Americans of every religious stripe are considerably more tolerant of the beliefs of others than most of us might have assumed, according to a new poll released Monday. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year surveyed 35,000 Americans, and found that 70% of respondents agreed with the statement "Many religions can lead to eternal life." Even more remarkable was the fact that 57% of Evangelical Christians were willing to accept that theirs might not be the only path to salvation, since most Christians historically have embraced the words of Jesus, in the Gospel of John, that "no one comes to the Father except through me." Even as mainline churches had become more tolerant, the exclusivity of Christianity's path to heaven has long been one of the Evangelicals' fundamental tenets. The new poll suggests a major shift, at least in the pews.
The Religious Landscape Survey's findings appear to signal that religion may actually be a less divisive factor in American political life than had been suggested by the national conversation over the last few decades. Peter Berger, University Professor of Sociology and Theology at Boston University, said that the poll confirms that "the so-called culture war, in its more aggressive form, is mainly waged between rather small groups of people." The combination of such tolerance with high levels of religious participation and intensity in the U.S., says Berger, "is distinctively American and rather cheering. "
Less so, perhaps, to Christian conservatives, for whom Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay suggests the survey results have a "devastating effect on theological purity." An acceptance of the notion of other paths to salvation dilutes the impact of the doctrine that Christ died to remove sin and thus opened the pathway to eternal life for those who accept him as their personal savior. It could also reduce the impulse to evangelize, which is based on the premise that those who are not Christian are denied salvation. The problem, says Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is that "the cultural context and the reality of pluralism has pulled many away from historic Christianity."
Quizzed on the breadth of the poll's definition of "Evangelical," Pew pollster John Green said the 296-page survey made use of self-identification by the respondents' churches, denominations or fellowships, whose variety is the report's overriding theme. However, he said, if one isolates the most "traditionalist" members of the white Evangelical group, 50% still agreed that other faiths might offer a path to eternal life. In fact, of the dozens of denominations covered by the Pew survey, it was only Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses who answered in the majority that their own faith was the only way to eternal life.
Analysts expressed some surprise at how far the tolerance needle has swung, but said the trend itself was foreseeable because of American Christians' increasing proximity to other faiths since immigration quotas were loosened in the 1960s. Says Rice's Lindsay, the author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite: "If you have a colleague who is Buddhist or your kid plays with a little boy who is Hindu, it changes your appreciation of the religious 'other.'"
While the combination of Americans' religiosity more than half those polled said was "very important in their lives" and their tolerance for the beliefs of others may suggest creedal confusion, this appears not to trouble good-hearted U.S. pew-sitters. Says Lindsay, "The problem is not that Americans don't believe in anything, but that they believe in everything, and the two things don't always fit together." But he adds, the views are consistent with tolerant views expressed by Evangelicals he met in various cities as he toured while promoting his book. Mohler agrees: "We've seen this coming," adding that the query about whether others can make it to heaven "has been the question I get asked by more college students and on my radio program." More so than Christ's divinity or Resurrection, he says, "the exclusivity of the Gospel is the most vulnerable doctrine in the face of the modern world."
Liberals and conservatives will interpret the numbers in different ways, says Pew's Green. "The liberal [interpretation] is that Americans are becoming more universalistic, religiously. The conservative one is that Americans are losing faith and becoming more accommodationist." But he says the truth may lie elsewhere. "Just because they don't want to believe that there's only one way to salvation doesn't meant that they don't take their religion very seriously."
The political implications of the Pew findings are more difficult to gauge. Green says that while Americans' unexpectedly high tolerance for one others creeds might seem to blunt the sharp religious edge of some of today's campaign-trail discourse, it could also lead to larger religious coalitions around certain issues as pious believers overcome their inhibitions about working with others.
The survey's biggest challenge is to the theologians and pastors who will have to reconcile their flocks' acceptance of a new, polyglot heaven with the strict admission criteria to the gated community that preceded it.