Foggy faith in 'mushy middle' of American religion scene

Crack open a traditional hymnal and most American Protestants will be able to belt out the classic hymn, "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!"

The last verse states: "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity."

Also, most practicing Catholics will be familiar with these Catechism lines: "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. ... The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the 'consubstantial Trinity'."

The language is mysterious and ancient. Yet according to a new survey probing what Americans believe on crucial theological issues, a majority of those polled -- 71 percent -- believe in the Trinity.

But what about that whole "God in three persons" thing? Not so much.

In fact, 75 percent of Catholics polled by LifeWay Research agreed that the "Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being" -- a shocking number in light of the fact that only 52 percent of non-Christian Americans took that unorthodox stance. Among "mainline," mostly liberal, Protestants, 74 percent denied the personhood of the Holy Spirit along with a small majority -- 58 percent -- of evangelical Protestants.

The spring survey is the latest to show that most Americans affirm traditional religious beliefs, sort of, but turn into "cafeteria" believers who pick and choose whatever makes them feel comfortable when it comes to doctrinal specifics, said LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer. Things can get foggy and confusing in the "mushy middle" of the religious spectrum, where Americans worship a "Christian-ish god," rather than the God of traditional Christian faith.

"There are people out there -- 25 percent or so -- that we call 'convictional Christians' and that has been stable for decades," he said, referring to past research by the late pollster George Gallup, Jr., and others. "That number may have compressed a little in recent years, but there is great stability there. ...

"So that is why so many conservative people think the world is collapsing, but then things really haven't changed that much in their own church. The work goes own among the people who still believe that they believe."

The real action in the "Theological Awareness Benchmark Study" conducted for Ligonier Ministries of Orlando, Fla., is among "nominal" believers. Stetzer described this "mushy middle" as the 25 percent of Americans who are "cultural Christians" in name only and another 25 percent who are "congregational Christians" who may visit sanctuary pews at Christmas and Easter.

The bottom line: Increasing numbers of ordinary Americans no longer think of themselves as "sinners," especially on issues of sex, and don't really care what their pastors or churches think about that. In fact, 82 percent say their church has no authority to "declare that I am not a Christian." On the Bible, 48 percent said it was the "Word of God," while 45 percent said the scriptures were written for each person to interpret as he or she sees fit.

Heaven is real for 67 percent of Americans and 61 percent believe in hell. Then again, 55 percent of "mainline" Protestants and 67 percent of Catholics, compared to 19 percent of evangelicals, believe there are many different ways to find salvation. Only 55 percent of "mainliners" and 45 percent of Catholics affirmed that salvation is found through Jesus, alone.  

In all, 67 percent of those polled affirmed that most people are basically good, even though everyone sins a little. Rather than stressing repentance and grace, most Americans see salvation as a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" process, said Stetzer.

The key is that more and more nominal believers are now sliding into the growing camp of truly secular, vaguely "spiritual" or "religiously unaffiliated" Americans -- the so-called "nones" phenomenon described in a famous 2012 study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"We can expect the movement by 'nominals' to into secularism to continue," said Stetzer. "Would people in the mushy middle choose to identify with the right, which will increasingly be portrayed as harsh and judgmental and even bigoted? No way. More and more 'nominals' will join the 'nones.' "