What American Christianity Looks Like: Theologically

This is a reputable source with reliable conclusions, so pastors and Christian leaders need to give this Economic Values Report  report a good solid read and keep it in mind. A sociologist friend gives this study a thumbs up for integrity:

On general theological orientation, we get this, though I’d like to see the specific questions asked to distinguish “moderate” from “liberal” or “conservative”. Regardless, a spectrum is evident:

Contrary to some reports, and I’m thinking of Jenkins on this, Hispanics are not as conservative as one might think. So this is theological orientation broken into ethnicities:

Then we come to what I think is one of the more pervasive shifts among young Christians in the USA (this graph does not specify age), a more liberalizing approach when it comes to economic beliefs:

Because people change over time, I don’t think this next chart carries the heft that some might think, but one needs also to know that theologically the younger generation almost certainly shows signs of being more theologically moderate or liberal than the previous generation. Hence, progressivism (believe in the government to get the job done) is growing:

So here’s in effect the big one: the growing progressivism sector in religious orientation:

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Christopher Erik

    So what’s the difference between “theological” and “religious?” According to the last chart, It seems like the “religious orientation” is conflated with ones political stripe.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, that seems an overall profile.

  • http://www.fivedills.com Greg Dill

    Interesting. It appears they only surveyed Christians and non-religious. I’d be curious if they had surveyed “other religions” if the conservative to liberal ratio would be more tilted. Most Muslims and Orthodox Jews are conservative. While Buddhists and Hindus tend to be more liberal. Atheists tend to be more liberal too.

  • Richard H

    I agree – knowing the questions they used to identify each category would be very helpful.

    From my own experience in a mainline denomination I’d figure that large numbers of people could be described as theologically apathetic. I wonder if that’s the same thing as “moderate” or “nonreligious.”

  • mark

    I dunno. I’m having trouble identifying with these labels.

  • Phil Miller

    The scale they’re using to differentiate between theological conservatism and progressiveness is this, from Apendix 2 in the pdf:

    The theological orientation scale was created using three measures: belief in personal vs. impersonal God, belief in literal vs. non-literal interpretation of the Bible, and a preservationist vs. adaptive view of religious tradition.

    That seems like something of an odd definition to me, especially the question of a personal versus impersonal God.

    The social orientation scale was based on two questions – views on abortion and same-sex marriage.

    As far the economic portion:

    The economic orientation scale was created using a composite of six different economic questions. Three measures included general orientations toward government, economic opportunity, and best approaches for economic growth. Three additional measures were included that captured American attitudes on specific economic policies: increasing the minimum wage, raising taxes on the wealthy, and repealing the 2010 health care reform act.

    So it seems to me that the definition of a theological conservative versus theological progressive may be a bit squishy. Also, the social aspect could be misleading. For example, I know quite a few people who are what you might call economically conservative but don’t care much about the issues of abortion or same-sex marriage. But I don’t know if it would be fair to call them socially liberal.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, I saw that and thought those issues were at work, but what are the questions? That’s what perhaps matters most. But my sociologist friend says this study is a good one; reliable, etc..

  • Dr. Ryan Lee

    Where are the data on Asian-American Christians? Get real, please.

  • scotmcknight

    Ryan, I’ve seen this more than once and I observed the same when I read the prose and looked at the graph. Do you think Asian is ignored or blended into the white?

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

    Interesting stuff here. I have one question, though. You say, “Hence, progressivism (believe in the government to get the job done) is growing.”

    As I’ve been getting involved more and more with self-identified “Christian progressives,” I am not sure this is a fair characterization of their political views. A lot of them, myself included, are for addressing systemic problems in the government, but there seems to be a simultaneous sort of grassroots push for reform within the church so that the church can actually do the job it is supposed to do.

    I know it was only one small statement and not a full characterization of the progressive movement, but perhaps you could clarify your meaning here.

    As for the statistics themselves, I wonder to what degree “theological liberal” means “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” It would be very good to see the questions, because church-going, very religious theological liberals could very easy get thrown in with the largely ignorant new age crowd. I don’t see categories able to distinguish these sorts of things.

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

    Just hazarding a guess here, but Asian-Americans have such different cultural backgrounds from the white/black/hispanic cultures that it would be very difficult to categorize them in the same way. Virtually all of them will have come out of an eastern religious tradition. Their answers would differ by comparison to the cultures of blacks/hispanics who have largely had their native cultures gradually overwritten by European culture for the last 300-400 years.

    TL;DR: their cultural background is so different that it might be harder to classify them the same way as everyone else.

  • A Stephens

    Thanks for posting, Scot. It’s important to note that while the report distinguishes between white Catholic, evangelical, and mainline groups it does not do the same for Hispanics. If the summary charts are any indication, then Hispanic Catholics seem to be in view, but that is not altogether clear. Your post might be tweaked to reflect this nuance.

  • Joe Kidd

    There are several asian countries that had a christian population even before england was introduced to christianity. And the US originated from there. So first recheck the assumptions or you may end in wrong conclusions.

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

    That may be so, but the theological assumptions coming even out of near Eastern Christianity are fairly far removed from those which developed in the West. I am only suggesting that it would be hard to characterize non-Western faith traditions in the same way, not that there is no Christianity outside the west. Notice the lack of Arabs, too, yet Arabs the first Christians.

  • Frederick William Schmidt

    Some thoughts on any version of Christianity that defines itself as the church of left OR right….

    http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Rise-Christian-Left-Frederick-Schmidt-07-26-2013.html

  • Kathleen Griffin

    A comment from a united statesean theologian in South America here: It is hard to imagine a sociologist trying to identify theological hermeneutics. Theology and ideology are not the same, even when it comes to the ideologies of various groupings of Christians in the United States. I find myself in the same kinds of difficulties as I try to understand South American Pentecostalisms. A sociological analysis is not the same as a theological analysis of religious movements or phenomena. Needless to say, the survey is blind to questions of gender….

  • Roger Perkins

    Did anyone think to survey psychological health, the evidence of which is unconditional love and a relative freedom from being controlling?


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