Interesting finds in a Pew survey on religion

A service at Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas. Evangelical churches like this one make up a plurality of Christian churches in the U.S. and are most common in the South. (Photo: Jared Stump)

More evangelical Christians than not believe the government should do more to protect morality in society, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life. The survey also showed a majority of evangelicals support measures to protect the environment.

The survey examined the demographics among people who hold religious belief, their practices and beliefs, and their views on various social and political issues. It included responses from 35,000 people.

The survey also revealed that among Christian traditions in the United States, a majority of only two believe their faith is the only that leads to “eternal life.” 57 percent of Mormons and 80 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses (no surprises there) hold this belief. By comparison, 36 percent of evangelicals, 12 percent of mainline Christians, and 8 percent of Catholics hold this belief.

On the question of government’s role in protecting morality in society, the Pew researchers asked respondents to choose which of the following two statements most closely aligned with their beliefs: (1) “The government should do more to protect morality in society.” (2) “I worry the government is getting too involved in the issue of morality.” 50 percent of evangelicals, 54 percent of Mormons, and 59 percent of Muslims said the government should do more and 49 percent of Catholics (a plurality), 58 percent of Mainline Christians, and 52 percent overall among respondents said the government was too involved in “moral” issues. I guess we know where Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann have their base of support.

It should be noted that the survey question does not ask respondents to provide their own definition of “do more” or what actions would be appropriate. Granted it’s a survey and the goal is group people into as few categories as possible for statistical purposes, but this is almost too ambiguous to be of any value. That said, if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say most of the people who believe government should do more to protect morality support bans against gay marriage, possibly more restrictions on divorce, tighter regulation of tobacco and alcohol, criminalization of pornography, etc. Interesting that the same survey reported many of the same groups who support more government action to uphold morality also favor smaller government.

Questions concerning the literal interpretation of Scripture asked respondents whether the Bible (or other holy book for members of other religions) was (1) the “Word of God, to be taken literally word for word,” (2) the “Word of God, but not literally true word for word/Unsure if literally true,” or (3) a “book written by Men, not the word of God.” This is an interesting question and one which I’d have been unable to answer. Here are a few of my issues with the question:

  1. It is unclear what is implied by the term “literal truth.” Does that mean that every event recorded in the Bible happened exactly as it is written in English without regard for genre, original context, or questionable transliteration? Does “literal truth” mean homosexuals, adulterers, rebellious children, or people who break the Sabbath have to be stoned (with rocks, not marijuana)? The problem with ambiguous terms like this is that they take on different meanings to different people.
  2. In similar manner, it’s unclear what is meant by “Word of God.” Does this mean God sat down with a dictaphone and sent the transcript to Tyndale House when he was done? Or does it mean that the human writers of Scripture were inspired by God? Again, it’s unclear. Also, it’s an interesting concept to think of the Bible as the Word of God but not literally true: would God try to trick us by planting falsehoods in the Scriptures?
  3. By saying, “book written by Men, not the Word of God,” the last statement implies that the Bible could only be the Word of God if it weren’t written by Men. Odd, to say the least.

Despite my issues with the question, it returned some interesting responses, which can be viewed here.

There weren’t many other surprises in the report, but it’s an interesting read and has a well-put-together interactive version you can explore.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is a Washington, D.C., based institute that “seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.” It is one of the seven parts of the Pew Research Center, itself a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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