Beliefs Culture

Report: Americans hold different views of what “religious” means

Graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute

(RNS)  There is a lopsided divide in America about what it means to be a religious person, with a majority believing that it’s about acting morally but a strong minority equating it with faith.

Graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute

Graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute

Nearly six out of 10 Americans (59 percent) say that being a religious person “is primarily about living a good life and doing the right thing,” as opposed to the more than one-third (36 percent) who hold that being religious “is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs.”

The findings, released Thursday (July 18), are part of a report by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution that aims to paint a more nuanced picture of the American religious landscape, and the religious left in particular.

Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, said that Americans’ two views of what makes a person religious harken back to the Protestant Reformation and to the Bible itself.

“This has been a perennial debate through the ages in Christianity,” said Jones. “The Pauline literature, especially in the Book of Romans, makes the case for religious justification by faith alone, while the Book of James seems to state the very opposite — ‘faith without works is dead.’

Martin Luther, who sparked the Protestant Reformation in 1517, taught that faith alone — not “good works” — brings salvation.

“We were curious to see whether this theological debate still has any traction in American religion,” Jones said. “And, lo and behold, it’s still with us today.” But he noted that one side prevails, with those who believe that action defines religiousness outnumbering by nearly 2-1 those who think the key element is faith.

The report, dubbed the “Economic Values Survey,” uses respondents’ views on everything — from God to the Bible to the role of government in the economy — to create a new scale of religiosity that divides Americans into four groups: religious conservatives (28 percent), religious moderates (38 percent), religious progressives (19 percent) and the nonreligious (15 percent.)

Graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute

Graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute

Where do various religious groups fall on the scale?

— White evangelical Christians fall overwhelmingly (70 percent) into the conservative category.

— About four in 10 white mainline Protestants (44 percent) and white Catholics (43 percent) are moderates, as are seven in 10 Hispanic Catholics and more than half of black Protestants (54 percent).

— The largest group of non-Christian religious people (42 percent) is classified as progressive.

— A strong majority of the unaffiliated (59 percent) are in the nonreligious sector.

The authors say this new scale, taking into account a wide range of beliefs — religious and otherwise — helps clarify the nature of the religious left, which has been studied far less than the religious right.

“The Christian right since the 1970s has been much more of a political force in American life,” Jones said. It’s also easier to study because it is far more homogenous: Seven out of 10 religious conservatives are white Christians, compared to four out of 10 on the religious left, “where a big swath of them are not Christian,” Jones added.

The report also probed the religious aspects of Americans’ views of the economy and economic justice, with survey respondents split on whether capitalism and the free market system are consistent with (41 percent) or at odds with (44 percent) Christian values. The authors note little difference among religious groups on the question.

The gap between rich and poor, an issue raised in recent years most vocally by progressive religious groups, is considered the nation’s most pressing economic issue by 15 percent of those surveyed, coming in fourth behind the lack of jobs, the deficit and the rising cost of health care.

But religiously unaffiliated Americans are more likely to call economic inequality the most serious economic problem than any religiously affiliated group: 27 percent give it top billing, compared to 15 percent of mainline Protestants, nine percent of white evangelical Protestants and seven percent of Catholics.

While the study, consistent with previous reports, shows that religious conservatives outnumber religious progressives, it also seeks to dispel what it calls a common misconception that the “right” side of the religious scale is far heavier than the “left.”

Graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute

Graphic courtesy Public Religion Research Institute

What is often not taken into account in this view is the nonreligious, they argue.

The “nine percent advantage religious conservatives have in outnumbering religious progressives is muted by the additional 15 percent of Americans who are nonreligious and hold similar views to religious progressives across a range of issues,” they write.

What may bode even worse for religious conservatives is that they skew old. The survey shows that they are heavily represented among the oldest Americans (47 percent) but “make up a smaller proportion of each successive generation.”

The survey of 2,002 adults was conducted between May 30 and June 16 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.


About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


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  • “The bottom line is: Christianity is a religion. You can’t get away from it, If it walks like a duck, with doctrines, dogma, structures, everything a religion has, it’s a duck.”

    No sanitized euphemism is going to make the underlying dogma attractive. The most recent Pew study seems more credible than PRRI, so any numbers used will be a reflection of the most recent 2012 Pew study.

    The problem with the word ‘religion’ is caused by the evangelical/fundamentalist adherents to Christianity. Fundamentalist Islam is a problem too, but Islam is so small in the US that it’s not worth addressing. These evangelical/fundamentalist Christians are about 28% of the US population, but they are extremely vocal, whiny, and are trying to establish a theocracy.

    The term religion will never have a positive connotation, thanks to the evangelical/fundamentalist Christians. And oddly enough, they are the group that is trying to re-brand themselves as something other than religious.

    When you have 1 out of 3 people in the US believing the world is less than 10,000 years old and all life was created in its current form by god, in six days, because some minuscule arcane library of 66 books says so, we have a terrible disconnect from reality. And its worse when they are constantly trying to have this lunatic belief taught in school. We send our children to school to overcome ignorance, not to indoctrinate it.

    These people are well funded and very dangerous to the US way of life. They are not happy to just practice their religion. You have to believe and practice their religion too. That’s where you start to see theocracy creeping in.

    If you live in the bible belt and your not one of those zombies, you know this response is true. If you are not in the bible belt consider yourself fortunate.

    If you have recently read about North Carolina attempting to legislate a Christian state religion, then you can understand that the bible belt, plus many of the Red States would love to do the same. First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment be damned, regardless of how many times SCOTUS has told them to grow up and get a life.

  • Most hopeful information in the survey: What may bode even worse for religious conservatives is that they skew old. The survey shows that they are heavily represented among the oldest Americans (47 percent) but “make up a smaller proportion of each successive generation.”

  • The problem with the survey, that I see, is that it conflates religious conservatism/progressivism with political conservatism/progressivism, when the two don’t always coincide. The survey apparently asked people questions about both “God and the Bible” and the government’s role the economy and then labeled them conservative, moderate or progressive. But someone could have conservative views about God and the Bible while holding progressive political views or visa versa.

    This makes it hard to assess statements like “What may bode even worse for religious conservatives is that they skew old.” Are we talking about political conservatives who are religious or people who hold conservative religious views?

  • Wow….where to begin? I find what you have to say about Christianity extremely offensive. Christians are whiny and trying to establish a theocracy? You’re kidding, right? We Christians certainly are not dangerous to the American way of life. I just can’t think of many good responses-I’m too shocked. Just so you know,however…I am a Christian with Lutheran leanings. I am well-educated and worked as an ICU RN for over 20 years. To me, the Bible is not some archaic, mimiature library of 66 books, but an amazing group of books written over hundreds of years by people inspired by God. I believe it is the Word of God. I don’t wish for a theocracy, but a country where we can live out our faith freely.

  • Why is this “hopeful”? I’m 51, and most of my friends are around my age, but I know many young, conservative Christians. You’re happy that conservatives are dying out, but be very careful what you wish for….it may not be pretty without conservatives offering a different view of the world!

  • Being judgemental, not being in spirit(i mean that if you depend on your flesh), depending on human created laws that they say that we christians should bear with, being a church goer on sunday only and the rest of other days being a brood of viper…..that is my opinion

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