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American Christianity: Revealed!

The Guideposts senior editor reflects on whether the American people believe in God.

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What do Americans believe? Everyone thinks they know but no one really does. You would assume, with all the raging debate about the place of faith in American public life, that someone would have compiled a reliable set of statistics spelling out exactly what Americans believe and how they act on those beliefs.

No one has. Gallup conducts regular surveys of Americans’ belief in God and broad religious identification—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. Other organizations, such as the National Opinion Research Center and the General Social Survey, ask similar questions. No one seems to have drilled down deeper to explore what really defines and motivates Americans’ religious experience.

A recent book attempting this task is What Americans Really Believe by Baylor University social scientist Rodney Stark. Stark is an interesting scholar whose work ranges from detailed statistical surveys of American religious behavior to more sweeping historical accounts of Christianity’s rise and spread in the Roman Empire.

Of his own beliefs he has written: “I have trouble with faith. I’m not proud of this…I would believe if I could, and I may be able to before it’s over. I would welcome that.”

That puts Stark in a distinct American minority, at least according to his own surveys. In What Americans Really Believe he writes that only 4 percent of Americans did not believe in God in 2007. By contrast 36 percent reported attending church at least weekly and 69 percent belonged to a local religious congregation. That’s in line with recent Gallup polls showing that 54 percent of Americans believe religion is “very important” in their lives; 40 percent identify as “born again”; and 78 percent believe in God.

Of course, Gallup also recently reported that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian slipped from 91 percent to 77 percent in the 60 years since 1948.

Nevertheless, Stark has withering words for those who argue that Christianity’s hold on America is loosening. He bats away claims that Americans have become less churchgoing and he marshals figures from another of his books to show that in fact the percentage of Americans belonging to a local congregation has grown almost every year since the country was founded. Only 17 percent of Americans belonged to a church in 1776, he says. So much for the good old days.

Where Stark gets really interesting is in his finer-grained analysis. For example he finds income and education level have almost no effect on church attendance. People earning $20,000 a year and people earning $150,000 are equally likely to go to church weekly (38 percent for each). Same for high school dropouts and holders of postgraduate degrees (40 percent and 39 percent respectively).

The real differences between American Christians emerge once they get to church. Here distinctions of theology, income and lifestyle all matter a great deal, sometimes with grave consequences for particular churches. Stark divides American Christianity into what he calls “high tension” and “low tension” churches, that is, denominations antagonistic to strains of popular culture and those more relaxed with fewer rules and requirements.

I actually disagree with the way Stark arrives at this division. He measures believers’ antagonism to pornography, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, gambling and wearing revealing clothing.

To my mind those are fairly misleading categories. Most Americans have negative feelings toward pornography and gambling, so it means nothing to say a church opposes them.

Likewise, the number of Americans (according to Gallup) who believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances has declined by 10 percentage points since the early 1990s to 23 percent, hardly a dominant cultural strain.

More tellingly, Stark’s categories leave out aspects of American popular culture that really are offensive to the Christian gospel: conspicuous consumption; wealth; idolization of the individual; worship of celebrity; indifference to the poor; obsession with career and getting ahead; employers’ refusal to make it possible for people to work and care for children or elders at the same time.

To my mind it would be more accurate to say a church is in “high tension” with American culture when it demands that worshippers live out the gospel in a truly radical way, not just by disapproving of pornography or premarital sex.

Still, Stark’s methods produce a fairly standard division between more conservative, evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God and more liberal, traditional Protestant denominations such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

If you accept this division, it quickly becomes clear the news isn’t good for liberals. Collectively their numbers have declined by 49 percent since 1960 while attendance at conservative churches has exploded 158 percent. (Catholics lost 5 percent.) To an extent those figures reflect the fact that conservative churches began with smaller numbers, so even tiny increases in attendance appear as massive percentage gains. Still, the contrast is stark.

So are the differences in people’s behavior at the two kinds of churches. Members of stricter, more conservative churches are more likely to attend weekly; to attend a Bible study; to go to a church social event; to have friends at church; to tithe (and they tithe more); and to witness to others.

Stark says this difference in church engagement explains the rapid growth of conservative churches. Churches that ask much of their members, that offer clear guidelines for membership, and especially that encourage members to recruit others to the church are more likely to grow. They’re also more likely to be fun to attend, because they’re livelier and everyone’s there for the same reason.

Well, maybe. You could just as easily say conservative churches offer a straightforward theology appealing to those seeking religious certainty. You could even say conservative churches are actually in low tension with the culture around them because they tend to emphasize patriotism, the benefits of capitalism and the supposed equivalence of American and biblical values.

Regardless, there’s a lesson buried in these numbers for believers of all stripes. Americans’ beliefs, at least when it comes to Christianity, are complex and contradictory but can probably be summarized like this: Almost all of them profess to believe in God.

A smaller but still large majority call themselves Christian. Of those fewer than half actually bother to go to church each week. And of that group an even smaller number is truly engaged, making friends at church, volunteering, attending Bible studies and social gatherings. The more theologically consistent and outreach-oriented a church is, the more likely it will grow.

Sound familiar? Where do you fall on that spectrum? How about your church? Write to me at jhinch@guideposts.org and let me know. Surveys are one thing. Real life is quite another.

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at jhinch@guideposts.org.

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