religion polls

Baptists in an age without safe labels

Journalists have been known to jump to premature conclusions if a denomination has the word "Southern" in its name. Consider this paragraph in an report about efforts by Southern Baptist researchers to shed light on the pros and cons of changing the name of America's largest non-Catholic flock. Southern Baptist Convention leaders have been discussing this prickly issue off and on for a generation.

This new LifeWay Research survey was conducted, noted MSNBC, after SBC leaders created a task force to "consider the impact of the convention's name on the denomination, which has been associated with such polarizing political figures as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, convicted Watergate conspirator-turned-Baptist minister Charles Colson and television evangelist Pat Robertson. Just this month, a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky voted to ban interracial couples, a controversial decision the pastor later overturned."

Alas, this ban on interracial couples had been approved by a Baptist church that happens to be located in the South -- not an actual Southern Baptist church. There is a difference. The tiny Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church quickly overturned its decision. MSNBC editors corrected their error, as well.

Nevertheless, this journalistic train wreck perfectly symbolized the cultural baggage that has become attached to that awkward and now inaccurate "Southern" label.

Truth is, it's getting harder and harder to pin simple labels on Southern Baptists and other religious believers. This reality is especially important in an age in which Americans are increasingly hostile to labels.

"The trend you just can't miss is the continuing rise of the non-categorized, the non-labeled forms of Protestantism," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. "You used to be able to look at religion in America and you could put most people into their appointed categories. Now we are seeing more people who just don't want to be put into a category or they don't want to stay put."

It will be impossible, he said, for Southern Baptist leaders to downplay some of the negative numbers in this survey -- numbers that are sure to make headlines. For example, while 53 percent of Americans reported having a favorable impression of Southern Baptists, 40 percent of those polled said their impressions were negative. The SBC's image was especially bad in the West (44 percent) and in the Southern Bible Belt (40 percent).

One eyebrow-raising number in the survey is that, in terms of favorable impressions, Roman Catholics (59 percent) fared better in the South than Southern Baptists (52 percent). Southern Baptists, ironically, fared better in regions in which they have had a lower profile, such as the Northeast and Midwest.

The news was also sobering on a question focusing on the convention's name and its evangelistic efforts. LifeWay researchers asked: "When I see (fill in denominational affiliation) in the name of a church, I assume it is not for me." Nationwide, 35 percent of those polled "strongly agreed" that a Southern Baptist congregation would not be a good fit for them -- higher than for Catholics (33 percent), generic "Baptists" (29 percent), Methodists (26 percent) and "community" or nondenominational churches (20 percent).

In other words, the mere presence of the word "Southern" cost SBC congregations six percentage points in head-to-head comparisons with other Baptists. In another question linked to decisions to visit or join a church, only 10 percent of those polled said that knowing a "church was Southern Baptist" would have a positive impact.

Meanwhile, the SBC fared worst among Americans who rarely attend church, Hispanics, many urbanites and young Americans. In all, only 17 percent of Protestant adults agreed that knowing a congregation was Southern Baptist would have a positive impact when it came time to decide whether to visit or join. The number among non-Protestant adults was a mere 2 percent.

The clear evidence that nondenominational churches -- churches without labels -- fared significantly better than Southern Baptist churches was especially significant, said Stetzer.

"People increasingly see religion in terms of silos and categories," he said. "It seems that they look at churches and then quickly decide, 'That one's for me' or they decide, 'That one's not for me.' ... The irony is that they will find many of the same beliefs in nondenominational evangelical churches that they find in our Southern Baptist churches -- but people don't know that.

"It seems that people will give a church a fair shot, but only if the label doesn't scare them."

God in the Gallup details

Decade after decade, the Gallup Organization reported some of the most familiar numbers in American religion. More than 90 percent of Americans said, "yes" when asked if they believe in God -- a number has changed little since the 1940s. Nearly 80 percent insisted they are "Christians," in some sense of that word. How many claimed to have attended a worship service in the previous week or so? That number hovered between 41 and 46 percent.

These are the kinds of numbers religious leaders love to quote when trying to intimidate politicians, educators, journalists and Hollywood producers.

Nevertheless, these poll numbers consistently failed to impress one significant authority -- George Gallup Jr.

"We revere the Bible, but don't read it," warned the famous pollster, in an address to the Evangelical Press Association. "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them. We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him."

The bottom line, he said, in an interview after that 1990 address, is that most American believers simply "want the fruits of religion, but not the obligations."

Gallup didn't enjoy punching holes in comforting statistics, in part because he sincerely believed that religious faith played a powerful, and for many decades overlooked, role in American life. This conviction was both professional and personal, since Gallup seriously considered becoming an Episcopal priest and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion at Princeton University before joining the family business.

Thus, while his father forever linked the Gallup name with political polling, George Gallup Jr. added a new goal for the firm's research -- probing the links between religious life and public life. Gallup retired in 2004 and died on Nov. 21 at the age of 81, after a one-year battle with cancer.

The key to Gallup's legacy is that he built on the basic religious questions his father and other researchers included in polls during the 1940s and '50s, said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, who is known for his research into American politics and religious life. Instead of merely asking questions about religious affiliations, Gallup advocated a more systematic approach that focused attention on religious beliefs, attitudes and even behaviors.

"You got the sense that, however valuable those general numbers were in earlier polls, he was showing that you could experiment and try to find the realities inside all those numbers," said Green. The earlier Gallup numbers were "valuable because some of them went back so far into the mid-20th century. Then, George Gallup Jr. showed everyone that you could go beyond that general approach and dedicate entire surveys to religious questions."

By the end of his career, it was common to see a variety of researchers -- at the Pew Forum, LifeWay Research, the Barna Group and elsewhere -- focusing their work on highly specialized surveys targeting religious issues and trends. In 1977, Gallup himself helped found the Princeton Religion Research Center, in part to produce materials that would help clergy be more effective.

The basic problem, Gallup told me in 2004, is that far too many clergy "simply fail to take discipleship seriously. They assume that because people say they believe something, that this means they will live out those beliefs in daily life."

This shows up in the building blocks of faith, he added. Many clergy, for example, assume that people in their flocks understand simple Bible references. Many assume that people in their pews understand the truth claims of other religions. Many clergy are naive enough to believe that postmodern believers will -- without being challenged -- confess their sins and change the behaviors that cause havoc in their lives.

Far too many pastors, he lamented, seem afraid to ask tough questions.

"America is a churched nation, for the most part. Most Americans are either going to church or they used to go to church," said Gallup. "At some point we need to start focusing more attention on what is happening or not happening in those churches. ... Are our people learning the basics? Is their faith making a difference in their lives? Is their faith attractive to other people?

"These are the kinds of questions we must be willing to ask."

Religion futures market 2007

When it comes to statistics about religion, Europe is an urbane continent full of empty cathedrals, while America offers rows of suburban megachurches.

Consider what happens when the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asks a basic "salience question" to determine the level of interest in faith-related matters around the world. Participants are asked to answer "yes" or "no" in response to this statement: "Religion is very important to me."

About six out of 10 in the United States say "yes," noted political scientist Luis E. Lugo, who has directed the research center since 2004.

"There is not a place in Europe, even in Eastern Europe, that comes close to that kind of level of religious commitment," he said, during a religion-news seminar in Washington organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life. Even Canada, he noted, now "looks like Europe on this question."

In Great Britain, 33 percent of those polled said religion was "very important" in their lives, compared with 27 percent in Italy, 21 percent in Germany and 11 percent in France. In Poland, the number was 36 percent, with Russia at 14 percent and the Czech Republic at 11 percent.

This rift between the old world and the new has existed for decades. Lugo said that when he discusses these statistics with Europeans they say, "Ah! See, we knew it. The United States is a very strange place. It's just full of religious zealots."

But then Lugo clicks to another chart as he describes what he calls the "religious futures market." The goal is to map the intersection of faith and demographics, including factors such as fertility rates and religious conversion trends in various nations. What happens when Lugo adds statistics from Latin America, Asia and Africa to his "salience question" chart?

The numbers are stark. In Guatemala, 80 percent of those polled said religion was "very important" in their lives. That number was 77 percent in Brazil and 72 percent in Honduras, but only 39 percent in Argentina.

And Asia? The "yes" total was 95 percent in Indonesia, 92 percent in India, 91 percent in the Philippines, but only 12 percent in Japan. And Africa? Senegal checks in at 97 percent, Nigeria is 92 percent and the numbers only declined to 80 percent in Angola.

Lugo said the typical response by Europeans to these numbers could be summed up in one word -- "Whoa!" Then there is nervous laughter.

So, when it comes to weighing the role of religion in world affairs, Europeans who worry about America have to ask: "Who looks strange now?"

"The world as a whole is even more religious than the United States," Lugo added. "So it is not the United States that needs explaining, in many ways, when it comes to religion, it is Europe that needs to be explained. Why this secular continent ... surrounded by a sea of religiosity?"

This global reality raises all kinds of questions, such as:

* Why are fertility rates linked to the fervency of religious beliefs? "The most secular parts of the world have the lowest fertility rates," he noted, "and the most religious have the highest fertility rates."

* How will Europe respond to high rates of immigration by religious believers, especially Muslims and Christians from Eastern Europe?

* Can the continent of Africa avoid being shaped by conflict between Islam and Christianity -- two growing, conversion-oriented faiths on that continent?

* How will the move of more Catholics into what Lugo called "high-octane Pentecostalism" -- inside the Church of Rome and in Protestantism -- affect Latin America, Central America and, finally, North America?

If researchers focus strictly on Europe and North America, they may conclude that secularism and liberalized forms of faith are on the rise. But if they look at the global numbers, said Lugo, they will see a completely different picture of the future.

"You don't have to be a genius to conclude that it is going to be more religious and less secular," he said. "There is not a European country, for instance, that is anywhere close to a replacement birth rate. Not even close. All of their populations are declining. ... So on that basis alone, you can predict that the whole religion question is going to become even more important, in terms of global affairs."