August 24, 2006

Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics

Section IV – Religious Beliefs

Most Americans (78%) continue to view the Bible as the word of God, though there is disagreement over whether everything in the Bible is literally true; 35% say it is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, while 43% say the Bible is the word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally. These numbers have remained largely unchanged since Pew began asking the question in 1996.

The view that the Bible is literally true is more widely held among women than men (39% vs. 31%) and is more prevalent among blacks compared to whites (58% vs. 31%). There is also a geographic component to opinions on this question. Nearly half of those in the South (48%) say the Bible is literally true, compared with much smaller percentages in the Midwest (34%), West (24%), and East (24%).

Among religious groups, more than six-in-ten black Protestants (64%) and white evangelical Protestants (62%) express the view that the Bible is literally true. Among white Catholics and white mainline Protestants, by contrast, majorities (64% and 59%, respectively) view the Bible as the word of God but reject the notion that every word should be taken literally. And most seculars (59%) believe that the Bible is a book written by men, and is not the word of God.

Israel and Biblical Prophecy

A substantial minority of the public views the state of Israel through a religious lens. Indeed, a plurality of the public (42%) believes that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God. Similarly, more than one-in-three Americans (35%) say that Israel is part of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus. These numbers are largely unchanged since 2003.

In the South, a solid majority (56%) believes that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God, and nearly half (45%) say that Israel fulfills biblical prophecy about the second coming of Jesus. In other regions of the country, there is much less support for these points of view.

Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants stand out for their widespread belief that Israel was given by God to the Jews (69%), and that Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy (59%). Majorities of black Protestants also share these points of view. White mainline Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, are much less likely to see a religious dimension to the establishment of the state of Israel.

Not surprisingly, beliefs about the Bible are closely related to views about the state of Israel. Large majorities of those who view the Bible as the literal word of God say that Israel was given by God to the Jews and that Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy (70% and 62%, respectively). These figures are much lower among those who do not believe the Bible is the actual word of God.

Religious Views Shape Mideast Sympathies

The July survey also shows that many more Americans say they sympathize more with Israel (44%) than the Palestinians (9%). A subsequent Pew survey, conducted Aug. 9-13, found even broader support for Israel; 52% said they sympathized more with Israel, compared with 11% who sympathized more with the Palestinians. (See “American Attitudes Hold Steady in Face of Foreign Crises,” Aug. 17).

An analysis of the July survey finds that support for Israel is even stronger among those who see religious implications in the state of Israel. Indeed, a large majority (63%) of those who believe Israel was given by God to the Jewish people say they sympathize more with Israel, as do a majority (60%) of those who see Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. By contrast, among those who do not share these beliefs far fewer say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians.

Second Coming of Jesus Christ

The survey asked Christians whether or not they believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ. Reflecting the great importance of this teaching in most Christian traditions, fully 79% of Christians say they believe that Christ will return to earth someday.

This belief is nearly unanimously expressed by white evangelical Protestants (95%) and black Protestants (92%). Smaller majorities of Catholics (70%) and white mainline Protestants (60%) say they believe in the second coming of Christ.

However, there is less agreement among Christians over the timing and circumstances of Jesus Christ’s return. Just 33% say that the specific timing of Christ’s return to earth is revealed in biblical prophecies. Even fewer (20%) say they believe Jesus will return to earth in their lifetime.

As is the case with overall belief in the second coming, white evangelicals and black Protestants, as well as those who say that the Bible is the literal word of God, are much more likely than other Christians to say that the specific time of Christ’s return to earth is revealed in biblical prophecies, and that Christ will return in their lifetime. Even among these groups, however, those who see Christ’s return as imminent are greatly outnumbered by those who say Christ will not return in their lifetimes or that it is impossible to know when Jesus will return.

Circumstances of Christ’s Return

Just as they are divided over the timing of Christ’s return, Christians also differ over the circumstances surrounding the second coming. About a third (34%) say that this will occur after the world situation worsens and reaches a low point, a view often referred to pre-millennialism. But 37% say that it is impossible to know the circumstances that will precede Christ’s return to earth. Very few (4%) say that Christ will return after the world situation improves and reaches a high point.

Despite the prominence in evangelical circles of pre-millennialist views concerning the rapture, white evangelicals are divided over the circumstances that will precede Christ’s return. Among white evangelicals, half (48%) express a pre-millennialist view, while nearly as many (40%) say that it is impossible to know the circumstances that will precede Christ’s return.

Most Christians reject the notion that the timing of Christ’s return can be influenced by the actions of people or nations on earth. Indeed, about one-in-five Christians (23%) say that human actions can affect the timing of Christ’s return, while more than twice as many (50%) take the opposite point of view. There are few differences across religious groups on this question.