American society lacks commitment to a cohesive world-life view.
Christianity today’s Gallup Poll of social attitudes reflects both remarkable convergence and divergence among evangelicals, clergy, and the general public, but leaves some important issues in midair. Here are eight conclusions:
• The American public put physical health far above spiritual salvation as life’s major need. That fact may explain the broad appeal of some healing movements that proclaim both bodily and spiritual healing.
• The general public rank financial security even above personal freedom as a human priority. While evangelicals stipulate personal salvation foremost, they also rank personal freedom lower than financial security.
• In contrast with an impressive response by evangelicals and the clergy, about 30 percent of the general public have done little or nothing to alleviate poverty.
• While most evangelicals designate world evangelization as their basic duty, the public perception is that the Christian’s prime task should be personal and family spiritual growth.
• Clergy are more tolerant of divorce than evangelicals, but the general public are much more permissive than either the clergy or evangelicals.
• One in three of the general public totally abstains from alcohol, while one in three drinks excessively. Among evangelicals, two out of three are total abstainers. One-fourth of the conversionalist evangelicals who are not abstainers say they sometimes drink more than they think they should.
• Lay evangelicals consider the church’s political and economic pronouncements less important than do clergy, including evangelical clergy, and the general public are even less persuaded of their value. Conversionalist evangelicals esteem them slightly higher than do other evangelicals.
• The general public are more reluctant than evangelicals to seek clergy counsel in times of personal or financial crisis, and, unless problems are alcohol or drug related, they also avoid community agencies. But in times of spiritual crisis, the public turn first to the clergy.
Some of the poll’s findings on major points:
The Christian’s Prime Task. The general public much more (37 percent) than evangelicals (27 percent) consider personal and family spiritual growth to be the prime Christian priority, whereas twice as many evangelicals (about 53 percent) consider world evangelization the top priority. These figures perhaps reflect the greater stability of Christian family life and the fact that the evangelistic mandate devolves upon believers rather than upon the world. But two in five evangelicals declare personal and family spiritual growth the second most important Christian priority. The public divide almost equally over family, piety, joining community causes, and strengthening the local church as what they perceive to be the Christian’s second most important duty. Evangelicals, on the other hand, by two to one consider involvement in groups and causes that strengthen the entire community less important than strengthening the local church. Only 4 percent of evangelicals regard efforts to influence public legislation as Christians’ second most important priority, compared to 11 percent of the general public.
Needs of the Disadvantaged. That society has a duty to meet “basic needs” of children, the handicapped, and the elderly was affirmed by 98 percent of evangelicals and by 95 percent of the general public. Most respondents agree that these needs should be met by a combination of government and voluntary organizations. Conversionalist evangelicals want government to assume a larger role than voluntary organizations. But 10 percent of all evangelicals and 8 percent of the general public say that voluntary organizations and individuals rather than government should be responsible for meeting basic needs.
Confronting Poverty. Noteworthy differences emerge between the general public, evangelicals, and the clergy over the preferred course of personal involvement in confronting poverty. Evangelicals (42 percent) and the general public (33 percent) emphasize personal contributions to religious and community organizations that aid the poor, in contrast to the clergy (33 percent) who put more emphasis on direct personal help and on persuading church, religious, and government organizations to assist. Virtually none of the clergy think that government taxes and emergency aid exhaust one’s duty to the needy; yet 6 percent of evangelicals do think so, and 18 percent of the general public consider government-supported programs and emergency assistance as completely fulfilling one’s duty.
Personal Response. In coping with poverty locally, 27 percent of the general public conceded that they have done none of the things they acknowledged to be their duty, and another 3 percent can’t recall what they have done—a remarkable gulf between conscience and performance among an overall 30 percent. Among conversionalist evangelicals and among clergy of all groups, only 1 percent fall into the nonperformance category.
Plea For Guidance
The cry for help by Christians who have identified spiritual growth for themselves and their families as a top Christian priority requires vigorous response by the church. The building of the kingdom of God in our world and our time may well depend upon that response.
The message to the church is loud and clear: Help us to find our way as Christians. This is a cry of those who seek first things first, and the church dare not disregard it. It is a cry to the church to bring the good news to believers and nonbelivers alike, for increased emphasis by the church on the nurture of its members can only increase the important and necessary role of the church in the secular world, the so-called world of public affairs.
We know that practicing Christians, firmly rooted in the faith, bear powerful and daily witness in every facet of our national, state, and local life. Believing Christians are the dynamic link between the temporal world of everyday living and the eternal values that Christianity espouses.
The church must therefore affirm and reaffirm that Christian participation in the issues of our day must be measured against Christian principles, with consummate respect for justice and ultimate truth. The church must light the way, nudge gently but firmly toward the eternal light of Christ’s teachings, his mercy and his love.
Causes and procedures come and go, but the Word of God endures forever. My plea is this: We must know the Word, What is that Word? Tell us again and again, that we may be guided by it in every facet of our lives—the personal and the public, and above all, the spiritual.
Ruth Beeler White, director of consumer communications, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
About half of the evangelicals contribute to religious and community organizations, about two-thirds of the clergy do, though only 38 percent of the general public do. This is the general public’s most extensive involvement: only 19 percent personally and directly help the poor. About one-third of all evangelicals personally and directly help the poor, but twice as many clergy do so. By almost three to one, clergy are more active than evangelicals, and by four to one more active than the general public in trying to persuade church, religious, and government organizations to aid the poor.
Political and economic pronuncements. Ecumenical study conferences and bureaucracies publicizing political and economic positions intended to influence public and political opinion have long drawn heavy fire from their own constituencies as well as from independents. How do the churches and the secular community now view such pronouncements? Whereas most of the clergy (52 percent) consider such pronouncements “very important,” and 81 percent of the clergy reckon them as either “very important” or “fairly important,” evangelicals (34 percent) are somewhat less convinced; only 60 percent find them to be “very” or “fairly” important. By contrast, the general public figure was only 44 percent, while 27 percent of the general public declare such statements “not at all important,” and 16 percent of evangelicals agree. Surprisingly, conversionalist evangelicals value politico-economic pronouncements slightly higher than do other evangelicals.
Religious lobbies. On religious lobbying in behalf of specific legislation, more of the general populace oppose (45 percent) than approve (41 percent), whereas both evangelicals and clergy favor such lobbies (by 62 and 82 percent respectively), with conversionalists slightly more disapproving than others.
Divorce. Regarding divorce, the general public and the clergy are notably more permissive than evangelicals, with conversionalists least permissive. Of the clergy and the public, 10 percent held that divorce should always be avoided. But belief that divorce, however painful, is preferable to an unhappy marriage ranked highest among the general public (45 percent), almost twice as many as evangelicals who hold this view. Among evangelicals, about 60 percent, compared to 64 percent of the clergy and 40 percent of the general public, hold that divorce should be avoided except in an “extreme situation.”
Fears Of Lobbying
As the cleavage between a secular anti-Christian society and Christians has widened, two results have followed: (1) non-Christians increasingly see Christian values as a threat to their way of life and view “Christian legislation” with suspicion or antagonism (e.g., the assault on Anita Bryant), and (2) Christians and Christian organizations have increasingly found themselves regulated and curbed by governmental agencies and laws. The survey shows that the general public fears what will happen if Christians en masse strongly influence legislation, while Christians, on the other hand, fear what will happen if their influence is weak.
Recent threats to Christian education by regulative agencies suggest that Christians should try to persuade congressmen to defeat restrictive legislation, which is something different from the enactment of “Christian legislation.” Given the federal government’s insatiable appetite for regulation and power, it is inevitable that Christian organizations will find it necessary to lobby aggressively for their interests.
Leland Ryken, professor of English, Wheaton College, Illinois.
Remarriage after divorce. The general public consider remarriage after divorce “always acceptable” by a percentage (37 percent) significantly greater than the clergy (11 percent), or than evangelicals (about 13 percent). By contrast, 37 percent of the clergy approve remarriage only if reconciliation is impossible after divorce; 27 percent only in cases of desertion or adultery; 18 percent believe remarriage is acceptable only after a mate’s death, a view also held by 25 percent of evangelicals and 17 percent of the general public.
Deepest Personal Need. In one of the most striking contrasts disclosed by the poll, almost two-thirds of the evangelicals declare salvational closeness to God to be life’s most important need, while only 21 percent of the general public rate it highest. Eliminating the evangelicals from the figure for the general public would leave only a tiny fraction of nonevangelical general public holding closeness to God as life’s greatest need. By contrast, 47 percent of the general populace designated physical well-being as their first or second most important personal need, but only about one-third of evangelicals did so. Both the general public and evangelicals elevate love and affection and a meaningful life above financial security as a personal need.
Seven percent of the general public declared financial security to be their greatest personal need, above personal freedom (6 percent), accomplishment (4 percent), or friendship (4 percent). Yet, love and affection (16 percent) and purpose in life (14 percent) outweighed these considerations. Among evangelicals, 5 percent (not far behind the public’s 7 percent) listed financial security as most important; for both, it outranked friendship and achievement. As the second most important personal need after salvation, evangelicals valued personal freedom more than a sense of achievement, but conversionalists valued it lower than financial security.
Seeking Help in Trouble. In a time of trouble the general public and evangelicals alike would turn first for help concerning personal growth to a member of their immediate family; two in five named this their initial resource. But whereas evangelicals, in almost the same numbers, would turn as readily to a clergyman above a friend or neighbor, the general public ranked second by equal percentages a friend, neighbor, or clergyman. Conversionalists are slightly less prone to turn to a minister than fellow evangelicals. Eight percent of the general public said they would try to work things out on their own. Reliance on government agencies for help rated very low, and reliance on volunteer community organizations little better.
Alcohol or Drug Problems. The percentages change notably when the problem concerns alcohol or drugs. The general public would turn first to a volunteer community agency (27 percent), then to the clergy (20 percent), next to an immediate family member. But evangelicals, by contrast, by two to one would turn first to a clergyman, then to a member of the immediate family. Some 5 percent of the general public and almost as many evangelicals said they would not know where to turn.
Facing a Spiritual Problem. The percentages change even more dramatically when a spiritual problem is in view. Both the general public (64 percent) and the evangelical community (75 percent) would, by a very wide margin, turn first to the clergy. However, 12 percent of the general public indicate that they would turn first to an immediate family member and so would 7 percent of the evangelicals.
Alcoholic Beverages. Two-thirds of the general public use liquor, wine, or beer at least occasionally (double the number who did so a quarter of a century ago). Clergy divide almost equally: 47 percent use alcoholic beverages; 53 percent totally abstain. Evangelicals reverse the figures for the total population—two-thirds are total abstainers. Of those who use alcoholic beverages, more than one in three of the general public admits to excessive drinking at times, whereas one in five clergymen do so. One in five of the general public says that use of liquor has been a cause of family trouble, and one in nine clergymen admits the same thing. Compared to orthodox evangelicals, conversionalists who drink are more likely to drink too much (25 to 17 percent).
Taking a closer look at the breakdowns of poll data, many striking factors emerge. Slightly more women than men consider the family’s spiritual growth and world evangelization top priorities. Men more than women tend to be group joiners or cause joiners, but they also take more interest in strengthening the local church. Methodists, Lutherans, and Catholics show least interest in world evangelization. Southern Baptists and all other Baptists are most evangelistically oriented. Notably less evangelistically concerned than others are people with college backgrounds. They are more interested in the family’s spiritual growth and in joining groups and causes. Those most interested in evangelism have had a conversion experience, read the Bible frequently, and are likely to be tithers. Americans living in the South are twice as interested in evangelistic priorities as those living elsewhere.
For meeting basic human needs, Baptists (26 percent) and Southern Baptists (25 percent), along with Lutherans (25 percent) and Catholics (24 percent), lean more heavily than Methodists on government help. At the other end of the scale, Catholics and Lutherans depend least on individual resources. But people of all churches designate a combination of government and voluntary organizations as the preferred means of providing for basic needs. The older and less educated people are, the more they approve government as the prime source. Southern Baptists (25 percent), closely followed by Methodists (24 percent), and other Baptists (23 percent) personally and directly help the poor in noteworthy numbers; Catholics (13 percent) and Lutherans (15 percent) are least inclined to do so.
More Southern Baptists (31 percent) than others consider public political and economic pronouncements by religious organizations “very important”; other Baptists run a close second (27 percent). By contrast, many in mainstream churches seem now to hold such pronouncements in lower esteem. Among Catholics and Methodists, only 17 percent consider them “very important” (Lutherans only 14 percent); and, in fact, 25 percent of Catholics (31 percent of Methodists and Lutherans) declared them to be of no value.
Fifty-four percent of Southern Baptists approve persuasion from religious groups to promote specific congressional legislation, with other Baptists (49 percent) close behind. Catholics who approve religious lobbying (44 percent) barely outnumber those who disapprove (42 percent). Likewise, as many Lutherans (46 percent) disapprove as approve; and, amazingly, more Methodists (49 percent) disapprove than approve (37 percent).
Concern For Society
Evangelicals, this survey indicates, have been underestimating their own regard for, support of, and participation in “social action.” Indeed, the more frequently they read the Bible, attend church, tithe, witness, watch religious television, and listen to religious radio, the more committed they are to social involvement. These findings should encourage other evangelicals to come out of that particular closet.
A sobering note is that on so many social issues, the general public and evangelicals differ so little. Evangelicals still appear to be followers or fellow marchers, rather than easily identifiable leaders. For example, both believe overwhelmingly that society has special obligations to children, the handicapped, and the elderly. Both think their obligation should be met by a combination of government and voluntary organizations, and both minimize the obligation of individuals.
When it comes to poverty programs, although a somewhat larger percentage of evangelicals than the general public believe they should personally and directly help the poor, the largest percentage of both feel their contributions should be channeled through religious and community organizations that help the poor. Most clergy, on the other hand, feel they should personally and directly help the poor.
Surprising was the high importance evangelicals attach to political and economic pronouncements; they led the general public by as much as 11 percentage points. Clergy led all. Support was general and substantial by lay evangelicals and clergy alike for, of all things, political lobbying.
This survey on social attitudes offers evidence that increasing numbers of evangelicals are realizing that although they are not of the world they are most assuredly in it, and that when they own Jesus Christ as Lord they do not resign from society but shoulder a new concern for it.
Kenneth L. Wilson, special assistant to the president, World Vision International.
Fourteen percent of Catholics oppose divorce regardless of circumstances, followed by other Baptists (12 percent), Southern Baptists (10 percent), and Lutherans and Methodists (6 percent). Southern Baptists, however, by 48 percent, believe more than other Protestants that divorce should be avoided except in extreme situations; many Catholics (43 percent) also support this view. By contrast with others, about eight out of ten evangelicals reject divorce altogether, or permit it only in extreme situations.
Methodists (44 percent) are much more open than others to remarriage after divorce on any grounds; Southern Baptists (29 percent) are less open than Catholics (32 percent). Yet one in ten of all Baptists is unsure about its propriety. More Lutherans (38 percent) than others think remarriage is acceptable (regardless of the reason for divorce) if reconciliation is impossible, with Methodists next at 33 percent. Other Baptists find it least acceptable and Catholics are in the middle. More Catholics (25 percent) than others think that remarriage is acceptable only after a mate’s death, with all Baptists a close second. Only 9 percent of Catholics and Methodists next at 33 percent. It is least acceptable to other Baptists, while Catholics are in the middle. More tery or desertion. Generally, Catholics and all Baptists tend to be more restrictive, and Lutherans and Methodists more permissive, on this issue.
On divorce and remarriage, Prof. Paul Ramsey of Princeton University, a distinguished Methodist layman, comments, “Methodists have moved to remarriage following ‘no fault’ divorce more rapidly than has the general public.” In this trend he sees “an extraordinarily individualistic concept of the marriage covenant. Only one partner (still and for the foreseeable future, the husband) testifies that the marriage is irreconcilable, and therefore it is!”
Among those who put salvation first among personal needs, Catholics and Methodists (14 percent each) ranked lowest. Methodists (31 percent) gave physical well-being highest priority. Catholics (19 percent) and Methodists (16 percent) rated love and affection, along with health, as more important than salvation. Lutherans put least emphasis on financial security (2 percent).
While evangelicals would turn first to an immediate family member for personal counsel, Southern Baptists and Lutherans are less disposed to do so. Compared to members of other denominations, they more readily turn to their pastors. Notably few Methodists (17 percent) would go first to a clergyman. As people move through college, they are less disposed to consult a pastor first. But in few cases would more than 1 percent of any subgroup approach a government organization for such help; the small exception (2 percent) are those who listen to religious radio, are tithers and frequent Bible readers, and talk often about their faith—although any causal connection is difficult to discern.
When facing alcohol or drug problems, Catholics are most likely (31 percent), closely followed by Lutherans (30 percent), and Methodists (29 percent), to turn first to a volunteer community organization, whereas Southern Baptists (26 percent) and other Baptists (24 percent) would turn first to a pastor. People tend to seek clergy counsel more as they become older.
While most persons would go first to the clergy with a spiritual problem, women (67 percent) more than men (61 percent) do so while more men (8 percent) than women (5 percent) seek help from a neighbor or a friend first. Southern Baptists and Methodists (74 percent each) are most likely to rely on a pastor, though Methodists would not do so for problems other than spiritual.
Of the general public, more men (72 percent) than women (60 percent) imbibe alcoholic beverages; 40 percent of American women and 28 percent of the men are total abstainers. Among drinkers, twice as many American men (47 percent) as women (23 percent) say they drink more than they ought. Some 20 percent of the male imbibers and 18 percent of female imbibers say their drinking has precipitated family troubles. Lutherans (79 percent) and Catholics (76 percent) rank highest in use of alcohol, but 67 percent of Methodists also do so, a surprising statistic in view of Methodism’s leading role in the cause of Prohibition earlier in this century. Southern Baptists, most of whom agree to an abstinence clause in their membership covenant, have only 53 percent total abstainers. Alcohol consumption is highest (77 percent) in the 18–29 age bracket, and slowly recedes to 68 percent in the 30–49 year bracket and to 55 percent for those age 50 and older. The figure for those with college backgrounds is 79 percent.
Perils Of Pronouncements
The questions to be raised concerning the pronouncement-ridden churches are these: Whom do religious organizations think they are addressing? Who listens? It seems not to be the public generally, nor the ordinary Christian in the pew. The clergy likely believe that political and economic pronouncements help make Christianity relevant to the contemporary world. The question then is, What is the standard of relevance? Several suspicions surface:
1. Are the clergy seeking to use a crutch to make the gospel relevant rather than the slower but more surely working yeast of their vocation that may create a Christian moral ethos?
2. Have the pronouncement-ridden churches and these clergy been brainwashed to believe that any other course is a censurable individualism versus the social importance of authentic Christian churches and tradition?
3. Finally, and most important, what is meant by relevance? If the general public does not consider most church political and economic pronouncements very important, nor the Christian in the pew, whence comes the churches’ and the clergy’s definition of importance?
I suggest that these notions are incestuously derived from the secular elites, the makers and shakers of contemporary opinion. Our churches and clergy have derived their judgments of importance and relevance from what Francis Bacon called “the idols of the market place.” Better said, from the streets, from the pundits, from secularized liberals in universities. So they tithe mint and anise and cumin, and neglect the weightier matters of the gospel, and the law contained in that gospel.
Paul Ramsey, professor of religion, Princeton University, New Jersey.
Liquor has become a cause of family trouble among other Baptists (24 percent) more than in other denominations; among Southern Baptists and Methodists, 20 percent reported that it had caused family problems. Among Catholics, liquor caused family trouble for 16 percent, and among Lutherans, for 12 percent.
The poll leaves unexplored the impact of public education and of radio and television upon community and Christian social attitudes. It cross-tabulates educational background (grade school, high school, college) with certain convictions and practices. More people listen to religious radio and television, for example, than consider world evangelism the church’s primary duty. The poll reflects no evidence of decline of faith in education as a character-shaping influence, although evidence is presented that college learning nurtures permissiveness and puts a distance between many students and clergy.
Yet the poll maintains a useful wide-angle focus on important contemporary trends, with special attention to the stability of the home, basic human survival needs, and noteworthy ethical and social attitudes. It reflects, among other things, the destabilizing family impact of alcoholism, although it does not trace the destructive habit of cigarette smoking in a society that curiously declares human health and well-being to be life’s prime priority. What the survey most clearly attests is that American society lacks a cohesive world-life view in terms of which consistent commitments are ventured. And further, although considerably more idealism and self-sacrifice are to be found in the churches, many values-related uncertainties tend also to shadow the lives of people in Christian congregations.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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