The Gallup Poll establishes Bible reading as the single most discernible factor shaping moral social behavior.

The CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup Poll study reveals striking factors about the way Christian beliefs translate into action.

1976 was widely heralded as the “year of the evangelical” in America. The 1976 presidential campaign injected the name of Jesus and the concept of being born again into politics in a totally new way. Yet as one astute Washington observer, antiabortion lawyer John P. Mackey, correctly predicted before the election, it would be “politics as usual” after the voting. Events have borne him out. In 1980, both major party candidates for the presidency and independent candidate Congressman John B. Anderson are professing, evangelicals. Nevertheless, it appears that as far as national politics are concerned, this remarkable religious fact has changed things very little.

During the social and political ferment of the 1960s, sociologist Peter Berger observed that most religiously identifiable people—ranging from Unitarian-Universalists to separatistic fundamentalists—tended to vote along identifiable social and class lines, rather than according to their professed beliefs. Southern fundamentalists used religious arguments to bolster segregation, while northern fundamentalists attacked it. Since the 1960s, the lines have shifted and blended, but Berger’s question still remains: What difference does one’s religious belief make in the way one acts?

The CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup Poll has revealed some striking things about the relationship between the professed beliefs of Christians and their personal and social ethics. Some things are rather alarming, and suggest that a person’s religious profession may have rather less influence on his conduct than we might expect. Others give reason to hope that evangelicals are learning to put faith and practice together better than we used to be able to do—especially evangelicals who are regular in their reading and study of the Bible.

Perplexing data have emerged—such as the fact that a strong stand for biblical orthodoxy and even a personal conversion experience do not necessarily mean that a Christian, especially a young adult, will hold firmly to traditional Christian values in the area of sexual morality. These data are not self-interpreting. One might conclude from them that younger Christians are being influenced by the youth culture to be permissive, even indulgent, with respect to personal moral values. On the other hand, theologian Alan F. Johnson suggests that these data may instead show the way in which experience over a period of years—rather than mere old-fogeyism—enables older and more mature Christians to see the vital connection between individual moral standards and the totality of one’s life and ministry.

Article continues below

Methodological questions arise with any opinion survey, no matter how carefully structured. It is a well-known fact that surveys can be drawn up in such a way as virtually to answer themselves. Even when a conscientious effort is made to avoid any built-in tilt, as in the CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup Poll, some uncertainties remain. In questions dealing with personal moral conduct, such as abortion, some responses were so broad that respondents with substantially different convictions may well be grouped together in a misleading way under the same response.

For example, only 19 percent of the general public (by contrast with 74 percent of Catholics, 35 percent of Baptists, and more than 30 percent of evangelicals) appear to find abortion “unacceptable under all circumstances.” But. as James P. McFadden, editor of Human Life Review, pointed out, the vast majority of most Protestants (including most evangelicals) would allow it only in rare cases such as when the mother’s life is at stake. This placed their responses—together with all but the most militant proabortionists—among those who find abortion “acceptable under certain circumstances.” The fact that only 19 percent of respondents oppose it under all circumstances does not thus indicate that the antiabortion side is numerically weak, but rather, that there is a substantial number of Americans whose opposition to abortion is not quite absolute and thus differs from that of many orthodox Protestant and Roman Catholic antiabortion spokesmen, even though they are in essential agreement with them.

Before moving to such specific ethical questions as abortion, the poll asked more general questions concerning the priorities of Christians. One in four members of the general public thought that world evangelism should be the Christian’s top priority. Those exhibiting characteristics of serious evangelical Christians—such as a personal conversion experience, regular Bible reading, church attendance, and tithing—were substantially more concerned for world evangelism. At least three-fifths of this latter group made helping to win the world for Christ either top or second priority, although, as might be expected; personal and family spiritual growth ranked high among all the groups.

Article continues below

The community and social concern of evangelicals came as a surprise. All groups, including all categories of Christians—denominationally affiliated, converted, frequent Bible readers, regular churchgoers, tithers, and even general public—agreed that it is important or very important for religious organizations to take public stands on ethical and moral matters. Seventy percent of the evangelicals, however, voted such action to be very important (as over against 36 percent for the general public, 31 percent for Catholics, 41 percent for Protestants as a whole, 27 percent for Methodists, and 30 percent for Lutherans). Even on political and social issues evangelicals favored public pronouncement by the church and religious organizations. Although the percentages were lower than for religious, spiritual, or moral issues, the ratios for the various groups remained about the same with evangelicals doubling the general public and most denominations. Interestingly enough, the scores of evangelicals ran very close to all clergy, with no significant difference on the issue between theologically conservative and theologically liberal clergymen.

This differs radically from the stereotype of evangelicals and of conservative Christian organizations. Apparently lay evangelicals, evangelical clergy, and evangelical leaders are not lagging behind in their zeal to provide moral and spiritual guidance and to exert their public influence on ethical and political matters.

The abortion issue reveals the surprising fact that only 13 percent of the general public and less than 10 percent of conservative Christians agree with the current state of American law on abortion, despite the fact that the public is usually reported as evenly divided on this issue or even as favoring abortion. This gross discrepancy results from the difficulty of interpreting questions that are not sufficiently explicit or detailed fully to cover the situation created by Roe v. Wade, and the 1973 Supreme Court decision. It probably reflects the fact that most Americans do not yet fully understand what that decision actually means. The recent decision of the Southern Baptist Convention to endorse a human life amendment shows that awareness is growing and indicates that the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll, thoughtfully analyzed, is on target.

Attitudes on homosexuality appear surprisingly permissive among the general population, for although a majority opposes it, a large minority accepts it or expresses no opinion. Evangelical Christians are noticeably more consistent than the general public in holding that homosexual relations are wrong. Among conservatives, the factor that most strongly molds conviction on this issue is frequent Bible reading. Age seems to make a difference in opposition to homosexual conduct; it is possible to interpret the younger respondents’ greater acceptance of homosexual conduct, as already suggested, in terms of lack of personal experience with its long-range consequences, rather than as indicating a weakening commitment to biblical absolutes. Only 15 percent of regular Bible readers fail to condemn homosexual relations (6 percent approve; 9 percent have no opinion). In a way, the fact that 15 percent do fail to condemn, despite the Bible’s very explicit teaching on the subject, may indicate that even regular Bible readers are not immune to the pervasive influences of the surrounding culture.

Article continues below

On the other hand, an equal or even larger number of regular Bible readers (6 percent) condemn premarital sexual relations, which are increasingly tolerated by the general public as well as by many denominational groups queried. On this issue, Catholics (49 percent) and Methodists (48 percent) were most tolerant whereas most Protestants condemned premarital relationships (59 percent; Southern Baptists, 65 percent; evangelicals, 80 percent; and frequent Bible readers, 86 percent).

Adultery is perceived by all groups as the worst of the sexual offenses discussed. Here the general public, various denominational groups, and converted Bible-reading Christians are united in condemning extra-marital relationships—much more so than in condemning homosexuality. Among the frequent Bible readers, condemnation of extramarital sex is even more unanimous (95 percent) than condemnation of homosexuality; thus all groups agree, by a larger or smaller margin, in seeing marital infidelity as wrong. It may be that homosexuality continues to be perceived, even in some Christian circles, more as an illness than as a vice—and hence less subject to moral condemnation than the more obvious offense of marital infidelity.

If Bible-reading Christians have retained a strong commitment to traditional Christian values in most areas of sexual morality, in the area of divorce and remarriage they show considerable deflection from older norms. Here too there is an “undistributed mean,” where one response includes a variety of different cases and may group relatively strict and relatively permissive attitudes under the same heading. The most widely chosen response, that divorce should be “avoided in all but extreme situations” might seem to some to be necessary for providing for adultery, desertion, and physical abuse, and to others broad enough to allow divorce for something as flexible as “extreme” incompatibility. Here again, converted Christians and frequent Bible readers were more hostile to divorce than the general public, but then, rather surprisingly, proved slightly more tolerant of remarriage after divorce. Perhaps this is a result of the serious Christian’s emphasis on the reality of forgiveness, renewal, and a fresh start even after the most serious transgression.

Article continues below

Responses to all questions in the realm of sexual ethics clearly indicate that one factor surpasses all others in molding Christians’ convictions and shaping their character. Paul Feinberg, professor of theology and ethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, observes, “Knowledge of the Scriptures and daily meditation on them is clearly the most important force in building the kind of Christian character that can remain faithful to traditional Christian values—more important than any other formative influence identified in the survey.” Dr. Feinberg also drew attention to recently published data indicating that regular Bible reading and meditation is associated with a generally stable emotional life and the ability to ride out shocks of various kinds, reaffirming once again the long-standing Reformation and evangelical emphasis on the ability of the Scriptures to “make wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15).

In addition to the evident, strong impact of regular Bible reading on personal moral values, it is apparent from other survey questions that those who read the Scripture frequently are more likely than others to be concerned about social ethics, and are more likely to have done something personally to alleviate the distress of individuals or groups. In fact, frequent Bible readers stand out in startling fashion from the mass of statistics produced by the poll. On matters of doctrine and ethics, their percentage was uniformly highest—far above any denominational groups or groupings by other activities (such as churchgoers, financial contributors to religious organizations, age, sex, optimists, pessimists, followers of religious broadcasts, age groups, educational groups, geographical groups, and all other groups polled). This was true in the doctrinal area: for belief in God (100 percent); consolation and help derived from belief about God; experience of conversion (but equally divided between those for whom this was sudden [Methodists] and those for whom it was gradual [Lutherans]); those for whom this experience was still important; belief in the inerrancy of the Bible; commitment to the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ; acknowledgment that the Devil is a personal evil being; an original creation of Adam and Eve; church attendance; witnessing to others about their faith; testing their religious beliefs by the Bible; reckoning the Ten Commandments as morally binding on their consciences; holding that their top priority is to win the world for Jesus Christ; least worried about their own financial security; and most concerned about their closeness to God.

Article continues below

Even more significant is that the regular Bible readers also surpassed all other groups in ethical concerns: volunteering to counsel others in need; visiting the sick or elderly; giving 10 percent or more of their income to the church and other religious organizations; holding it to be their duty personally and directly to help the poor; actually doing something to minister to the poor in their own community; reckoning it to be very important for religious organizations to make public pronouncements on ethical and moral issues, or spiritual and religious matters, and even on political legislation for good ends; opposition to abortions, homosexual practice, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and divorce; trying actively to deal with the energy shortage (Lutherans 1 percentage point higher); least likely to use alcohol or to drink more than they should.

From this poll it is possible to draw the conclusion that evangelicals are a highly moral people, more concerned about God and more concerned about the welfare of their fellow human beings than any other group polled. It is also apparent that the growing interest of evangelicals in social concerns is not necessarily a move in the direction of liberalism and the old “social gospel,” but simply a natural consequence of the ability of the Word of God, when faithfully read and digested, to transform the Christian by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2) in every area of interest and concern. This means that the proliferation of independent and church-related serious Bible study in recent years is by no means to be seen as a sort of escapism, a turning inward away from the world and its conflicts and needs, but rather as a vitally necessary means of equipping the saints to do God’s work in a fallen and rebellious world.

Article continues below

Readers of the survey were divided as to how to interpret the large number of responses that expressed a high degree of concern for personal and family development and fulfillment and for community improvement. To this category belong those responses that indicate that most people, in cases of personal need or serious problems of most kinds, turn more readily to a family member than to any professional, including a clergyman (except for problems of a religious nature, where a clergyman naturally is the first choice). Government agencies are very far down the list of helping organizations and individuals to which people willingly turn. Although many—including this writer—felt that the responses indicate what Robert Nisbet called “the quest for commitment” and bode well for the continuing development of Christian community, both within and alongside of local congregational structures, Alan Johnson saw in them a troublesome reflection of the modern trend toward self-fulfillment in a narcissistic sense, to the exclusion of concern for the outside world and for abiding ethical values. If this is true, the poll certainly indicates that biblically oriented Christians are a significant exception to this rule.

Many readers at first found the survey troubling in its apparent suggestion that many Christians, including believers who stress conversion, Bible reading, and many aspects of a daily Christian walk, are weakening in their commitment to traditional principles of Christian morality. On reflection, however, it appears that where there is such a weakening, it can generally be identified as associated with a failure to read the Scripture, to practice regular worship and fellowship with other Christians, and to demonstrate the kind of personal discipline that ought naturally to accompany a clear Christian commitment. Where such disciplines are present, on the other hand, they seem to build Christian character and godly concern in every area of Christian life—not merely in the area of traditional “do’s and don’ts.” Inasmuch as serious Bible reading and Bible study is flourishing among both younger and older Christians today, the survey seems to contain in itself both the prescription for and the hope of cure for the maladies it exposes. Particularly interesting is the fact that there is no apparent dichotomy between concern for holy living and concern for a just and compassionate social order. It may not be apparent that mere personal conversion changes men and women sufficiently to produce a significant transformation of society. But it is evident that continuing Christian discipleship, and particularly serious attention to the Bible and its message on a regular basis, does motivate Christians across the board of personal and social concerns, and may well be the lever to reverse the trend of a society that apparently is becoming more Christian in religious persuasion and less just in social and personal practice.

Article continues below

As a preliminary balance, the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll shows a Christian minority that is less perplexed and befuddled about its priorities than we may have feared, and indicates that the church of Jesus Christ still has access to the essential resource for the guidance and health of its members and for a beneficial impact on society and culture. We may sum up this resource with the famous maxim of Johann Albrecht Bengel: “Apply thy whole self to the text; apply the whole text to thyself.”


However named Gentle,

your violence, Lord

opens more worlds than closes:

we are clay and undefined;

circle, round, mould,

give us lines.

we are stones, sons of black rock;

crush the veins, grind,

hew, hone.

Free the waiting diamond.

we are surf, urgent, denied,

restless in tongue of moon;

dredge us deeply, stir,

settle us like sand.

we are steel;

straighten, stretch, fire;

melt us, shape, thin us

like strong wires.

we are seed, dry, dessicated;

rain us, green us as once we were:

The harvest remembers not

the cut.


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.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.