A sizable majority of the country's faithful no longer hew closely to orthodox teachings, and look more to themselves than to churches or denominations to define their religious convictions, according to two recent surveys. More than half of all Christians also believe that some non-Christians can get into heaven.
"Growing numbers of people now serve as their own theologian-in-residence," said George Barna, president of Barna Group, on releasing findings of one of the polls on Jan. 12.
In the Barna survey, 71 percent of American adults say they are more likely to develop their own set of religious beliefs than to accept a defined set of teachings from a particular church. Even among born-again Christians, 61 percent pick and choose from the beliefs of different denominations. For people under the age of 25, the number rises to 82 percent.
Many "cafeteria Christians" go beyond the teachings of Christian denominations to embrace parts of other world religions.
Half of Americans also believe that Christianity is now just one of many faith options people can choose from (44 percent disagree with that perception). Residents of the Northeast and West were more likely than those in the South and Midwest to say Christianity has lost its status as the favored American religion.
Christians expressed a variety of unorthodox beliefs in the poll. Nearly half of those interviewed do not believe in the existence of Satan, one-third believe Jesus sinned while on earth, and two-fifths say they don't have a responsibility to share their faith with others.
The most striking divergence from orthodoxy, however, was first revealed in the 2007 US Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. That comprehensive survey of 35,000 Americans found a majority of Christians saying that people of other religions can find salvation and eternal life.
The results stirred controversy among some Christian leaders for whom Jesus as the only path to salvation is a paramount teaching. Some questioned whether those surveyed about "other religions" might have been thinking of Christian denominations or traditions – such as Protestants referring to Roman Catholicism – rather than non-Christian faiths.
Pew undertook a follow-up survey, which it released in late December. That poll found 65 percent of American Christians (including 47 percent of Evangelicals) do indeed think that many different religions can lead to eternal life. Among these Christians, 80 percent cited one non-Christian faith as a route to salvation; 61 percent named two or more.
The survey also asked about views on how one obtains eternal life. Among all adults with a religious affiliation, 30 percent say correct beliefs are what counts, 29 percent say salvation depends on one's actions during life, while 10 percent say both are essential. Those who emphasize the impact of actions are more inclined to believe that practitioners of non-Christian faiths can achieve eternal life. Most of those who emphasize beliefs say non-Christian paths do not lead to heaven.
The poll confirms a broad rejection of religious exclusivity. Among all religious adults interviewed, 65 percent say many religions lead to eternal life and only 29 percent say theirs is the one true faith. Sixty-nine percent of all non-Jews say Judaism can lead to eternal life and 52 percent of non-Muslims say that of Islam.
Forty-two percent of religious Americans also say atheists are able to find eternal life.
While some people hail these findings as heartening for American pluralism, others see them as a wake-up call. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes on his blog about biblical Christianity's role in countering such inclusive views and helping people find the true Christian way. Others point to the power of egalitarian American culture.
"It's just part of a 200-year working out of ideas about personal autonomy and equality that are sort of built into the American experience," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "The notion that someone is going to burn in hell because they have their own beliefs is just not resonant within our larger political ideals."