What Americans Believe

© Igor Stevanovic | 123rf.com

There is a new poll out on the state of American theology. The “2016 State of American Theology Study” was sponsored by Ligonier Ministries and completed by LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The poll looked at six doctrinal areas, asking about: God, goodness and sin, salvation and religious texts, heaven and hell, the church, and authority. And it seems that there were some surprising findings.

First, a little background information. Ligonier Ministries had previously commissioned LifeWay Research to do a 2014 poll, “The State of Theology.” Many of the questions in both polls seem to be word-for-word the same, but some questions were new to 2016 poll and some were reworded. Both polls were national, online panels, with 3,000 surveys each. The 2014 poll was completed between February 25th and March 5th of 2014, and the 2016 poll was completed between April 14th and April 20th of 2016. Both polls sought to use wording that would be understood by typical Americans. Both asked multiple questions on each topic. Each doctrine or heresy was stated as fact, with respondents then asked to indicate their level of agreement.

According to Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition, Ligonier Ministries will post articles that interpret the key findings of the 2016 poll, but I thought it would be interesting to compare the 2014 and 2016 polls and reflect on the similarities and the differences between them. One significant difference between the two polls was how “Evangelicals” were identified. In the 2014 poll, Evangelicals were self-declared or self-identified. In the 2016 poll to be an Evangelical, respondents had to strongly agree with the following four statements:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage nonChristians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

In conjunction with the organization, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), LifeWay research constructed the criteria for Evangelical belief from historian David Bebbington’s four primary characteristics evangelicalism. See the “What is an Evangelical?” page on the NAE website. The NAE said they believe these distinctives and theological convictions define evangelicals—“not political, social or cultural trends.” They note how many evangelicals rarely use the term to describe themselves. Rather, they focus on “the core convictions of a triune God, the Bible, faith, salvation, evangelism and discipleship.”

Self-declared evangelicals are largely a different species than those individuals who strongly agree with the above four statements. Self-identification creates a larger evangelical population, while strong agreement with the four statements of faith limits the number of evangelicals. Given the radically different ways in which the faith groups of evangelicals were identified, it would have been helpful for each poll to give the percentages of individuals who fit the criteria of “Evangelical.” They did not. So when looking at how “Evangelicals” responded in the two polls, this difference should be kept in mind.

With regard to certain beliefs about God, there were largely no changes among Americans. For the statement: “God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake”, 50% of the 2016 respondents strongly agreed and 16% agreed somewhat. 2014 Evangelicals strongly agreed with this statement; 97% of the 2016 evangelicals agreed. The 2016 figure seems to be a combination of strong agreement and somewhat agreement from the respondents.

For the statement: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit”, 53% of the 2016 respondents strongly agreed and 16% agreed somewhat; 50% of the 2014 respondents strongly agreed and 21% agreed somewhat. Unfortunately, the responses for evangelicals were again not consistently reported for the two polls. 2016 evangelicals were more likely to agree (97%)—again a combination of strong agreement and somewhat agreement. 2014 evangelicals were only noted to somewhat agree (14%) with the triune declaration of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The question on the bodily resurrection of Jesus has similar results. 45% of 2016 and 2014 respondents strongly agreed; and 23% of 2014 respondents somewhat agreed while 19% of 2016 respondents somewhat agreed. 2016 Evangelicals were more likely to agree (98%) than 2014 Evangelicals (76%). But the data for 2016 seems to again combine strong agreement and somewhat agreement, while 2014 Evangelicals are only reported for strong agreement.

The same frustrating difference in reporting on evangelical agreement existed with the question on the two natures of Jesus Christ—divine and human. Americans in 2014 and 2016 again had similar levels of agreement—62% of 2016 respondents agreed, while 60% of 2014 respondents agreed. Then 85% of 2016 Evangelicals agreed (the combination of strong and somewhat agreement), while 77% of 2014 Evangelicals strongly agreed.

Two statements unique to the 2016 poll had some interesting results. Reflecting the false dichotomy between science and faith, 18% of Americans strongly agreed that modern science discredits the claims of Christianity; 26% agreed somewhat. While 17% disagreed somewhat and 23% strongly disagreed, 16% were not sure. There were no significant differences compared to those with Evangelical beliefs.

A second statement assessed religious differences by stating: “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.” Forty-four percent of Americans strongly agreed; 20% agreed somewhat; 7% disagreed somewhat; 17% strongly disagreed; and 12% didn’t know. Americans with Evangelical beliefs were less likely to agree.

This failure to provide comparable results from the two polls for the sense of Evangelicals continued through the other doctrinal areas. So I’ll stop commenting on those differences. Perhaps as Ligonier Ministries posts other discussions of their 2016 poll results, the distinction between self-identified Evangelicals of the 2014 poll and the NAE defined Evangelicals of the 2016 poll will be more clearly looked at. Unless specified, the following discussion is about the 2016 poll’s findings.

With regard to beliefs about goodness and sin, salvation and religious texts, there were similar percentages of agreement. With regard to whether “everyone sins at least a little, but most people are good by nature,” 22% of respondents strongly agreed; 43% agreed somewhat; 15% disagreed somewhat; 13% strongly disagreed; and 6% weren’t sure. The same agreement occurred with a statement of whether people have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative. Most 2016 respondents strongly agreed this was possible (55%), while 24% agreed somewhat; 5% disagreed somewhat; 9% strongly disagreed and 7% weren’t sure. The wording for the 2014 statement was reversed, but the results were still similar.

Most people strongly disagreed that even the smallest sin deserved eternal damnation (62%), 11% strongly agreed and 8% agreed somewhat. Fifty-five percent of Americans thought their good deeds contributed to their earning a place in heaven. A bare majority of Americans agreed that salvation always began with God changing the person (53%), while 76% agreed the person must contribute their own effort for personal salvation.

With regard to the Bible, 44% of Americans agreed that Bible was not literally true, although it contained helpful accounts, like all sacred writings. Thirty percent strongly disagreed, while 15% disagreed somewhat and 11% weren’t sure. Yet 52% agreed the Bible alone was the written word of God; and 47% agreed it was accurate in all it teaches. Most Americans (51%) thought the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses. When a church does not preach from the Bible, 23% agree it should not be considered a Christian church.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans agree that humans exist to bring God glory and enjoy Him. With regard to sex outside of marriage, 49% agree it is sin; 16% disagree somewhat and 27% strongly disagree. Ninety-one percent of Americans with Evangelical beliefs agree sex outside of marriage is sin. Americans with Evangelical beliefs are more likely to agree that abortion is sin (87%), while 49% of Americans disagree that it is sin. A similar divide exists regarding whether or not the biblical condemnation of homosexual behavior applies today. Forty-two percent think it does not apply today, while 44% think it does apply.

Where to begin? Half of Americans deny the eternal existence of Jesus as the Son of God, and believe that He was “the first and greatest being created by God.” Yet 61% agree that Jesus is truly God and truly man, and 69% agree there is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, 56% of Americans agree that the Holy Spirit is a force but not a person; He is divine, but not equal to the Father and Jesus (28%). Further, many Americans (77%) believe they contribute to their salvation; that by their good deeds they partly contribute to earning their place in heaven (52%); and that while everyone sins a little, most people are good by nature (65%).

I wonder if the attempt by these polls to express theological truths in language understood by the typical American undermined their intent to “ascertain the state of theological awareness and belief” of Americans. For example, take these statements seen as Beliefs About Goodness and Sin. “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature” and “People have the ability to turn to God on their own initiative” probe a belief in original sin. If the person understood “nature” as having the sense of the personality of a “good-natured” person, or thought of their life experience when “turning to God” in a time of difficulty, they might agree with these statements. Such agreement would not necessarily reflect their theological understanding of original sin, or their belief (or lack of belief) in original sin.

There is clearly a low level of theological sophistication among Americans. More Americans—especially those who see themselves as “Evangelical”—need a greater understanding of what is contained in the historic creeds and catechisms. While 58% thought there was value in studying and reciting historical creeds or confessions, 26% thought there was little value in studying and reciting them. If Evangelical churches and individual believers were more aware of how creeds and confessions provided a theological common ground, a statement of “mere” Christianity (a nod to C.S. Lewis here), perhaps they would not have had such high percentages of individuals agreeing with heresies and disagreeing with classic Christian beliefs.