianity, but it’s also narrow in the non-American context. We have to remember that most Christians in the world don’t exist in America, and by far the fastest growing elements of Christianity are not American, and of course the vast swath of Christian history takes place outside of America.
CHAKRABARTI: So tell me more though about, it seems like you read the LifeWay survey as defining American Christianity as basically Protestant Evangelical Christianity, which is a subset of a subset, even in this country.
TRAN: Protestant Evangelical Southern Baptist inflected, which of course has certain racial, social, economic, gendered realities.
And so if you look at other types of Protestant Christianity, even in thinking about the survey, for example, I thought about Lawndale Christian Community Church in Chicago, Redeemer Community Church in San Francisco, even my church here in Waco, Texas, Mosaic, all these are Protestant Evangelical churches, just like the ones at the point of the survey, but they look very different than the ones examined in the survey.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I really appreciate you pointing out what you find as the weaknesses in the LifeWay survey. Because we should be this rigorous for any set of polls or surveys we put on this show. So I am grateful, Professor Tran, for that. And so even with those concerns in mind, and we’re, in a sense, they get us to this broader question of how diverse American Christianity actually is, which we will be continuing to explore for the remainder of this hour.
We’ve just got a couple of seconds left, so I’m going to set up a quick question for you. I’ll let you answer on the other side of the break. I’m curious to hear, in a moment, what you think about some of their findings. Even with your concerns in mind, for example, some of the changes in belief for American evangelicals and their view of whether or not Jesus is divine.
So I’ll have you answer that, Professor Tran, when we come back in just a moment. This is On Point.
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