What Do Church-Going Americans Really Believe? It’s Complicated.
November 30, 2022
Every two years Ligonier Ministries issues a State of Theology survey aimed at exploring Americans’ beliefs on a broad range of theological issues. The website for the State of Theology survey includes a great data explorer that allows people to easily analyze and visualize their data along the lines of ethnicity, geographic region, religious affiliation, gender, education, income and more. Interested parties can also explore data from previous surveys, going back to 2014, and compare results in the U.S. to a 2018 survey they carried out in the U.K.
Their latest report provides many surprising insights about how contemporary U.S. Christians understand Christianity.
For the purposes of this essay, let’s look specifically at Americans who attend religious services once per week or more. Although 63% of Americans self-identify as Christian, less than half of U.S. adults (or roughly two-thirds of American Christians) are affiliated with a specific place of worship, and only about a third of all Americans (roughly half of all U.S. Christians) seem to regularly attend religious services.
Strikingly, the Ligonier data suggests that even among those who regularly attend church, many seem to view this participation as non-essential to the faith. Although 64% of regular churchgoers view it as an obligation for Christians to join a local church, most (55% also believe that worshipping privately is a valid replacement for regularly attending religious services.
Nonetheless, focusing on those who attend religious services at least once per week – highly-engaged believers who are more plugged into a religious community and religious traditions – are perhaps the most revelatory about the state of Christianity in the U.S. today, and how things may trend downstream.
On the Nature of God
Contemporary American churchgoers have somewhat contradictory beliefs on the nature of God.
On the one hand, 91% assert that God is a perfect being and cannot make mistakes. However, most (56%) simultaneously assert that God learns and adapts to different circumstances. On the surface, it is unclear how a perfect and omniscient Being could learn and grow. Nonetheless, frequent churchgoers are more likely than other Americans to endorse a belief that God learns and adapts.
Likewise, 94% of Americans who regularly attend religious services assert that there is one true God in three Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, more than 70% of respondents simultaneously view Jesus as the first and greatest being created by God (and therefore, implicitly, not co-eternal with God). Churchgoers are substantially more likely to believe this than the general public. More strikingly, nearly half (47%) of Americans who regularly attend religious services view Jesus as a great teacher but do not view him as God incarnate. This is not much different from the share of the general U.S. public who feels the same (53%).
It’s not just Jesus who is viewed as a lesser entity than God (the Father). Sixty-one percent of U.S. churchgoers describe the Holy Spirit as a divine force but not a personal being. In this, the views of people who regularly attend church seem to be roughly identical with those of the general public. But of course, to view the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force is in tension with the core trinitarian belief of one God in three persons.
What’s more, many regular churchgoers view the Holy Spirit as a potentially malign force. Nearly a third (30%) asserted that the Holy Spirit can compel people to take actions that are forbidden by the Scriptures. In fact, those who frequently attend religious services were much more likely to embrace this possibility than those with lower levels of religious participation.
In short, although frequent American churchgoers near-unanimously embrace the idea of the Trinity in the abstract, it nonetheless seems as though God the Father is ultimately who they seem to have in mind when understanding God as a perfect, eternal, and personal Being. Jesus seems to be viewed as distinct from God per se, and not necessarily co-eternal with God (instead, he was created by God). The Holy Spirit seems to be broadly understood as a means through which God executes His will rather than being a personal entity in the same sense as God the Father.
On the whole, Americans who regularly attend religious services express strong faith in the Bible:
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However, substantial shares of Christians also subscribe to views on the Holy Scriptures that stand in tension with the sentiments expressed above. For instance, nearly half (45%) of frequent U.S. churchgoers hold that religious belief is, at bottom, a matter of personal opinion rather than objective facts. Thirty-eight percent express that the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true. Thirty-one percent believe that modern science disproves some aspects of the Bible.
At the intersection of these questions, it seems as though somewhere between 10-20% of Americans who regularly attend religious services simultaneously believe that,
- The Bible is historically accurate and the highest moral and epistemic authority in their lives, but also
- The Bible is mythological rather than literally true, yet
- Parts of the Bible have been disproven by science
- Religion is broadly about personal opinions rather than genuine metaphysical facts about the structure and purpose of the universe, the meaning of life, etc.
With respect to eschatological questions, on the surface, churchgoers in America broadly endorse traditional Christian dogma on original sin, salvation, and judgement:
However, most Americans who frequently attend religious services also seem to hold beliefs about sin and salvation that seem to blatantly conflict with the positions described above.
For instance, nearly two-thirds believe that the Holy Spirit provides a spiritual birth or new life before a person has faith in Jesus (rather than as a consequence of accepting the Lord into one’s heart). Regular churchgoers are actually more likely to endorse this view than the general public.
A similar share of churchgoers believes that, although everyone sins a little, people are essentially good. This is claim seems to be in tension with understanding humanity as fundamentally fallen as a result of Original Sin (creating the need for Jesus’ sacrifice, and for individuals to subsequently embrace Christ as their Savior).
An even higher share of regular churchgoers (71%) believe that everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God. Again, this seems to be a direct refutation of the idea that people are born sinners – that we are in need of Christ’s redemption from the outset, irrespective of who we are and what we do.
Likewise, more than two-thirds (67%) of Americans who regularly attend religious services assert that God accepts worship of all religions alongside that of Christians. This belief seems to sit in significant tension with the view most Christians also endorse that the only path to salvation is through Christ (and it is therefore imperative for Christians to spread His Gospel throughout the world).
Beyond the Label
All said, the 2022 State of Theology survey reveals that contemporary American churchgoers broadly accept core Christian dogma in the abstract – however, when one goes a little deeper into their particular understandings of God, the Bible and salvation, it becomes clear that:
- Most U.S Christians do not seem to fully understand or embrace the Trinity.
- Many are also skeptical about understanding the scriptures (or religion more broadly) as dealing in objective and literal facts about the nature and meaning of the universe.
- Even larger shares seem unsure about the extent to which people are intrinsically in need of Christ’s redemption, or whether Jesus truly provides the only path to salvation, or whether it is necessary to be part of a religious community or take part in religious gatherings and rituals at all.
Here it deserves to be emphasized that this essay has been focused on Americans who attend religious services at least once per week. Among the half of U.S. Christians who are less connected than this to religious communities, rituals or traditions, levels of uncertainty and contradiction tend to be higher still.
When we look at demographic statistics, Americans overwhelmingly identify with Christianity. However, what that identification means – both substantively speaking and practically speaking – seems to be broadly unclear.
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and a Daniel Bell Research Fellow at Heterodox Academy. His work explores how people talk about, think about, and produce a shared understanding of various social phenomena. His first book, “We Have Never Been Woke: Social Justice Discourse, Inequality, and the Rise of a New Elite,” is forthcoming with Princeton University Press. Al-Gharbi is also committed to public engagement. He is a columnist with The Guardian, and his research and writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Atlantic, New Republic, The Nation and many other outlets. Readers can connect to his research, social media, and public writing via his website: musaalgharbi.com.