As you may have noticed — if you have taken a turn or two around the WWW in the past 20 hours or so (click here) — those amazingly productive people over at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have rolled out the second half of their lay-of-the-land study of religion in the United States.
I’ll kick off the GetReligion discussion of the coverage by looking at the national stories in the New York Times and USA Today. I would also urge you to head straight over to the Pew Forum site and check out the survey for yourself. We are very much at the stage where most — repeat, “most” — of the press reports are sticking to the Forum’s own talking points.
But first let me make three comments about the main headlines, which center on this question in the survey:
[IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, OR: many religions can lead to eternal life.
Question No. 1: What is a “religion”? What is a “faith”?
I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I’m a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ. There are others who might have a “dual covenant” view of Judaism, but not apply that belief to Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, etc.
Other Christians may believe that, somehow, all people will — in this life or the next — face some kind of spiritual decision about Jesus being “the way, the truth and the life.” But if you asked them if that means that only Christians will “be saved,” they will say that only God can know that. It is highly unlikely that they will say that the Bible is wrong or that centuries of Christian teaching are wrong. Yet it is unlikely that all of them — even Billy Graham — will be strictly dogmatic about what THEY know about eternity. How do they answer this Pew question?
In other words, there is a reason that the first two questions in the infamous “tmatt trio” are:
Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
Question No. 2: Is the American press now officially defining “tolerance” in doctrinal terms instead of in social or public terms? In other words, to be “tolerant” now, does one have to hold a certain doctrine of salvation? Do you have to be a “universalist” on that issue and believe that all religious paths lead to the top of the same eternal mountain?
What happened to the old definition — at the heart of American church-state separation — that citizens were supposed to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs and allow them full rights of free speech and association? In other words, is it now “tolerant” to be intolerant of people that you do not believe to be adequately tolerant on issues of salvation? There was a time, early in American history, when one of the main points of religious toleration was to provide freedom for people to proclaim their beliefs, even if that meant evangelism by, let’s say, Baptists in a state that was led by, let’s say, intolerant Anglicans (think Virginia). This point of view influenced the freethinkers of that day, including a deist or universalist like Thomas Jefferson.
Question No. 3: Has there been much actual change in the beliefs of the more committed 40 percent of the U.S. population that tends to practice its faith in a more strict manner? For a generation or two, the Gallup Poll numbers have consistently shown that about 40 percent of all Americans are frequent worshipers and people whose beliefs impact their daily lives in a strong way.
You can read the Pew Forum data and reach the conclusion there is a lot of change in the other 60 percent and perhaps some change in younger people in the 40 percent. But I am not sure that this survey shows that the vague, foggy faith of “Oprah America” has really cracked that much deeper into the beliefs of the people who are in the pews and on their knees week after week. I am sure there is change — James Davison Hunter has been seeing warning signs for decades — and I think the Pew Forum folks are sharp enough to find it and underline it. But I still want to know more about how the “true believers” are faring in this day and age. Has there been much change there?
So with that background, let’s turn to the lede in the Times:
Although a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them, nearly three-quarters of them say they believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The report, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, reveals a broad trend toward tolerance and an ability among many Americans to hold beliefs that might contradict the doctrines of their professed faiths. For example, 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including majorities among Protestants and Catholics. Among evangelical Christians, 57 percent agreed with the statement, and among Catholics, 79 percent did. Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did.
The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are, scholars who reviewed the survey said.
Several questions: How is that mush word “evangelical” defined? And, again, has a real tie between religious commitment and this new doctrinal toleration actually been demonstrated?
After all, a few lines later we read:
The survey confirms findings from previous studies that the most religiously and politically conservative Americans are those who attend worship services most frequently, and that for them, the battles against abortion and gay rights remain touchstone issues.
As past surveys have shown, this report found that Americans who prayed more frequently and attended worship services more often tended to be more conservative and “somewhat more Republican” than other people. Majorities of Mormons and evangelicals say they are conservative, compared with 37 percent of Americans over all. (Twenty percent say they are liberal, and 36 percent say moderate.)
This turns into politics so quickly, doesn’t it? I wish there was a survey that really went hard, in very detailed language, about the underlying doctrines.
Meanwhile, if you want a fuller survey of all the results — and the over-arching trends in the vague 60 to 70 percent of the population — turn to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s reporting in USA Today. Here is a key piece of her long story:
The survey finds U.S. adults believe overwhelmingly (92%) in God, and 58% say they pray at least once a day. But the study’s authors say there’s a “stunning” lack of alignment between people’s beliefs or practices and their professed faiths. …
Among the highlights:
* 78% overall say there are “absolute standards of right and wrong,” but only 29% rely on their religion to delineate these standards. The majority (52%) turn to “practical experience and common sense,” with 9% relying on philosophy and reason, and 5% on scientific information.
* 74% say “there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” but far fewer (59%) say there’s a “hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”
* 70%, including a majority of all major Christian and non-Christian religious groups except Mormons, say “many religions can lead to eternal life.”
* 68% say “there’s more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”
* 44% want to preserve their religion’s traditional beliefs and practices. But most Catholics (67%), Jews (65%), mainline Christians (56%) and Muslims (51%) say their religion should either “adjust to new circumstances” or “adopt modern beliefs and practices.”
Like I said, there are many, many, many more angles and stories to investigate. Tell us the best ones that you have seen in other media.