Wording of Pew poll question criticized

by Michael Foust, posted Thursday, June 26, 2008 (11 years ago)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--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.

The full Pew report regarding religion in the U.S. was lengthy at 256 pages, but one particular finding stood out: 70 percent of Americans believe there are many paths to eternal life and, amazingly, 57 percent of evangelical Protestant church members do as well. The fact that a majority of evangelicals reject John 14:6 and a key tenant of their faith was surprising, to say the least.

But some observers are questioning whether the poll's question on that topic could have led to various interpretations. Pew asked people to choose among two statements: "My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life" or "many religions can lead to eternal life."

Determining what a person's religion is may be a bit more complex than it appears.

"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," Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard News Service, wrote on the GetReligion.org blog. "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."

The poll's findings grow even more perplexing when viewing the beliefs of those in some of the leading conservative denominations. For instance, according to the survey 61 percent of Southern Baptists and 71 percent of those in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. The latter denomination was formed in the 1970s out of concern over liberalism in the Presbyterian Church USA. Additionally, 53 percent of those in the Assemblies of God and 78 percent of those in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod believe many religions can lead to eternal life.

Even 60 percent of independent Baptists -- sometimes viewed as the most conservative of all Baptists -- hold that there are many religions that can lead to eternal life, the survey found.

"I've heard people use the phrase 'Baptist religion,' 'Methodist religion,'" Kelly Boggs, editor of the Baptist Message newspaper in Louisiana, told Baptist Press. "I have known people who would confuse the word 'religion' with the word 'denomination.' They would be saying, 'Yes, many denominations lead to eternal life.' Since I have known people who have confused those two terms, I'm sure many of these folks in the poll did. They believe Jesus is the only way to heaven. They just believe that their particular denomination -- in their minds, 'religion' -- is not.'"

That claim is bolstered by the fact that among nondenominational church members, the percentage of those claiming many religions can lead to eternal life is much lower. For example, 34 percent of nondenominational evangelicals -- about half the percentage of some of the aforementioned denominations -- agreed with the "many religions" option. Theoretically, they would be more likely to think of "Christianity" as their religion, because they aren't a member of a denomination.

Bruce Hausknecht, judicial analyst for Focus on the Family and a former pastor, agreed with Boggs, saying that "many people answering that question would confuse denomination with religion, and think that, 'Well, wait a minute, I'm a Protestant but I know that there are Catholics who will end up in heaven, so I'll have to say, yes, there is more than one religion leading to eternal life.'"

But Hausknecht said he would add at least three other reasons behind the poll's results: a lack of biblical literacy among Christians; various degrees of spiritual maturity within the church (for instance, some people have been believers only a matter of weeks); and political correctness.

"There are people out there that have been told for so long that we shouldn't judge people that they've let that overwhelm what they ought to know is biblical orthodoxy about salvation," he told Baptist Press.


Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. The full Pew study is available at http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf. The breakdown by Protestant denominations is on page 134.

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