Editorial: Let’s talk about issues that divide Texans

(RNS Image courtesy: Mor via Flickr – http://bit.ly/1Ix4SVt)

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The latest report from a comprehensive survey by the Pew Research Center presents a fascinating mosaic of Texans’ opinions about God, faith and other vital issues. 

Pew released the second report from its Religious Landscape Study—a mammoth survey  of 35,000 U.S. adults—early this month. Nationally, the report offers two takeaways: 

knox newEditor Marv KnoxFirst, the irreligious portion of the U.S. population is expanding. The so-called nones, people who do not identify with any religion, grew from 16 percent of the population in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. And the Nones themselves have become even less religious. Nones who say they believe in God decreased from 70 percent to 61 percent, and the share who seldom or never pray increased from 56 percent to 62 percent.

Second, people of faith are as observant as they were a few years ago. Two-thirds of religious U.S. adults pray daily and insist religion is “very important.” About 60 percent claim to attend religious services at least twice monthly. Those statistics held across both 2007 and 2014. And even more respondents—about 60 percent—say they regularly feel “spiritual peace and well-being.”

Because of its size, the Religious Landscape Study is making national news. But because it is comprehensive, the survey offers valuable portraits of smaller sub-groups, such as states, religions and races.

A cornucopia of facts

The Texas report is a cornucopia of facts. For example:

• Baptists comprise the state’s second-largest religious group, 20 percent of the population, a bit behind Catholics, at 23 percent.

• Eighty-eight percent of Texans say they are absolutely certain (69 percent) or fairly certain (19 percent) they believe in God. That compares to 91 percent who said the same thing in 2007.

• Although only a small minority, the percentage of Texans who say they do not believe in God grew from 2 percent to 6 percent.

• Still, the vast majority of Texans value religion. Eighty-six percent said religion is very important (63 percent) or somewhat important (23 percent). That’s a combined decline of 3 percent from eight years ago.

• A majority of Texans still attend religious services regularly, with 42 percent claiming to worship at least once a week, 33 percent once or twice a month or a few times a year and 25 percent seldom or never. In 2007, those figures were 47 percent weekly, 30 percent occasionally and 22 percent seldom/never.

• Seventy-eight percent of Texans pray regularly, with 63 percent praying at least daily and 15 percent at least weekly.

• The percentage who regularly experience “a feeling of spiritual peace and well-being” grew between the surveys. Most recently, 63 percent said they feel that way at least once a week, and 13 percent feel it at least once a month. That compares to 60 percent who felt peace and well-being at least weekly and 12 percent who experienced it once or twice a month in 2007.

• Growth also occurred among Texans who say religion is their primary source of guidance on right and wrong. In 2007, that was true for 35 percent, but recently, 41 percent said they seek primary moral guidance from religion.

• Texans still believe in heaven (76 percent) and hell (65 percent) at about the same rate as they did previously. In 2007, believers in heaven accounted for 78 percent, and believers in hell tapped out at 65 percent.

• According to the survey—if not the proportion of elected officials—Texas is a “purple” state, almost evenly blending Democrats (40 percent) and Republicans (39 percent). Twenty-one percent say they lean neither way.

• However, conservatives (39 percent) out-number both moderates (32 percent and liberals (21 percent). Since 2007, liberals increased by 4 points, while moderates declined by 2 points, and conservatives dropped by 1 point.

• On several issues, Texans are about evenly divided. These include favoring smaller (47 percent) and larger (45 percent) government, believing government aid does more (47 percent) and less (46 percent) harm than good, and thinking abortion should be illegal (50 percent) and legal (45 percent) in all or most cases.

• Although a majority of Texans (56 percent) believe homosexuality should be accepted, a strong minority (36 percent) think it should be discouraged. Those numbers changed markedly since 2007, when 42 percent felt it should be accepted and 44 percent believed it should be discouraged.

• Now, Texans split evenly on their views of same-sex marriage, with 46 percent both favoring and opposing it. The issue was not surveyed eight years ago.

• On evolution, an issue that shapes science textbooks, Texans also are divided. Thirty-nine percent believe humans always have existed in their present form, while 27 percent think humans evolved due to natural processes, and 26 percent think they evolved due to God’s design.

The survey data offer several implications for people of faith who are concerned about the future of our state.

First, Texas is not turning pagan any time soon. 

Yes, the growth of Nones among young adults provides cause for concern. Millennials comprise a disproportionate share of Nones, and they represent the future of the state and nation. If they, as did their predecessors, return to faith and congregations as they have babies and raise families, this tide may turn. If not, and Nones begat Nones, their numbers would multiply. 

An evangelism challenge

That provides an evangelism challenge for the majority-believing population. A huge factor in evangelism of Nones will be how the church behaves. Many of them have been propelled from God because of the harshness, judgmentalism and downright meanness they have seen in Christians. How can we expect them to believe God loves them when they’re pretty sure we don’t?

Second, although people of faith tend to think their personal beliefs are normative and orthodox, the survey numbers don’t lie: Serious believers advocate both sides of contemporary issues.

Note the huge percentage of people whose faith is vital to them. Then look at the much-closer splits on people who classify themselves as conservative, moderate and liberal. Then look at the percentages of opinions about abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and government.

Obviously, devout Christians can be found in all groups. This leads to the next point. …

Healing for divided Texans

Third, churches can provide spaces for healthy conversation and healing among divided Texans. Believers transcend political and ideological camps. Following the example of Jesus, we value truth, honesty, integrity and respect. 

So, what better place to conduct fair, reasonable, balanced and loving conversations about important issues than in our churches? What if we open our doors and invite our neighbors to talk honestly and respectfully about issues of the day? Yes, it is risky. But the rewards—including renewed respect from understandably skeptical unbelievers—could be tremendous.

We seek to inform, inspire and challenge you to live like Jesus. Click to learn more about Following Jesus.

If we achieved our goal—or didn’t—we’d love to hear from you. Send an email to Eric Black, our editor. Maximum length for publication is 250 words.

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