A nation that believes rightly but …
The American people as a whole continue to be the most openly religious and traditional of all the Western technological societies, a fact frequently noticed by European visitors. It is not only that they profess religious beliefs that surprises some, but that their beliefs actually affect their lives. Throughout their history Americans have been religious, and the trend continues unabated; it is now more in evidence than ever.
The CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup poll shows that 94 percent of the general public believe in God or in a universal spirit that in their mind functions as God. Only 4 percent explicitly deny the existence of such a Being. All this is significant, given three factors: First, American educational philosophy has rigorously tried to exclude any notion of God from the structure of its understanding and for over 50 years has given our children a steady diet of secular instruction. Second, the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling that religious instruction and prayer must be kept out of the schools, in the eyes of many further secularized our educational system. Third, the “death of God” theology that flourished briefly in the 1960s, had, as most of us suspected, no visible effect on the religious beliefs of the American people as a whole.
In spite of all these influences, few people were moved to abandon their faith in God. The pronouncements of some social analysts, and some prominent churchmen as well, that America has become “post-Christian” and too sophisticated to need God anymore turns out to be grossly inaccurate. The fact is, the vast majority have always believed in God or a Supreme Spirit who rules and watches over them, and this is not affected by the amount of education a person has. It does not follow, as some erroneously assume, that the more education a person has the less likely he is to believe in God. The precise nature of the Supreme Being is another matter, but very few need to be convinced that he is there. Eighty-seven percent of those who say they believe in God find comfort in their belief, and about half say it gives them great comfort; so belief is not merely an abstract conviction: it is a source of strength in the midst of our increasingly complex and bewildering society.
The question that needs to be probed further is to what degree has this religious profession actually affected the moral structure of the American people. When asked to state their beliefs about Jesus Christ, only 1 in 10 say they do not believe him to be God or the Son of God, but only a great religious teacher. More than 8 out of 10 say they believe Jesus Christ was divine in the sense that God worked through him and that he was the Son of God, or that he is both fully God and fully man. There seems to be a bit of confusion in the mind of the average person as to precisely who Jesus is (a fact not in evidence among the clergy, who are very explicit on this point); but that he was not simply another human being is believed by an overwhelming number of American people, with 39 million adults (out of an estimated 155 million total) willing to confess that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Jesus continues to be The Man, par excellence, the One who eludes our definitions.
We Americans may not know exactly who he is, but we know who he is not: he is not just another one of us. As such, he is the subject of our pop musicals, hit songs, and the number one “Hero” to many college students, according to another recent poll. The need for evangelicals to say clearly who Jesus is—fully God and fully man and the only Lord and Savior of mankind—thus clearing up the confusion, is urgent, and essential to a truly biblical and consistently evangelical view of Christianity.
A Genuinely surprising fact that emerged from the poll is that 45 percent of the general public say personal faith in Christ is the only hope of heaven; (only 10 percent do not believe in life after death). This shows in a striking way how pervasive basic Christian doctrine is in American society. Almost half of the American adults are clear on how to get to heaven and are quite willing to say they believe it to be true. This does not mean, of course, that all of these people have truly made an ultimate commitment to Christ, but it does show how widely disseminated the gospel message is. It also shows how drastically wrong the pessimistic forecasts of a decade ago were when we were told that America had outgrown Christianity and was ready to substitute a secular society or a secular church for the fundamental truths of Christianity. The gospel, when clearly preached, will always have appeal to mankind, because the power of God is in it. The church must never forget that no matter how the fashions change, nor what the experts say, people are at least willing to listen to the truth.
In line with the belief that personal faith in Christ is the only hope of heaven, one out of every three say they have had a religious experience or awakening that changed the course of their lives, and 95 percent of those who had that experience say it involved Jesus Christ and that it is still important in their everyday lives. Of these, 79 percent are willing to call it an identifiable conversion experience in which they asked Jesus Christ to be their personal Savior. Individuals who are skeptical about the value of such experiences might well ponder these facts. We could wish that such experiences were translated into more ethical action, but the importance of such a religious phenomenon can hardly be dismissed as of no consequence. Indeed, the poll shows that the attitudes and behavior of those who have had such an experience differ in many respects from those who have not had a religious conversion experience.
Belief in biblical moral standards also continues to be high, with more than 8 out of 10 saying the Ten Commandments are still valid for today. Once again, the all too hasty sellout by some professional churchmen and theologians to the “postmodern” view of situation ethics about 15 years ago has not been so influential as we feared. At least in theory, the American people have rightly rejected a Watergate type of morality and general moral relativity. This holds true on college campuses as well. Student demand has led colleges and universities across the country to teach over 2,000 courses in applied ethics, with bioethics leading the way. There is also great interest in the ethical implications of law, business, journalism, public policy, engineering, and the social sciences. To our shame the general public and our young people are reminding us that slick systems of morality that fail to confront issues of right and wrong squarely and courageously are not going to be tolerated. These moral convictions also provide the base on which an evangelistic appeal can be made. People do have a sense of right and wrong and they can be reached on that basis.
The church as a formal structure within American society continues its gradual increase in importance. In 1950, 57 percent of the general public were church members; that increased to 63 percent by 1958, and today it is 67 percent. These figures do not reflect the precise place of the church in the public’s lives, however. Americans only attend church weekly or more on the average of just over one in three, with about half attending monthly or more. The other half only attend infrequently (such as on religious holidays) or not at all. When confronted by a spiritual or religious problem, 64 percent say they would seek out a member of the clergy. When testing their religious beliefs only 1 in 10 say they would go to the church first. Most prefer to go to the Bible or to the Holy Spirit directly.
All This seems to say that Americans are more convinced than ever that the church has a place in our society, but they are not sure the church is meeting all of their religious needs. The Protestant heritage of biblical authority is still quite strong. The organized church, however, needs to take a careful look at itself to determine why membership continues to increase, while the actual attendance continues to go down. It could well be that their trumpet is blowing an uncertain sound and what is needed is a return to fundamental biblical doctrine. This is borne out by the fact that it is the conservative churches that are growing fastest, while the liberalizing denominations are moribund. The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Methodist Church for years have been losing between 75 and 100 thousand members a year, while most evangelical and Pentecostal groups are growing.
The most impressive statistic concerning the general public, though by now no longer a startling one, is that 20 percent of the adult Americans answer to the description of evangelical. Since this group will be discussed at length in the next section, nothing more needs to be said here except to observe that 31 million adults (or 44 million, if the entire population is under consideration) is a sizeable portion of our society. Few evangelicals would dare to claim that the day of the evangelical has arrived. Yet evangelicalism is growing and many evangelical teachings and attitudes still penetrate major portions of the population. Barring unforeseen factors, evangelicalism is almost certain to increase its influence during the next decade. Thus, evangelicals must make their influence felt in society at large now, or lose an opportunity that might not come again for another hundred years, if ever.
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