Barna Poll on U.S. Religious Belief - 2001

Original Headline: Poll shows Protestant collapse
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Date: 28 June 2001
By: Uwe Siemon-Netto, United Press International

WASHINGTON, June 28 (UPI) -- A new survey of what Americans believe, points to "an absolute collapse of mainline Protestantism in this country," Paul Hinlicky, a leading Lutheran theologian, told United Press International Thursday.

The poll provides evidence of a "very considerable diversity within the Christian community regarding core beliefs," according to the Barna Research Group of Ventura, Ca. But what alarms Hinlicky is the "erosion of the church's foundations this study seems to expose."

For example, a mere 21 percent of America's Lutherans, 20 percent of the Episcopalians, 18 percent of Methodists, and 22 percent of Presbyterians affirm the basic Protestant tenet that by good works man does not earn his way to heaven.

Yet the doctrine that man is justified before God alone by grace through faith in Christ's saving work (and that good works are simply the fruits of faith) is the very foundation of the 16th century Reformation. It is a theological principle the Vatican, too, has accepted in its 1999 accord with the Lutheran World Federation.

But the Barna poll discloses that only 9 percent of the Catholics in the United States agree with this theological concept that Martin Luther had culled from chapter 3 of the apostle Paul's epistle to the Romans.

"If this figure holds up it signals a complete breakdown of catechetical practice," said Hinlicky who teaches religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

His colleague Gerald McDermott, an Episcopalian, agreed: "This happened because in the last 30 years American pastors have lost their nerve to preach a theology that goes against the grain of American narcissism. What we are witnessing now is what (evangelicalism's premier thinker) Francis Shaeffer predicted over 20 years ago -- that the American church of the future would be dedicated solely to peace and affluence."

Of course this applies chiefly to the historic denominations rather than the Assemblies of God, Pentecostal/Foursquare and non-denominational groups, more than 60 percent of whose members remain committed to the justification by faith formula.

Hinlicky and McDermott found another result of the Barna survey depressing. Only 33 percent of the American Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, and 28 percent of the Episcopalians agreed with the statement that Christ was without sin.

To McDermott, these numbers indicate an "epochal change in popular theology." He added, "This would suggest a loss of faith in the Divinity of Christ." If this result is accurate, a large segment of the U.S. population was reverting to Deism, a belief system prevalent in 18th century England and shared by leading American thinkers of that period.

"Christ would then be no more than the Dalai Lama, an admirable kind of a guy."

Deism saw God as one who wound up the clock of the universe and then allowed it to run. Some, but by no means all, Deists were convinced that God does intervene in history. "Benjamin Franklin was certain that God did this so that we could beat the British," McDermott said.

"What has brought us to this point is zero theology since the 1960s," Hinlicky explained. Again, this does not apply to the majority of the faithful in the Baptist denominations, the nondenominational, the Assemblies of God, and the Pentecostal/Foursquare churches, of whom 55, 63, 70 and 73 percent believe that Christ is sinless.

As for the mainline denominations, McDermott held the cowardice of pastors responsible for the tectonic changes in their congregants' faith: "They are afraid to preach and teach anything that challenges what people already think. The result is a belief in a meek, mild-mannered God who does not want to judge us. That's Deism."

"They have given up talking about divorce, abortion and homosexuality," McDermott thundered. "They are even retreating from the Trinity. On Trinity Sunday I was in an Episcopal church, where the rector averred that this was only something for pastors to think about. Ordinary people did not have to bother with it."

While most of the sample American queried by Barna still affirmed God as the all-powerful Creator, a mere 17 percent of the Catholics, 18 percent Methodists, 20 percent Episcopalians, 21 percent Lutherans, and 22 percent of the Presbyterians told Barna that they thought Satan was real.

Hinlicky, the Lutheran theologian, considered this a particularly baffling result. "It tells us that even the Lutherans are utterly out of step with Luther, to whom the Devil was very much a reality."

Both Hinlicky and McDermott showed themselves intrigued by the fact that the Mormons, whose church's theology differs from that of Protestants and Catholics, aligned themselves with evangelicals and Pentecostals on most issues, especially Christ's sinless being (70 percent).

On the other hand, only 15 percent of the Mormons insisted that man was not saved by good work...

Summing up his views on Barna's findings on the beliefs of mainline Protestants and Catholics, McDermott said, "This underscores how America has become a mission field."

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Religious Beliefs Vary Widely
By Denomination

June 25, 2001

(Ventura, CA) 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. In the lower portion of the standings were those aligned with 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."

Survey Methodology

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 ? 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."

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of attitudes, values and behavior.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service by typing your e-mail address in the field above located at the top of this page on the left-hand side.

Born Again and Evangelical Christians, by Denomination

born again evangelical % of U.S. population sample size
all adults 41%8%NA6038
Assembly of God81%33%2%94
Baptist (any type) 67%14%17%1035
Church of Christ56%12%2% 118
Episcopal30%1%2% 112
Lutheran (any type)48%6%5% 287
Methodist (any type)49%4%6% 392
Mormon/Latter Day Saints34%1%1% 86
Christian non-denominational76%29%5% 321
Pentecostal/Foursquare80%27%2% 124
Presbyterian (any type)54%8%3% 192

(average percentage of denominational adherents who had a biblical perspective on each of seven theological considerations, items A,B,D-G listed below plus the born again questions)

Ranking of Theological Purity of
People’s Beliefs, by Denomination*

Assembly of God72
Christian non-denominational65
Church of Christ54
Mormon/Latter Day Saints49

A Comparison of the Beliefs of
Catholics and Mainline Protestants*

A. Bible is totally accurate B. must tell faith to others D. Satan is real E. works don’t earn Heaven F. Christ was sinless G. God is the all knowing, all powerful Creator H. born again Christian
Mainline Protestants34252027357045

*Mainline Protestants included in these aggregated statistics include those who attend a Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian or Episcopal church. Those associated with a United Church of Christ or American Baptist Church are excluded.

Theological Beliefs, by Denomination
A. Bible is totally accurateB. must tell faith to othersC. relig. faith is importantD. Satan is realE. works don’t earn HeavenF. Christ was sinlessG. God: all-powerful CreatorH. absolutely committed to Christianity
all adults41%32%68%27%30%40%69%41%
Assembly of God7761865664709666
Baptist (any type)6651813443558558
Church of Christ5751813642548059
Lutheran (any type)3427632127337255
Methodist (any)3828741824337347
Mormon/Latter Day Saints29559059157084NA
Christian non-denominational7059864860638967
Pentecostal/Foursquare 8173944762739066
Presbyterian (any)4033712231457660

  • A=strongly agrees that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches
  • B= strongly agrees that they have a personal responsibility to tell others about their religious beliefs
  • C= strongly agrees that their religious faith is very important
  • D= strongly disagrees that Satan is just a symbol of evil
  • E= strongly disagrees that if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others they will earn a place in Heaven
  • F= strongly disagrees that Jesus Christ committed sins while on earth
  • G= believes that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today
  • H= says that they are absolutely committed to Christianity
  • NA=not asked
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    See also: Barna Poll on various levels of religious activity among different denominations