Wednesday, April 6, 2011


I finally finished reading American Grace, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.  It’s a huge study/survey of American religions (550 pages and appendices and notes).  It examines the religious attitudes of Americans of various persuasions in regard to marriage, politics, ethnicity, gender and just about anything else one can think of.  It is full of charts and graphs on these various issues and traces the changes in American religion over recent years.

I am still mulling over the data in this book and know that I will probably find it useful for years to come.  I highly recommend it for anyone who is involved in religious ministry, although I fear that not many will feel that it is worth the time and effort.  It is.  I feel it’s the best book on the sociology of religion since Alan Wolfe’s, The Transformation of American Religion (2003) and goes way beyond Wolfe’s study in that it provides huge amounts of data to reinforce its assertions.

The subtitle of the book is How Religion Divides and Unites Us and this appears to be its basic thesis.  Some of the conclusions were surprising, some even seemed contradictory and others were, to me, deeply troubling.  It is the last chapter (15) and its conclusions that were the most troubling.  It is entitled, “America's Grace:  How a Tolerant Nation Bridges its Religious Divides.”  It states (page 516), “The fact that religion is not nearly as divisive as race, class, or politics is the puzzle this chapter seeks to solve.  How can Americans be both devout and diverse without fracturing along religious lines?”  This is, it appears, the question to which the whole book has been leading.  And of course, it doesn’t take 500+ pages of charts, graphs and analyses for us to recognize that America, the nation with the greatest religious liberty is also the nation with the greatest religious diversity and tolerance.

What is troubling to me, though it seems quite satisfying to the authors, is that, as they tell us, “A majority of Americans believe that members of other faiths can go to heaven, and this is true even in religions that explicitly teach that salvation is reserved for their own adherents.”  The authors credit our being “both religiously diverse and religiously devout” – our ability to be both devoted to our faith and tolerant of the faiths of others, to the fact that, “It is difficult to damn those you know and love” (page 517).  Most of us have friends and even family who are of different religious views.

The statistics they present back up their assertions.  The graph on page 535, entitled, “Americans overwhelmingly believe that people of other religions can go to heaven,” gives the percentages of those of various religions who believe this.  The lowest percentage is (white) Evangelical Protestants with 83%.

Just in case there might be confusion over what “other religions” might mean, the question was reformulated.  After all, a Baptist might think that a Methodist was of an “other religion” (and vice versa), yet would still see him as going to heaven based on faith in Christ.  So it was phrased more specifically as, “Even when those other religions are not Christian.”  Here the percentages were quite a bit lower among nearly all denominations surveyed.  Here again the Evangelical Protestants were the lowest with 54% (page 537).

That still is a high figure.  It means that over half of those Americans who call themselves evangelical believe that Jesus Christ is not the only way to heaven!

However, clergy in evangelical churches hold to a much higher percentage, ranging from 92% to 100 % of leaders in various evangelical denominations and groups who hold to the exclusivity of Jesus (page 539).  The authors refer to this as, “The clergy-laity disconnect.”  They even tell a sad story of the shock among the clergy of one denomination at this finding.  These clergy felt that surely those of their denomination did not hold this view, and were stunned to find they did.  “One wanly said that as teachers of the Word they had failed.”

The authors suggest that it is our social networks that influence our theology.  Our saintly, “Aunt Susan” and “pal Al,” who are of different persuasions “produce a form of cognitive dissonance.”  We do not want to believe they are going to hell!

So what do we say to all these troubling data?  I personally have friends and family whom I love, who do not believe in Christ.  Are they lost?  I can find reams of Scripture that say they are and only by manipulation of texts can I find arguments otherwise.

I want to see my loved ones in heaven, but if Jesus’ claims to exclusivity are true they are lost.  I find no median way.  And if I choose to deny or ignore their lost condition, it is doubtful that I would ever tell them how to be rescued from their lost condition.  Denial is not love.

I am concerned, that perhaps, like the clergyman mentioned above, I have failed as a teacher of the Word.  Perhaps I have not communicated clearly the truths of the gospel and of the Person of Christ.


1 comment:

Sherry said...

Maybe it's not that teachers aren't teaching but that listeners don't want it to be true. it is hard theology - a loving God would condemn someone to hell - worse yet eternal hell for 80 years of sinning - seems incredibly unloving and disproportionate. So maybe the listeners just decide to believe only in the loving God and not the holy/just God.

Quite frankly, even people who do believe Jesus is the only way struggle with this. Throw in election and it's harder yet for me - He didn't open their eyes so there's no way they could see but they're condemned anyway??? Wow. I don't like it.

But then He hasn't ever asked me how to run the show so since it's His, guess He'll do it the way He wants. And I should accept it and try my best to be sure I've done my part to open eyes.