Poll shows Protestant collapse

Thursday, 28 June 2001 18:26 (ET)

Poll shows Protestant collapse
By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion correspondent

 WASHINGTON, June 28 (UPI) -- A new survey of what Americans believe,
points to "an absolute collapse of mainline Protestantism in this country,"
Paul Hinlicky, a leading Lutheran theologian, told United Press
International Thursday.

 The poll provides evidence of a "very considerable diversity within the
Christian community regarding core beliefs," according to the Barna Research
Group of Ventura, Ca. But what alarms Hinlicky is the "erosion of the
church's foundations this study seems to expose."

 For example, a mere 21 percent of America's Lutherans, 20 percent of the
Episcopalians, 18 percent of Methodists, and 22 percent of Presbyterians
affirm the basic Protestant tenet that by good works man does not earn his
way to heaven.

 Yet the doctrine that man is justified before God alone by grace through
faith in Christ's saving work (and that good works are simply the fruits of
faith) is the very foundation of the 16th century Reformation. It is a
theological principle the Vatican, too, has accepted in its 1999 accord with
the Lutheran World Federation.

 But the Barna poll discloses that only 9 percent of the Catholics in the
United States agree with this theological concept that Martin Luther had
culled from chapter 3 of the apostle Paul's epistle to the Romans.

 "If this figure holds up it signals a complete breakdown of catechetical
practice," said Hinlicky who teaches religion and philosophy at Roanoke
College in Salem, Va.

 His colleague Gerald McDermott, an Episcopalian, agreed: "This happened
because in the last 30 years American pastors have lost their nerve to
preach a theology that goes against the grain of American narcissism. What
we are witnessing now is what (evangelicalism's premier thinker) Francis
Shaeffer predicted over 20 years ago -- that the American church of the
future would be dedicated solely to peace and affluence."

 Of course this applies chiefly to the historic denominations rather than
the Assemblies of God, Pentecostal/Foursquare and non-denominational groups,
more than 60 percent of whose members remain committed to the justification
by faith formula.

 Hinlicky and McDermott found another result of the Barna survey
depressing. Only 33 percent of the American Catholics, Lutherans and
Methodists, and 28 percent of the Episcopalians agreed with the statement
that Christ was without sin.

 To McDermott, these numbers indicate an "epochal change in popular
theology." He added, "This would suggest a loss of faith in the Divinity of
Christ." If this result is accurate, a large segment of the U.S. population
was reverting to Deism, a belief system prevalent in 18th century England
and shared by leading American thinkers of that period.

 "Christ would then be no more than the Dalai Lama, an admirable kind of a

 Deism saw God as one who wound up the clock of the universe and then
allowed it to run. Some, but by no means all, Deists were convinced that God
does intervene in history. "Benjamin Franklin was certain that God did this
so that we could beat the British," McDermott said.

 "What has brought us to this point is zero theology since the 1960s,"
Hinlicky explained. Again, this does not apply to the majority of the
faithful in the Baptist denominations, the nondenominational, the Assemblies
of God, and the Pentecostal/Foursquare churches, of whom 55, 63, 70 and 73
percent believe that Christ is sinless.

 As for the mainline denominations, McDermott held the cowardice of pastors
responsible for the tectonic changes in their congregants' faith: "They are
afraid to preach and teach anything that challenges what people already
think. The result is a belief in a meek, mild-mannered God who does not want
to judge us. That's Deism."

 "They have given up talking about divorce, abortion and homosexuality,"
McDermott thundered. "They are even retreating from the Trinity. On Trinity
Sunday I was in an Episcopal church, where the rector averred that this was
only something for pastors to think about. Ordinary people did not have to
bother with it."

 While most of the sample American queried by Barna still affirmed God as
the all-powerful Creator, a mere 17 percent of the Catholics, 18 percent
Methodists, 20 percent Episcopalians, 21 percent Lutherans, and 22 percent
of the Presbyterians told Barna that they thought Satan was real.

 Hinlicky, the Lutheran theologian, considered this a particularly baffling
result. "It tells us that even the Lutherans are utterly out of step with
Luther, to whom the Devil was very much a reality."

 Both Hinlicky and McDermott showed themselves intrigued by the fact that
the Mormons, whose church's theology differs from that of orthodox
Christianity, aligned themselves with evangelicals and Pentecostals on most
issues, especially Christ's sinless being (70 percent).

 On the other hand, only 15 percent of the Mormons insisted that man was
not saved by good work; justification by grace through faith is not a
doctrine of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

 Summing up his views on Barna's findings on the beliefs of mainline
Protestants and Catholics, McDermott said, "This underscores how America has
become a mission field."
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.