What with a “gay” bishop offering up prayers to a hitherto unheard-of “God of many understandings” as part of an “interfaith service” to usher in the new president and vice president of the United States (both of them being in attendance), anyone might well ask, “What do Americans really believe?”
The Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion has tried to answer that question and reported its findings in this nice, clean, readable book. Rodney Stark and his co-authors explain that they have only just begun their work, so this book must be seen as only the first step toward an answer.
It would be good to have an answer. How can we know what to teach, unless we know what the people haven’t learned? Have they embraced any false teachings that must be weeded out?
Meanwhile, men like Christian pollster and researcher George Barna are reporting that “Christianity Is No Longer America’s Default Faith.”i Is this true? Or does the Baylor team’s report refute it?
The Conventional Wisdom
Despite incessant and sometimes heated public discussion of it, says Stark, the role of religion in American life has been very poorly studied. Between their book and a study of American Piety in 1963–64, say the authors, lies a gap of 40 years. The Baylor team began its studies in 2005.
They quickly discovered that alarmist predictions of the decline of religion in America, going back to the 1940s and earlier, were wrong. Denominations did not fade away as predicted (p. 3); no “demythologizing trend” rewrote Christianity as expected (p. 4); Americans raised in “irreligious homes” went on to join churches later in life (p. 7); and there was no decline in overall church attendance (p. 9).
George Barna reported in 2006 that “young people” were leaving the churches; but Baylor researchers found that young people have always been less likely to attend church than their elders, “in every national survey … ever done” (p. 10). Furthermore, they found America’s rate of church membership rising every year “for more than 200 years”—from 17% in 1776 to 69% in 2005 (p. 11).
So the conventional wisdom about religion in America, we are warned, is wrong. The media, the pundits, and the sociologists have all been wrong.
That, at least, is good news.
Hooray for Denominations
Far from being a handicap, the plethora of denominations in America has helped the church to flourish, Stark and his colleagues say. “American churches must recruit or perish” (p. 20)—unlike in Europe, where state-sponsored churches, without the benefit of healthy competition, wither on the vine.
But not all American denominations are flourishing. “[T]he liberals are declining so rapidly that their continued existence may be in question, while the conservative bodies are growing at a breakneck pace” (p. 21). The authors provide plenty of facts and figures to support this. In terms of church members per 1,000 persons in the U.S. population, from 1960 to 2000, liberal Protestant denominations have lost roughly half their membership, while the conservative denominations have increased their membership by 158% (Table 9, p. 22).
There are 80 charts and tables in this book, all of them explained reasonably well by the text. We will not go into all the information here.
What Are We Learning in Our Churches?
The heart of the matter is in the first few chapters.
We find no reason to doubt Baylor’s facts and figures, but we wonder how to interpret them. The book does a splendid job of showing that media and academic reports of Christianity’s demise are exaggerated, but a key question has been left unasked, unanswered.
If American Christianity is not declining numerically, is it changing doctrinally in ways that will eventually turn it into something else—without changing its name?
In his 2005 book, Revolution, George Barna argues that being a Christian and belonging to a church ought to result in a person whose attitudes, thoughts, and lifestyle are very different from a nonbeliever’s. But his research convinces him it hasn’t.ii Church-going Christians, he claims, are just as likely as non-Christians to watch Desperate Housewives or Sex in the City, illegally download rap music, look at pornography on the internet, or get divorced. So, he concludes, “local churches have virtually no influence on our culture.”iii
Doctrinally, Barna says, American Christians are picking and choosing what to believe. He finds sizeable numbers of Christians embracing decidedly unorthodox positions: Satan does not exist; Jesus Christ sinned while He was on earth; there is no responsibility to share one’s Christian faith with others; and the Bible is not necessarily accurate in all the principles it teaches.iv They even embrace contradictory beliefs—believing simultaneously, for instance, that while Jesus Christ is their salvation, a person can do enough good works to earn his salvation.v
This is bad, but we wonder—are the Christians who express these unbiblical beliefs merely filling a doctrinal vacuum left by churches that have failed to teach them properly?
“Strict churches,” according to the Baylor team, are doing just fine, numerically. Their members give twice as much money to the church as do the members of liberal churches (p. 35) and are more than twice as likely to witness to others (p. 36).
What with special “blessings” of same-sex unions, goddess worship, Buddhist chants, and whatnot, we expect to see Christians bolting from the liberal denominations; and this is exactly what we do see. Most of them, say the Baylor researchers, wind up joining “strict” conservative churches, while some remain unchurched without renouncing Christianity.
But what are the “strict churches” teaching? They offer a deeper community experience, bonding, and various group activities—but do they also offer straight, orthodox, Bible-based Christian doctrine?
We could not find an answer to this question in the Baylor book. We suppose they would argue that the numerical and financial success of conservative churches and megachurches—especially when compared to the near-catastrophic failure of their liberal counterparts—speaks for itself. But supposing is not the same as knowing.
Barna and Baylor could both be right. And if they are, it means that even the “strict” churches are failing to fulfill their Biblically mandated teaching obligations. Of what real value is a “strict” church that insists on a dress code, discourages smoking, and frowns on conspicuous consumption while leaving its members in ignorance as to the source of their salvation?
The Baylor book breaks ground with its study of “Religious Experiences,” defined as “some sense of contact with a supernatural being or consciousness” (p. 55). This was to have been attempted in the American Piety study of 1963–64, but “Unfortunately, the authors let themselves be talked out of most of these items when several of their theological consultants … objected, saying the questions postulated behavior so extreme and bizarre that to include them would offend almost all respondents” (p. 55). Trust a mainstream theologian to be embarrassed by religion!
The Baylor researchers did include such questions in their surveys and quickly found that “it was obvious that the theologians were out of touch with the people in the pews” (p. 55).
To sum up their findings, 20% of the respondents “heard the voice of God talking to me,” 44% “felt called by God to do something,” 56% said they had been “protected from harm by a guardian angel,” 23% “witnessed a miraculous, physical healing,” and 16% “received a miraculous, physical healing” (p. 56). Those figures represent quite large numbers of people! Indeed, even 40% of liberal Protestants reported having had religious or mystical experiences (p. 58). Two-thirds of all respondents in Baylor’s 2007 survey reported having had at least one religious or mystical experience, and 45% claimed two or more experiences (p. 59).
So much for offending the respondents.
Baylor also asked respondents if they believed that people would go to heaven when they died. Liberal theologians predicted that most people would not say they believed in heaven, but as usual, they turned out to be wrong (p. 69). Baylor found in 2005 67% of respondents “absolutely sure” that people went to heaven and another 17% saying “probably”—a total of 84%. Researchers asked again in 2007 and got exactly the same results (pp. 69–70).
“The primary finding here is that few Americans think heaven is very exclusive … few now expect heaven to be restricted to Christians,” say the authors (p. 72). Perhaps these Christians never read John 14:6, “[N]o man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
None of this sounds like we are headed for a secular society. But do we have a Christian society?
In a 1944 Gallup poll, 96% of respondents said they believed in God. Stark comments, “[T]he results are always the same: just about everyone believes in God” (p. 75). But what “God” do they believe in?
Asking people what they thought God is like, Baylor researchers concluded from the answers, “It is also apparent that Americans tend to prefer the more benevolent and engaged God to the severe God of judgment” (p. 77).
The God presented to us in the Bible, of course, is both; and the Bible is God’s Word. But Americans, on the whole, credit God with “good” outcomes, like prosperity, and blame Satan for “bad” outcomes, like a hurricane (p. 80). This form of dualism has become part of pop theology. Although it’s an ancient heresy, a species of Gnosticism, it has spread throughout American Christian culture. A casual visit to a “Christian” chat room on the internet will turn it up in a matter of minutes.
What are the churches teaching? Are they even aware that some of their congregation are, without knowing it, heretics? Or is this some of what Barna denounces as “heretical teachings proposed from America’s pulpits”?vi
The Failure of Atheism
At least atheism seems to be making no headway. Although “social scientists” have for many years predicted that all forms of “religion” (except humanism, of course) would go extinct (p. 115), in every poll taken in America from 1944 to the present, atheism never topped its 1947 high of 6% and by 2007 was back down to 4% (p. 117).
It hasn’t fared much better globally. In a list of 35 countries (Table 53, p. 118), only three posted double figures for atheism—14% from France, with its long history of anticlericalism; 14% for China, whose government aggressively persecutes all religions; and 12% for Japan, where an entire belief system was shattered by defeat in World War II. Even in such supposed bulwarks of secularism as New Zealand (5%), Norway (4%), and Russia after 70 years of communism (4%), atheists get a very low market share.
As for the recent rash of atheist best-sellers in the Western world, writes Stark, book sales have not translated into secular conversions. “To expect to learn anything about important theological problems from Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett,” he adds, “is like expecting to learn about medieval history from someone who had only read Robin Hood” (p. 120).
Interestingly, atheists are overwhelmingly white males. In a sample of 133 African-Americans, Baylor surveyors couldn’t find a single atheist (p. 122).
New Age baloney fares better than atheism, but the Baylor team couldn’t find it having much of an impact on Christians. Bigfoot, fortune-telling, and UFOs are mostly the predilections of unbelievers who can’t quite bring themselves to admit to being atheists. “Those who hope that a decline in traditional religion would inaugurate a new Age of Reason ought to think again,” write contributors Christopher Bader and Carson Mencken (p. 125). “Traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity” (p. 130).
The authors also grappled with the question, “Is There a Secret Plot of Evangelicals to Take Over the American Government?” (p. 149).
In a word, no. “Evangelical Christians are the new scapegoats of American culture,” reports the Baylor team, resulting in “a deluge of hysterical warnings against an impending theocracy and other calamities if something isn’t done to curb these religious fanatics … Indeed, books warning about an evangelical Christian takeover are being published so frequently that they constitute a new literary genre” (pp. 149–150).
So-called “evangelicals,” conclude the researchers, are actually less likely to be active in politics than non-evangelicals (p. 155), and in polls about various social and political issues, their responses are pretty much the same as everybody else’s (p. 153).
Warning! “A majority of Americans want the government to do more to distribute wealth more evenly, and almost half of Evangelicals agree” (p. 156).
Obviously the “strict” churches need to do a little more work on teaching subtle Biblical nuances like “Thou shalt not covet” and “Thou shalt not steal.”
The Fruits of Bad Theology
St. Paul asked, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). And centuries before him, a prophet said, “Now for a long season Israel hath been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law” (2 Chron. 15:3).
America has plenty of preachers—but what are they preaching? Do we have the true God, or a false God who doesn’t care about obedience, whose word need not be taken seriously, and who gives everyone a free pass to paradise as long as they’ve done enough “good works”?
Baylor’s research has only just begun. In this first set of surveys we are reassured, it seems, that America has a solid Christian core. But we are not told what people mean, exactly, when they say they’re “Christians.” When we view these findings in the light of Barna’s research, we begin to worry. What will the Baylor researchers find if they start asking the same kind of questions Barna asks?
It’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Americans believe in God. The bad news is that they don’t seem to know who God really is or what He requires of them. It’s good news that apostate liberal churches are hemorrhaging members and that most of those are fleeing to “conservative” denominations. But until we know what people are being taught in those conservative churches, we must restrain our enthusiasm.
If our people really are so Christian, then why is our popular culture so pervasively filthy? If conservative denominations are so faithful to God’s Word, then why can’t the Southern Baptist Convention bring itself to call on Baptist parents to pull their children out of blatantly anti-Christian public schools as the denomination is challenged every year to do? How can Rick Warren, allegedly conservative, say he’s opposed to homosexual “marriage” but accepting and respectful of “homosexual relationships,” which the Bible denounces as abominations? The conservatives may not embrace our filthy culture as avidly as liberals do, but they can hardly claim to be confronting it. They seem more to coexist and compromise with it.
But surveys like these done by Baylor University, George Barna, the Pew Forum, and a few others, can be valuable to a teaching ministry like Chalcedon’s. They can help us to see what Christians are learning or failing to learn. From these reports, it’s obvious that the established church is falling down on the job when it comes to teaching the true nature of God and the lordship of Christ over all things in heaven and on earth.
Bad theology breeds bad politics and a corrupt economy, a failing culture. Can anyone deny that this is exactly what we have?
Back to the Bible the church must go, back to teaching God’s Word as it is written—and the time for that is now.
In Acts 8:30–35, the Apostle Philip meets an Ethiopian government official reading the book of Isaiah. Philip asks, “Understandest thou what thou readest? And he [the Ethiopian] said, How can I, except some man should guide me? … Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” The result was the Ethiopian’s conversion and baptism.
We can be sure Philip taught the man true Christian doctrine. But we cannot be so sure that the same is being done in the churches of America today.
ii George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 115–118.
iii Ibid., 158.
vi Barna, Revolution, 117.
- 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.