Our Gallup Poll reveals an even spread of doctrinal ignorance among Christians of different labels.

The Christianity Today-Gallup Poll findings on the beliefs and practices of Protestants in the major denominations and of Roman Catholics reveal significant contrasts and comparisons. Fifty-eight percent of those polled were Protestants and 30 percent were Catholics (table 1). Among the denominations, 19 percent were Baptists not members of the Southern Baptist Convention, 7 percent were Southern Baptists, 6 percent were Lutherans, 5 percent were Presbyterians, and 2 percent were Episcopalians (table 2).

Perhaps most surprising was the finding that Protestants as a group and Catholics share similar convictions on a number of fundamental issues:

• Belief in God: both 98 percent.

• Belief that God sees our actions and responds to them: Catholics 73 percent; Protestants 69 percent.

• Belief that the Ten Commandments are valid for today: Catholics 86 percent; Protestants 85 percent.

• Belief in a personal devil: Protestants 40 percent; Catholics 32 percent.

• Belief that the Bible does not make mistakes: Protestants 48 percent; Catholics 41 percent.

• Belief that human life began when God created Adam and Eve: Protestants 58 percent; Catholics 47 percent.

On the other hand, it was not surprising to find that on other important doctrinal issues, basic differences remain between Protestants and Catholics. As might be expected, the most striking difference concerns religious authority. When asked which religious authority to turn to first to “test your own religious beliefs,” 52 percent of the Protestants said the Bible, compared to 25 percent of the Catholics. On the other hand, 27 percent of the Catholics said the church, compared to only 4 percent of the Protestants. Interestingly, 64 percent of the Protestants and 42 percent of the Catholics put the Holy Spirit either first or second.

Another fundamental difference concerns salvation by faith. Since the Reformation, Protestant doctrine has insisted that salvation is by faith in Christ alone. Catholic doctrine, however, while not teaching righteousness by works, says faith must be active. Or, in the language of the Council of Trent, good works must “cooperate” with faith in the process of justification. Therefore, it is understandable that on a percentage basis more Protestants than Catholics claim their “only hope for heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ” (59 percent to 31 percent). Likewise, a greater percentage of Catholics than Protestants said “heaven is a divine reward for those who earn it by their good life” (43 percent to 20 percent).

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Consistent with this finding was one that showed a greater percentage of Protestants than Catholics having had a life-changing religious experience (41 percent to 23 percent). Other differences emerged between Protestants and Catholics who have had such an experience. Protestants are more likely to call such an experience “conversion” (84 percent to 64 percent), and for them, the conversion is more likely to be sudden than gradual (47 percent to 30 percent.)

Yet there was basic similarity in the conversion experience for Protestants and Catholics. Eighty-eight percent of the Protestants and 82 percent of the Catholics said the focus of their conversion was Jesus Christ, and 97 percent of the Protestants and 90 percent of the Catholics said the experience was still very important in their lives.

In terms of knowing the Bible, more Catholics than Protestants could name at least five of the Ten Commandments (49 percent to 40 percent), but the Protestants did much better than the Catholics in identifying “Ye must be born again” as words spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus (39 percent to 17 percent).

As reported previously (Dec. 21 issue), both among the general public and among evangelicals there is a lack of preciseness in understanding the deity of Christ. This confusion and uncertainty carried over in the denominational breakdowns of this question. People were asked to choose one of the three following statements as best “describing your feelings about Jesus Christ”:

1. Jesus Christ was a man, but was divine in the sense that God worked through him; he was the Son of God.

2. Jesus Christ is not God or the Son of God, but was a great religious teacher.

3. Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man.

Well-instructed Christians, Catholic or Protestant, would recognize that the first statement is inadequate and, indeed, heretical. Yet this is the statement chosen by 63 percent of the Protestants and 55 percent of the Catholics. Among the Protestant groups, 71 percent of the Baptists (Southern and others), 65 percent of the Lutherans, and 64 percent of the Methodists also selected the first answer. Conversely, a larger percentage of Catholics than Protestants correctly identified the third choice as the proper one (36 percent to 25 percent).

Robert Preus, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne, Ind.), commented on this part of the survey: “My personal reaction is one of shock and grave disappointment, especially in what seems to be a gross ignorance on the part of all professed Christian groups concerning the very fundamentals of Christianity. I make this judgment on the basis of the one most important question of all, the question concerning the individual’s ‘feelings’ about Jesus Christ.”

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When it comes to their religious practices, Catholics and Protestants share much common ground. Ninety percent find considerable consolation from their belief in God and half of them profess to living up to their moral standards most of the time. About the same percentages belong to a church (Catholics, 75 percent; Protestants 73 percent), and there is not much difference in the percentages of those who actually attend church at least once a week (Catholics 41 percent; Protestants 38 percent). However, when it comes to witnessing, the percentage of Protestants is higher (37 percent to 30 percent). In terms of regular personal Bible reading (two to three times a week or more), Protestants rate much higher than Catholics on a percentage basis (29 percent to 7 percent). And a considerably higher percentage of Protestants than Catholics speak in tongues (22 percent to 9 percent).

Somewhat more Protestants than Catholics do volunteer work for their churches (48 percent to 36 percent). Of those who do volunteer, a slightly higher percentage of Protestants contribute at least one hour a week or more (59 percent to 49 percent). Yet of the volunteers, the same percentages of both Catholics and Protestants contribute more than 6 hours a week (13 to 14 percent). A higher percentage of Protestants than Catholics hold a church office or position (26 percent to 14 percent), and more give 10 percent or more of their income to the church or religious causes (22 percent to 8 percent). Given the Protestant origins of the Sunday school, it is not surprising to see a greater percentage of Protestants also active in this ministry (18 percent to 6 percent).

Protestants and Catholics: Interpreting the Information

Interpretations of the data will probably vary. David W. Preus, president of the American Lutheran Church, caught the country’s religious ambivalence when he commented on the poll. In response to the finding that 98 percent of the country’s Catholics and Protestants believe in God, he wrote: “No surprise here. Most Americans, and most people in any age, do not believe existence is accidental. That is good, but there is no assurance that Christian faith will result. The unique claims of Christ must still be set forth by his church.” He put responses concerning the Ten Commandments into a similar perspective. Of the 85 percent of Catholics and Protestants who believe in the continuing validity of the commandments, Preus concluded: “A look at the Ten Commandments ought to convince any believer of their ongoing validity. The bigger problem is to obey them.”

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Robert Preus noted how close Catholics and Protestants came to each other on most answers and how the Protestant groups as well seemed to cluster around the same percentages in responding to various questions:

“I was impressed with the similarity of answers (percentages) to the questions among the very divergent groups approached. One would have expected that the differences in answers coming from members of different denominations would have been greater. This fact suggests to me that denominational lines mean less and less relative to members’ beliefs, and it suggests that Christianity in America is gradually assuming a kind of watered-out character where most (even those who call themselves evangelical) believe pretty much the same common denominator body of doctrine and beyond that can’t say very clearly what they believe because they have no opinion.”

CHRISTIANITY TODAY sought out Ralph McInerny, a layman who teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, for an unofficial Catholic response to the poll. McInerny, an acknowledged expert on the theology of Thomas Aquinas as well as a widely read novelist on Catholic life in modern America (The Priest, Bishop as Pawn), is well qualified to comment on the findings about Catholics. He was not particularly impressed with the general religiosity of the Catholics, nor especially surprised about the religious ignorance or lapses in practice that Catholics share with Protestants. He was more concerned about the many people who claimed to be Catholics but who did not believe some of the basic truths of even the Apostles’ Creed.

“How has it come about,” McInerny wrote, “that there are people who style themselves Catholic and who yet do not believe what the Church teaches? One possibility would be to take ‘Catholic’ as a sort of ethnic or cultural designation which would bite no deeper than saying one was from Pittsburgh or of Irish extraction or the way many Jews are Jews—as in the phrase ‘Jewish writer.’ A darker possibility is that the laity have been confused by the theological free-for-all that has characterized Catholicism since roughly the [Second Vatican] Council. The bishops, who are the teachers in the Church, seem to have abdicated their function to quarrelsome academics who regard themselves presumptuously as the ‘second magisterium’ and see the task of the theologian as shaking and battering the faith of the faithful. The self-description of the theologian over recent years requires an Evelyn Waugh to do it justice. When media-renowned theologians waffle on the Hypostatic Union [of Christ as both divine and human] and on Infallibility and on the Real Presence, it is scarcely surprising that the laity, not receiving from their bishops and pastors the kind of sane and forceful strengthening Pope John Paul II provided on his visit, come to think of the articles of the Creed as cafeteria offerings from which one might choose as he wills. But such choosing provides the etymology of ‘heresy.’ This poll makes me think again what I have thought before. Our theologians have a lot to answer for.”

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Baptists, Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Lutherans

The most striking thing about this aspect of the poll is the numerical strength and theological conservatism of America’s Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination (with over 13 million members), yet the Gallup Poll identified nearly three times as many Baptists who were not from the Southern Baptist Convention as those who were. Southern Baptists and the other Baptists responded in virtually the same percentages. In no instance were differences between Southern Baptists and other Baptists great enough to be certain that they reflected actual differences.

The poll suggests that Baptists are clearly the most orthodox of the larger denominational families. Considerably more Baptists believed that the only hope for heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ (Southern Baptists 72 percent, other Baptists 66 percent) than did Methodists (55 percent), Lutherans (58 percent), or Protestants at large (59 percent). Similarly, more Baptists believed the devil to be a personal being (Southern Baptists 53 percent, other Baptists 52 percent) than Lutherans (34 percent), Methodists (24 percent), or all Protestants (40 percent). By a small margin, more Baptists agreed that the Bible did not make mistakes (all Baptists 53 percent) than did Lutherans (50 percent), the general Protestant population (48 percent), or Methodists (33 percent). Baptists also read the Bible more frequently (34 percent of all Baptists at least two to three times a week against 18 percent of the Methodists and 29 percent of the Lutherans) and scored higher on the question regarding what Jesus said to Nicodemus (47 percent of Southern Baptists and 46 percent of other Baptists knew it was “Ye must be born again” against only 35 percent of Methodists and 20 percent of Lutherans).

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Baptists were also more likely to have had a life-changing religious experience (57 percent Southern Baptists, 53 percent other Baptists, against 37 percent Methodists and 23 percent Lutherans). More of them gave at least 10 percent of their income to church or religious causes (37 percent Southern Baptists, 27 percent other Baptists, against 12 percent Methodists and 15 percent Lutherans). And more visited the sick or elderly (44 percent Southern Baptists, 42 percent other Baptists, against 16 percent Methodist and 26 percent Lutherans). The one finding that showed Baptists at a disadvantage compared to other groups was the amount of time spent working with young people. Of those who did volunteer work in church, only 10 percent of the Southern Baptists and 20 percent of the other Baptists worked with youth, compared to 28 percent of the Methodists and 30 percent of the Lutherans.

The picture that emerges of the Methodists is not nearly as encouraging from an evangelical viewpoint. Methodists ranked slightly below the Baptists, Lutherans, and the general Protestant figures for belief in God, belief in a real Adam and Eve, and belief that Christ was both God and man. They were considerably below the other Protestants in percentages of individuals who believed in the devil as a personal being, who trusted Christ alone for the hope of heaven, and who read the Bible regularly.

For Lutherans, the poll reveals a relatively high degree of orthodoxy, a deemphasis on conversion and other sudden religious experiences, and some of the same weaknesses seen in the other groups. Lutherans generally are as orthodox as the Baptists in belief of God, views of the Bible, the person of Christ, and the creation of Adam and Eve. They were only slightly less so on most other doctrinal matters. President David Preus of the American Lutheran Church explains the Lutheran lack of emphasis on conversion by reference to the structure of traditional Lutheran theology: “Lutherans place great confidence in the beginning work of the Spirit in Baptism, with growth to Christian maturity always within the context of Christian faith. There may be identifiable religious experiences that bring remarkable change in Christian life without considering it a move from pagan to Christian.”

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The impression should not be left that Baptists, Methodists, and Lutherans constitute groups that differ systematically in religious belief and practice. (Table 3 summarizes some of the major differences.) In many areas, results for the denominational groups were very similar. Baptists, Lutherans, and Methodists include similar percentages of Pentecostals or charismatics (about 20 percent); they join their churches in roughly equal numbers (75 to 85 percent); they attend about as often (30 to 40 percent at least once a week); they know the Ten Commandments about the same (35 to 45 percent can name five); and they accept the Bible as the most important religious authority in roughly equal proportions (about 50 percent).

In conclusion, we found some good news and much that was bad. Church leaders who study the denominational breakdown can recognize a base from which to build—America’s churched people do believe in God, respect Scripture’s integrity, and are willing to volunteer time and money in often generous quantities. Yet cause for alarm exists as well. Even Baptist leaders, who might take momentary satisfaction in the poll’s results, certainly will see tremendous work to be done. What can we make, after all, of the 2 percent of the Southern Baptists who do not believe in God, the 24 percent who regard the Bible as merely a collection of ancient religious philosophy, the 32 percent who attend church less than once a month, the 32 percent who read the Bible less than once a month, and the 48 percent who never volunteer for church work—in the most evangelical of the major denominational groupings?

It is often painful to take a searching look in the mirror. While denominational leaders may be satisfied with much of what they see here, there is also much that should urgently appeal for shaping up the body of Christ in the United States.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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