A new survey from Ligonier Ministries is raising eyebrows within the evangelical community, but it only echoes what many of us have been saying about evangelicals for some time — namely, that they are not a monolithic bloc. This survey, then, is potentially useful for political progressives.
Before we dig into the results of that survey, you should know that Ligonier is a major player in the evangelical world; it was founded more than 50 years ago by R.C. Sproul, a leading figure in Reformed theology. Sproul was one of the prime movers behind the rebirth of the inerrantist movement among evangelicals, and was one of the major architects of 1978’s Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, to which 200+ evangelical leaders of the time became signatories. In other words, Ligonier is not an external, disinterested pollster; rather, they are definitely a mover-and-shaker in evangelical circles.
Now, on to the latest in their “The State of Theology” series of surveys. Instead of hashing through every result or digging into the purely theological points, I’m going to mention a few practical/political points that I believe we liberals/progressives can use when we interact with Religious Right evangelicals:
- More than one-third of evangelicals (37%) believe that gender identity is a matter of choice.
- 28% of evangelicals believe that the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality doesn’t apply today.
- Almost 40% of US evangelicals (38%) believe that religious belief is a matter of personal opinion, and that it is NOT about objective truth.
- Well over half of US evangelicals (56%) agreed that God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
- 30% of US evangelicals believe that Christians should be silent on issues of politics.
- 30% of US evangelicals agree that modern science disproves the Bible
- Just over one-fourth of US evangelicals (26%) believe that “The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.”
To be sure, the survey also revealed points on which evangelicals ARE effectively monolithic in their beliefs, even where those beliefs contradict the beliefs noted above:
- 94% believe the Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do.
- 94% believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin.
- 92% believe that abortion is a sin.
To give you an idea of the extreme nature of these positions, 43% of evangelicals surveyed agreed that “Jesus was a great teacher, but was not God”. So, we have more than twice as many evangelicals agreeing on abortion and sex outside of marriage than we have agreeing on the divinity of Christ!
If that last bit made your “culture war” antennae twitch, give yourself a gold star; I would suggest that these seemingly contrarian results reflect the emphasis on hot-button political preaching found in many Religious Right congregations, to the detriment of the basics of the faith. Ligonier calls them out for this, albeit with subtlety, in their closing statement (emphasis added):
In the evangelical sphere, doctrines including the deity and exclusivity of Jesus Christ, as well as the inspiration and authority of the Bible, are increasingly being rejected. While positive trends are present, including evangelicals’ views on abortion and sex outside of marriage, an inconsistent biblical ethic is also evident, with more evangelicals embracing a secular worldview in the areas of homosexuality and gender identity.
These results convey the ongoing need for the church to be engaged in apologetics, helping unbelievers by providing a well-reasoned defense of the Christian faith, and helping believers by strengthening their clarity and conviction regarding why they believe what they do. Additionally, the people of God must continue to obey the Great Commission by communicating the whole counsel of God in biblical evangelism and discipleship. The need is great, but the power and promises of God can equip the church to bring truth and light to a deceived and dark world.
Ligonier is obviously concerned that both conservative teachings and core Christian orthodoxies are being undermined by the Religious Right’s single-minded focus on “culture war” political matters; given their preferred doctrines, I’d say that they’re right to be worried.
Now, what does all of this mean for progressives?
1. We must not dismiss or ignore evangelicals as a monolithic bloc of “unreachable” people. These results suggest that substantial numbers of rank-and-file evangelicals already hold reasonably progressive positions on certain issues. If roughly 1 out of every 3 evangelicals believes that Christians should be silent in political matters, we can use that approach with techniques like ”you know, this isn’t about religious faith, because that’s your business...it’s about our common business...”
2. We need to choose our entry points with care. Those 92%-94% beliefs (sex outside of marriage, abortion) suggest that we aren’t going to have even a partial success if we lead with those issues. Instead, it seems that there’s a better opportunity if we talk about gender (where almost 40% of evangelicals believe it to be a matter of choice) or sexuality (where almost 30% of evangelicals believe the Biblical condemnations are no longer relevant). This doesn’t mean that we give up on those other issues, of course; it only means that we don’t lead the discussion with them.
3. An ecumenical approach in our conversation may pay dividends. If almost 6 in 10 evangelicals believe that God accepts the worship of other faiths, that lets us establish a common ground through which to introduce the more progressive aspects of other faiths and/or progressive voices from those faiths.
4. We need to bring progressive evangelicals into our discussions. That could be current figures (like John Pavlovitz or the Reverend William Barber) or more dated figures (like Jimmy Carter or Dorothy Day), but we can use those references to connect evangelicalism and progressive politics.
I know that this approach isn’t for everyone, and that it won’t work in every instance; I merely offer it as one means by which liberal/progressive Christians can engage evangelicals on a one-to-one basis.
Thanks to a few comments, I’ve been made aware that my phrasing above may give the impression that I am recommending silence on the question of reproductive rights when engaging with evangelicals. To be clear, I most certainly am not suggesting that we obscure or avoid that subject; I merely suggest that we may not want to open our engagement with that topic. (If someone opens a discussion by calling you a “baby killer”, do you really pay attention to whatever else they say? I don’t think so; I know I don’t...)
Let’s help them see common ground, when possible, on topics like gender, sexuality, and the separation of faith and politics; if they then break off the discussion when we talk about reproductive rights, at least they’re heard part of a progressive message first. I’m sorry that my words were so poorly chosen.