The Story: According to a new report, Americans are divided about what it means to be a religious person, with a majority believing that it's about acting morally but a strong minority equating it with faith.

The Background: Nearly six out of 10 Americans (59 percent) say that being a religious person "is primarily about living a good life and doing the right thing," as opposed to the more than one-third (36 percent) who hold that being religious "is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs", according to a report by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.

Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, said that Americans' two views of what makes a person religious harken back to the Protestant Reformation and to the Bible itself.

"This has been a perennial debate through the ages in Christianity," said Jones. "The Pauline literature, especially in the Book of Romans, makes the case for religious justification by faith alone, while the Book of James seems to state the very opposite — 'faith without works is dead.'"

The survey created a new scale of religiosity that divides Americans into four groups: religious conservatives (28 percent), religious moderates (38 percent), religious progressives (19 percent) and the nonreligious (15 percent). (The theological orientation scale was created using three measures: belief in personal vs. impersonal God, belief in literal vs. non-literal interpretation of the Bible, and a preservationist vs. adaptive view of religious tradition.)

The Takeaways: Some of the more interesting findings from the survey include:

• White evangelical Protestants constitute more than 4-in-10 (43%) religious conservatives, followed by Catholics (17%), and white mainline Protestants (15%). Black Protestants comprise about 1-in-10 of both religious conservatives (8%) and religious progressives (9%).  

• White evangelical Christians fall overwhelmingly (70 percent) into the conservative category; only 4% are religious progressives.

• Religious progressives and religious conservatives also hold different views about what being a religious person mean. Nearly 8-in-10 (79%) of religious progressives say being a religious person is mostly about doing the right thing, compared to 16% who say it is about holding the right beliefs. By contrast, a majority (54%) of religious conservatives say being a religious person is primarily about right beliefs, while less than 4-in-10 say it is mostly about doing the right thing.

• Overall, black Americans are significantly more likely to be theological conservatives than white or Hispanic Americans. Hispanic Americans are more likely than white or black Americans to identify as theological liberals. White Americans are more likely than Hispanic or black Americans to be categorized as nonreligious.

• About four in 10 white mainline Protestants (44 percent) and white Catholics (43 percent) are moderates, as are seven in 10 Hispanic Catholics and more than half of black Protestants (54 percent).

• The largest group of non-Christian religious people (42 percent) is classified as progressive.

• A strong majority of the unaffiliated (59 percent) are in the nonreligious sector.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Joe Carter


Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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