Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Faith-Based Funding Backed, But Church-State Doubts Abound

Section V. Religious Beliefs

When Americans think about God, they think first and foremost about power and might. Asked to describe God in their own words, nearly four-in-ten respondents gave answers relating to God as creator, architect of the universe, almighty, or supreme power. For a quarter of Americans, their definition of God involves what God does in their lives. Some say God is the most important part of their life. Others describe God as savior, redeemer, protector or provider. Still others describe God as forgiving and merciful and a comforting presence.

More than one-in-ten Americans (12%) define God as loving, caring and compassionate. Another 6% describe God as good or great. And another 5% think of God in terms of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For the most part these definitions cut across demographic and political boundaries. Still there are some differences worth noting. While men and women are equally likely to describe God in terms of power and might, women are much more likely than men to focus on what God does in their lives. A third of white women define God in terms of the redemption, forgiveness or faith God provides them. This compares with only 19% of white men. The same pattern can be seen among black women and men: 30% of black women describe God in these terms compared to 17% of black men. Women are also somewhat more apt than men to point to God’s loving and compassionate ways (14% vs. 10%). More blacks than whites describe God as good or great (14% vs. 5%).

There are bigger differences looking across various religious groups. Evangelical Protestants, regardless of their race, provided the most detailed descriptions of God and were less likely than those from other religious groups to be at a loss for words. More than half of white evangelicals (52%) describe God in terms of power and might. This compares with 36% of white mainline Protestants, 35% of white Catholics and 45% of black Protestants.

More than a third of the white evangelicals (35%) polled spoke of what God does in their lives. Roughly a quarter of white mainline Protestants (23%), white Catholics (25%) and black Protestants (26%) used these same types of terms to describe God. Each of the major religious groups is about equally likely to describe God as loving, caring or compassionate.

Overall, evangelicals, both white and black, had more to say about God in the poll than did mainline Protestants and Catholics. Only 7% of white and 3% of black evangelical Protestants couldn’t come up with an answer when asked to describe God in their own words. This compares with 17% of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics and 12% of black mainline Protestants.

In addition to looking at the broad categories, answers to this question were coded to identify the one or two key words used in the description. From this perspective, when Americans are asked to describe God in their own words, the single word they use most often is “love.” The next two most commonly used words are “creator” and “power.” These three terms clearly dominate the list of top one-word answers — being used by roughly three-in-ten of the poll’s respondents. Rounding out the top five responses are “everything” and “father.”

Men and women use the same words to describe God, though their lists differ slightly. Women place somewhat more emphasis on love than do men. Love is the top response of each of the major religious groups, and beyond that, there is a good deal of overlap in terms of the words these groups use to describe God. There are, however, a few terms that stand out within the various groups. For example, white evangelical Protestants are the only group to put “father” and “savior” in their top five list. Catholics place more emphasis on the word “forgiving.” The words “almighty” and “awesome” rank higher with black Protestants than with other groups.

Differences on Bible’s Meaning

There is no consensus among the public — or Christians for that matter — as to whether the Bible is actually the word of God, intended to be taken literally. A plurality of the public (43%) believes the Bible is indeed the word of God, but that it should not be taken literally. Somewhat fewer (36%) adhere to the literal interpretation of the Bible, while 14% say the Bible is written by men and is not the word of God.

Among religious groups, black evangelical Protestants are most likely to take the Bible literally as the actual word of God. Nearly three-quarters of black evangelicals believe this, compared to 65% of white evangelicals. By contrast, less than half of black mainline Protestants and less than a quarter of white mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics say the Bible should be taken literally. Majorities in these groups say the Bible is the word of God, but should not be taken literally.

More women than men believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, but race and education are bigger factors. A solid majority of African-Americans (61%) take the Bible as the actual word of God, compared to just 34% of whites. Half of those who have not completed high school and nearly as many high school graduates (44%) adhere to the Bible’s literal interpretation, compared to just 18% of college graduates.

Unchanged Landscape

The nation’s population remains overwhelmingly Christian — more than eight-in-ten people (82%) identify themselves as Christian today, virtually the same number as in 1996 (84%). Moreover, there have been no major shifts in religious affiliation in the past five years. Slightly more than half of Americans (53%) identify themselves as Protestants, while 23% are Catholics. Both numbers are unchanged from 1996.

Baptists comprise the largest Protestant denomination, followed by Methodists and Lutherans. Slightly more than one-third of the public (36%) describe themselves as “born again” or evangelical Christians, while 43% say that term does not apply to them. Again, those numbers reflect little change since the mid-1990s, when 34% called themselves evangelicals.

Protestants are fairly evenly divided among those who describe themselves as evangelicals and mainline Protestants who do not identify themselves this way. Among white Protestants (42% of the public), there are somewhat more evangelicals (23%) than mainline Protestants (19%). Black Protestants represent about 9% of the population, and evangelicals outnumber mainline Protestants, 6%-3%.

Just as Protestants are split between evangelical and mainline, Catholics are evenly divided between those who identify themselves as traditional and liberal. About one-in-ten Americans describe themselves as traditional Catholics, compared to 8% who call themselves liberal Catholics.

The nation’s non-Christian religious population remains fairly small — only about 4% of respondents say they practice Judaism or other non-Christian religions. Seculars — self-described atheists and agnostics, and those who profess no religious preference and rarely, if ever, attend church — comprise about one-in-ten Americans.

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