Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pew poll raises issue: Which religion are we talking about anyway?

Last Tuesday the Dallas Morning News reported in a headline on its front page (the banner story), "Most say there is more than one path to eternal life, poll finds". The headline was drawn from findings in new research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 

On that same day other newspapers across the country also carried the story with similar headlines.

Two days later, Baptist Press reported "A new Pew Research Center poll result showing evangelicals holding universalistic beliefs regarding salvation may have been skewed at least somewhat because of how the question was worded." 

Two days after that—on Saturday when it almost never publishes—Baptist Press took the unusual step of distributing what it termed "Breaking News", stating, "Study adds doubt about Pew poll 'universalism' claim".

Citing a soon-to-be released LifeWay study, the Baptist news service reported "The LifeWay Research finding adds quantifiable data to growing criticisms that the Pew survey was flawed in how it asked its question and that poor wording was the cause of Pew's counterintuitive conclusions about evangelicals' beliefs regarding the exclusivity of Christ for salvation."

Baptist Press quoted my friend, Scripps-Howard religion columnist Terry Mattingly, as saying, "I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I'm a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ." 

So, what's going on here? And what's all the hysteria about?

Several trends are at play all at the same time.

1. Forty years ago most Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics and other members of widely differing Christian groups looked on each other as "not saved". Before Vatican Council II, Roman Catholics, for instance, thought all Protestants were going to hell. Most Southern Baptists as well as some other groups thought the same thing of Roman Catholics as well as members of some other Protestant bodies. 

2. Back then America was basically a Judeo-Christian country.  That means most people who espoused a religion were either Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Protestant.  The furthest thing from anybody's mind then was the possibility of America's becoming populated with Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, and Buddhist pagodas as well as an assortment of other houses of worship. The whole idea was just too far-fetched for most Americans in the 1960s to comprehend. When someone like me tried to say in the 1970s that in four or five decades U.S. Muslims would outnumber U.S. Jews, or U.S. Hindus would be inching alongside Episcopalians numerically, people would respond in disbelief.

That was then. This is now.

1. Today, Roman Catholics officially refer to Protestants as the "departed brethren", a major acknowledgement that Protestants are no longer according to official Catholic theology "going to hell".  Roman Catholics are engaged in dialogue with other Christian groups on a varying scale, depending on how receptive various groups are to dialogue and recognition of Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, some Roman Catholics, including church leaders, and some in the more liberal Protestant denominations are starting to say Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews do, only they call him Allah instead of Jehovah (Yahweh and all the other names Christians give to God).

2. During the past 40 years Protestants have experienced the most incredible "member swapping" imaginable. Former Southern Baptists populate the Mormon church in surprising numbers. Former Roman Catholics can be found in significant numbers in  Southern Baptist churches throughout the country. Presbyterians have jumped ship to join the United Methodists; Episopalians have become Roman Catholics.  Got the picture? Churches have become more like chicken stew than separate dishes of pure chicken, pure tomatoes, pure potatoes, and so forth. Very few denominations remain "pure" Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, whatever. That mixture has lessened the ability to say "all Roman Catholics believe this, all Southern Baptists believe that, and "all members of the Churches of Christ believe this.". . . and so forth.

2. Today, Muslims are fast catching up in numbers with the U.S. Jewish population. U.S. Hindus really could soon numerically equal the Episcopalians; Buddhists are becoming almost as numerous as Presbyterians.

So, in the midst of this changing landscape, the Pew Forum steps in and asks a question about whether Christians believe others outside their faith will be going to heaven some day.  No wonder confusion reigns! 

The question itself is most legitimate, especially given the changes in American religious life that have been under way for nearly four decades. However, in the context of today's religious world, the question needs to be asked very precisely. Whose faith are we talking about anyway—Christian branches such as Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, United Methodist, and Roman Catholics? Or Christians generically along with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus as well as others? 

summa cum laude seminary degree is not necessary to know that within Christianity, individual Christians—including Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, United Pentecostal, United Methodist, etc.—are more accepting toward each other than in previous generations. How widespread this tolerance is needs to be determined by some really precise, skilled researchers.

At the same time, on the cutting edge is the issue involving how accepting Christians are of non-Christians. Granted, some Christians today believe Jews will go to heaven; some even believe Muslims will be there, too. But what about Hindus, Buddhists, and so forth? Again, more research is needed into exactly what is believed by whom about what.

Unfortunately, the Pew Forum needed to use a shotgun instead of a rifle in its research on these two issues. It needed to determine the answers to a lot of questions before drawing any generalized conclusion about the bigger issue of how tolerant Christians are today about the faith of others.  In the chicken stew of today's religious environment, one lone question wasn't enough to get at the bigger picture. Regrettably, it only muddied the waters.

So, why are Southern Baptists in a snit about Pew's finding? More on that next time.

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