On Religion/Opinion

OPINION | TERRY MATTINGLY: Jesus polls higher than his followers, new survey says

When it comes to exploring what Americans think about Jesus, a new study offers Christian leaders good news and bad news.

The good news is that 76% of Americans affirm the "historical existence" of "Jesus of Nazareth," although it's also interesting to note that if 89% of self-identified Christians embraced that statement, the implication is that 11% are not sure.

Meanwhile, 84% of participants in a new "Jesus in America" study -- conducted by the global Ipsos research company for the Episcopal Church -- agreed that "Jesus was an important spiritual figure."

The bad news? While 50% of "not religious" Americans accepted this "important spiritual figure" language, they were much less impressed with the believers who represent Jesus.

When asked, "What characteristics do you associate with Christians in general?" the nonreligious selected these words from the poll's options -- "hypocritical" (55%), "judgmental" (54%) and "self-righteous" (50%). Next up: "arrogant," "unforgiving" and "disrespectful."

It appears that one of the goals of this poll -- with questions about racism, social justice and last year's attack on the U.S. Capitol -- was to see if nonbelievers have different attitudes about liberal and conservative Christians, said political scientist Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, author of the new book "20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America." He is co-founder of the Religion in Public website and a contributor at GetReligion.org, which I have led since 2004.

"This is the million-dollar question," said Burge, who is also a pastor in the progressive American Baptist Church. "If nonreligious people are turned off by what they see as the stricter faith of many Christians, evangelicals in particular, then wouldn't it make sense for them to seek more flexible alternatives?

"If there's all kinds of room in mainline Protestant churches these days, and that's putting it mildly, then why aren't these kinds of people filling up some of those pews?"

In a statement backing the survey, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said it was encouraging that "Americans still find Jesus compelling." However, it's obvious the "behavior of many of his followers is a problem, and it's not just certain Christians: It's all Christians." Thus, he added, Episcopalians are "refocusing our efforts on being a church that looks and acts like Jesus."

One of the most provocative findings in "Jesus in America," said Burge, was the study's claim that only 38% of Americans believe "religion makes the country stronger," with 28% seeing religion as a divisive force and another 6% saying religion "makes the country weaker."

In a 2021 survey, the Pew Research Center found that 62% of Americans believe the impact of churches and religious organizations is positive, in contrast with 35% who said negative. In political terms, 76% of Republicans expressed positive views, with 22% negative, as opposed to those of Democrats, which were 52% positive, with 46% negative.

"There's a big gap between those numbers," Burge said. This is unusual, since the surveys were only a year apart.

On one hot-button political issue, Ipsos asked: "Do you think the events at the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6 are associated with organized religion?" Overall, only 11% said yes. Among those who answered "yes," 63% associated the attack with evangelical Protestants, including 76% of the "non-Christians" in that group.

When asked if Americans who "talk about their conservative beliefs are often disrespected," 41% of participants agreed, including 45% of evangelicals, 40% of nonevangelical Christians and 33% of the nonreligious. Republicans were more likely to agree with this statement than Democrats.

There were striking agreements, and contrasts, between mainline and evangelical Protestants when the pollsters asked: "What values and lessons do you believe Jesus teaches?"

"Love your neighbor" was the top response overall, including 70% of mainliners and 80% of evangelicals. "Love your enemies" was affirmed by 54% of mainliners and 70% of evangelicals. For "feed the hungry," it was 55% of mainliners and 60% of evangelicals.

"Repent and believe" was chosen by 48% of the mainline Protestants, as opposed to 73% of evangelicals.

If the purpose of this study was to spotlight "a Jesus who comforts the afflicted, but not one who afflicts the comfortable, then there is a problem," said Father Kendall Harmon, a popular Anglican blogger and theological conservative.

"The Bible gives us a Jesus who is both."

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.