Love & Thanks
Steve St. Clair
Religious Beliefs Vary Widely By Denomination
June 25, 2001
In the land of tolerance and diversity, it turns out that there is very considerable diversity within the Christian community regarding core beliefs. A study of more than 6000 randomly-sampled adults by the Barna Research Group provides some surprising – and, in some ways, shocking – insights into the views of laity in various denominations.
Nationally, in terms of religious classification, about four out of every ten U.S. adults are born again Christians and 8% are evangelicals (which is a subset of the born again segment). In terms of denominational affiliation, one-quarter of Americans are Catholic and a majority (three out of every five) are aligned with a Protestant church. Within that general framework, though, lies some fascinating distinctions.
The Born Again Constituency
Among the 12 largest denominational groupings in the country, the number of individuals who can be classified as born again – not based upon self-report but upon their beliefs about life after death – ranges from a high of 81% among the Assemblies of God to a low of 25% among Catholics. There was a clear-cut pattern within the data: adults who attend charismatic and non-denominational (Protestant) churches emerged at the top of the continuum, while those attending Catholic or mainline churches ranked at the bottom. The types of churches that have the highest percentages of born again believers, after the Assemblies of God, were other Pentecostal churches (80%), non-denominational Protestant churches (76%), and Baptist churches (67%).
One of the most startling revelations is that the percentage of Mormons who have born again beliefs is higher than the percentage of born again believers within either the Episcopal or Catholic churches. In total, 34% of the adults who attend a Mormon church say they have made a personal commitment to Christ that is important in their life today and also say that when they die they know they will go to Heaven solely because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. In contrast, the same perspective is held by just 30% in the Episcopal church and 25% within Catholic parishes.
George Barna, president of the research firm that conducted the research, noted,
“It is important to remember that we are not reporting the official teachings of these churches. The data reflect what the people within those churches believe. If nothing else, this outcome highlights the substantial theological shift that has been altering the nature of the Episcopal church, in particular, as well as other Christian churches, in recent years.”
Within the two largest mainline churches, slightly less than half of their adherents were born again. Forty nine percent of those who attend Methodist churches fit the born again classification, as did 48% of those aligned with a Lutheran church.
The study also showed that during the last five years there has been substantial growth in the percentage of born again adults in four of the twelve groups examined: Mormons (a 26% increase), Presbyterians (+26%), Protestant non-denominationals (+12%) and Methodists (+11%). The percentage of born again adults remained relatively unchanged in the other eight denominations.
Belief by Belief
Besides people’s views about their own ultimate eternal destiny the study also evaluated people’s opinions related to eight faith-related perspectives. A similar pattern emerged, showing that individuals associated with charismatic or non-denominational congregations were more likely than adults from other types of churches to possess biblical views on each item.
Given the statement “the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches,” strong agreement with that view ranged from four out of five among those who attend a charismatic or Pentecostal church down to just one out of five Episcopalians. Nationally, less than half of all adults (41%) believe the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches.
Most Americans do not accept evangelism as a personal responsibility: only one-third (32%) claim they have an obligation to share their religious faith with those who believe differently. Acceptance of that responsibility was most widely adopted by those who attend Pentecostal churches (73%) and least widely accepted among Episcopalians (12%) and Catholics (17%).
The notion that Satan, or the devil, is a real being who can influence people’s lives is regarded as hogwash by most Americans. Only one-quarter (27%) strongly believes that Satan is real while a majority argues that he is merely a symbol of evil. Mormons are the group most likely to accept the reality of Satan’s existence (59%) while Catholics, Episcopalians and Methodists are the least likely (just one-fifth).
There is a huge gap across denominations in relation to what their adherents believe about eternal salvation. Just three out of every ten Americans embrace the traditional Protestant perspective that good works cannot earn a person salvation, but that salvation is a gift of God through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. People attending Pentecostal, Assemblies of God and Protestant non-denominational churches are most likely to share this view (about six out of ten do so) while Catholics are least likely (9%).
One of the most remarkable insights into America’s faith is the fact that less than half of all adults (40%) are convinced that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life during His three decades on earth. Following the established pattern, the people most likely to describe Jesus’ life as sinless were those who attend Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churches, as well as Mormons, while those least likely to view Jesus as sinless attend Episcopal, Catholic and Lutheran churches.
Seven out of ten Americans perceive God to be “the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who still rules the world today.” This view received near universal adoption among Assemblies attenders (96%), but was accepted by a much smaller majority of Episcopalians (59%).
When individuals were asked to estimate their level of commitment to Christianity, those who were most likely to say they are “absolutely committed” were associated with Pentecostal, Assemblies of God and Protestant non-denominational churches, representing about two-thirds of the participants of those churches. The lowest levels of commitment were shown among those affiliated with Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches.
People’s Beliefs Vary by Denomination
When seven theological perspectives are combined to determine the overall purity of people’s biblical perspectives, the ranking of the twelve denominations shows three groups far outpacing the rest of the pack, with two far below all others. At the top of the list were people who attend Pentecostal churches (who had a firm biblical view on the seven items 72% of the time), Assemblies of God (72%), and non-denominational Protestant (65%) churches. The next echelon included people who attend Baptist (57% accuracy) and Church of Christ (54%) churches (followed by) Mormon (49%) Adventist (48%), Presbyterian (43%), Methodist (38%), and Lutheran (37%) churches. Lowest on the continuum were people affiliated with Catholic (28%) and Episcopal (28%) churches.
Evangelicals Are Scarce
All Barna Research studies define “evangelicals” as individuals who meet the born again criteria; say their faith is very important in their life today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; acknowledge the existence of Satan; contend that eternal salvation is possible only through God’s grace, not through good deeds; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. In this approach, being classified as an evangelical has no relationship to church affiliation or attendance, nor does it rely upon people describing themselves as “evangelical.”
This classification model indicates that only 8% of adults are evangelicals. Barna Research data show that 12% of adults were evangelicals a decade ago, but the number has dropped by a third as Americans continue to reshape their theological views.
Not surprisingly, there were only three denominations that had at least one-quarter of their adherents qualify as evangelicals: the Assemblies of God (33%), non-denominational Protestant (29%), and Pentecostal (27%) churches. One out of every seven Baptists (14%) met the evangelical classification. An unexpectedly high proportion of people associated with the Churches of Christ – 12% – fit this standard. (Barna explained that this was because a majority of the category was comprised of individuals associated with congregations not part of the United Church of Christ cluster, which tends to have very liberal interpretations of Scripture.) Churches that have the lowest proportion of adherents meeting the evangelical criteria were the Catholic, Episcopal, and Mormon churches, each of which has just 1% of its people in this category.
The Protestant-Catholic Gap
The theological differences between Protestant and Catholic laity are pronounced on many issues, but the gap appears to be closing in some areas. Looking at the seven core theological perspectives tested in the research, the difference between Catholics and those attending the largest of the mainline churches (i.e., Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal) is negligible on most of the seven views. The gaps that are the most noteworthy pertain to views on salvation. Catholics remain much more likely to see good deeds as necessary to attain eternal salvation, but even so, a majority of mainline adherents do not rely solely upon God’s grace for their salvation.
The study noted that Catholics comprise about one out of every seven born again Christians in the nation (13%). In contrast, Baptists represent twice as many of the born again believers living in the U.S. (28%) while attenders of mainline congregations constitute about one out of every five born again adults. Ironically, the denominations that contribute the greatest number of born again adults are the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist churches, noted for their mutual theological antagonism.
Insights Into Belief Patterns
Barna commented that the survey challenges some widely held assumptions. “Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are often characterized as attracting people who respond on the basis of emotions but who lack strong biblical training. This survey did not go deeply into people’s theological knowledge, but even in examining some very basic biblical concepts the study shows that the common wisdom about the Bible knowledge and convictions of charismatics is inaccurate. In fact, there is interesting correlation between the educational achievement and theological interpretation. Overall, charismatics have lower levels of education but higher levels of biblical accuracy, while individuals attending mainline churches are generally better educated but are more likely to have theological perspectives that conflict with the Bible.”
The researcher also expressed concerns about the overall pattern in beliefs. “The Christian body in America is immersed in a crisis of biblical illiteracy. How else can you describe matters when most church-going adults reject the accuracy of the Bible, reject the existence of Satan, claim that Jesus sinned, see no need to evangelize, believe that good works are one of the keys to persuading God to forgive their sins, and describe their commitment to Christianity as moderate or even less firm? The Episcopal church certainly stands out as one that is struggling to find its theological identity and equilibrium, but millions of individuals who attend other Protestant churches are going through similar substantive redefinition.”
Barna also predicted that many church leaders would take exception with the data about the biblical beliefs and born again nature of Mormons. “Keep in mind that this research is neither a commendation nor a condemnation of any given church, but merely a reflection of what the people attending various churches believe. Millions of Mormons attended Protestant and Catholic churches for years, and appear to have taken their prior theological training along with them. Likewise, recent theological battles over scriptural interpretations regarding homosexuality, women in leadership, divorce, and euthanasia have encouraged more people to ignore the teachings of their church in favor of customized theological views. In many ways, we are living in an age of theological anarchy.”
The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 6038 adults conducted from January 2000 through June 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.
“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
_uacct = “UA-2396761-1”;