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How Well Do American Christians Know Christianity?

By Lee Duigon
November 09, 2010

During the reign of Josiah, King of Judah, the Lord's Temple in Jerusalem was renovated after a long period of neglect. As the repair and cleanup work proceeded, a priest discovered something.

Hilkiah the priest found a book of the law of the LORD given by Moses ... And Shaphan carried the book to the king ... saying, Hilkiah the priest hath given me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king.
And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the law, that he rent his clothes ... saying,
Go, enquire of the LORD for me, and for them that are left in Israel and Judah, concerning the words of the book that is found: for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out upon us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do after all that is written in this book (2 Chron. 34:14b-21).

The Holy Scriptures had been left on the shelf and forgotten, and the young king was appalled.

The church in America has not yet reached that point-not yet-but according to a new report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, we may be on our way.

The Survey

"On average," Pew reports, "Americans correctly answered 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey ... Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7."1

"On questions about Christianity-including a battery of questions about the Bible-Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge."2

"Previous surveys ... have shown that America is among the most religious of the world's developed nations," says the report. "Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults say that religion is ‘very important' in their lives, and roughly four-in-ten say they attend worship services at least once a week. But the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions-including their own ...[emphasis added]

"More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation."3

The Questions

The survey also showed that Americans don't seem very well-informed about other religions; but our concern is with how much America's Christians know about Christianity.

The Pew Forum admits that the survey did "not necessarily" reflect "the most important things to know ... Nor was it meant to test trivia ... The questions included in the survey were intended to be representative of a body of knowledge about religion: they were not meant to be a list of the most essential facts."4

So, what exactly were the questions asked of some 3,000 adult respondents? Some examples:

Name the first book of the Bible and the first four books of the New Testament. Where was Jesus born? Which teaches that salvation comes through faith alone-Protestantism, Catholicism, both, or neither? Who led the exodus from Egypt? Who inspired the Protestant Reformation? And so on-with most of the questions being multiple choice.

This is hardly a theology exam. The casual reader, if he visits the Pew Forum web page, can take a 15-question online quiz. My wife and I took the quiz, both of us scoring 100%. Although we thought the questions rather easy, Pew claims less than 1% of those who took it scored 100.

Nowhere did Pew set the bar very high. For instance: "Many Americans are devoted readers of Scripture. More than a third (37%) say they read the Bible or other Holy Scriptures at least once a week."5

Dipping into the Bible once a week is "devoted"? Sports fans check the box scores every day. We visit our favorite websites every day. If we were equally devoted to the Bible, we would read it every day. But Pew didn't ask if anyone read the Bible daily.

Pew did ask:

*"Do you believe in God or a universal spirit, or not?" (#26)
*"How certain are you about this belief?" (#27)
*"The Bible is (choose one) the word of God / a book written by men and not the word of God." (#28)
*"And would you say that (choose one) it is to be taken literally / not everything in the Bible should be taken literally?" (#29) [The entire body of 65 questions, plus survey methodology and other information, is available on a PDF file made accessible on the Pew Forum website.]

How did people answer those questions? We are not told. Nor are we told what percentage of the respondents believed or did not believe in evolution. In any event, we are left with the image of a churchful of Christians, only half of whom can name the four Gospels.

The Source of the Problem

"The flames of destruction are licking at their world, and the walls of discipline, which are the mainstay of civilization, are crashing down around them, and they are busy straightening pictures on a burning wall. One minister spent a morning recently preaching against the rise of ‘gosh' and ‘darn.' Another spent the evening hour preaching against the miniskirt and dress.

"Is this what men are called by God to do? Is this the gospel, or the great commission given to all Christians? Are we to preach on trifles, or do we truly have a great commission?"6

Yes, the problem is in the church-more specifically, with the preaching and teaching in the church. And since Rushdoony wrote those words in a California Farmer essay sometime prior to 1991, the situation has gone from bad to worse.

Tibetan prayer chants, goddess worship and "feminist theology," same-sex "marriages" or "commitment ceremonies," dance interludes, and so on and so forth, have all been seen in churches lately, in lieu of Bible-based preaching and instruction. At this year's Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly, some of the "worship services" were indistinguishable from Mardi Gras: there is video available for those who need to see it before they can believe it.7 It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how anyone could learn anything at all about Christianity in such a church environment.

Time and again the Bible, especially in St. Paul's epistles, exhorts the church to focus on "the preaching of the cross" (1 Cor. 1:18): "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). And yet how many churches today feature sermons about politics, finances, "social justice," interpersonal relations, the pastor's own personal experiences, and his personal opinions on a variety of subjects-anything, indeed, but the preaching of the cross?

Any Christian, to be sure, can take it upon himself to know Christianity better. Anyone can read the Bible every day. (And everyone should!) Anyone on the internet can visit "Sermon Audio" (Sermonaudio.com) and numerous websites devoted to the exposition of the Christian faith (including our own, www.chalcedon.edu). A congregation's ignorance reflects poorly on the church-but also on the individual members of the congregation. Nevertheless, since the days of Moses and Aaron it was the church's God-given responsibility to instruct God's people: and by Josiah's time, the church had so far failed in its duty that no living man had read the Scriptures. Josiah led a revival movement, but by then it was already too late.

In the next generation, God's people-who no longer knew Him as their God-were led off into captivity by the pagan Babylonians, to rediscover God amid their tribulation.

1. "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey," Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, September 28, 2010, http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey," Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, September 28, 2010, http://pewforum.org/U-S-Religi...

5. "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey," see note 1.

6. R. J. Rushdoony, A Word in Season (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2010), 69-70.

7. See, for instance, "Liturgical Abuse: Puppets (WCCTA 2008)," May 14, 2008,


Topics: Biblical Law, Church, The, Old Testament History, Theology

Lee Duigon

Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.

Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.

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