April 12, 2016

Religion in Everyday Life

2. Essentials of Christian identity vary by level of religiosity; many ‘nones’ say honesty vital to being a moral person

Most self-identified Christians in the U.S. say believing in God and praying regularly are “essential” to what being Christian means to them. Similarly, majorities of U.S. Christians say honesty, forgiveness and gratitude are vital parts of their Christian identity. About half of Christians say working to help the needy and committing to spend time with family are essential to what being Christian means to them, while fewer say the same about reading the Bible regularly, attending religious services on a regular basis or working to protect the environment.

On several of the 16 possible elements of Christian identity that were mentioned in the survey, there are significant gaps between highly religious Christians (that is, Christians who say they pray daily and attend church at least weekly) and Christians who are less religious. For instance, seven-in-ten highly religious Christians say reading the Bible is essential to their Christian identity, while Christians who are less religious tend to see reading the Bible as “important, but not essential” (43%). And highly religious Christians are more likely than others to say dressing modestly is essential to what being Christian means to them (43% vs. 17%).

There also are gaps between members of different Christian traditions. Large shares of evangelical Protestants (60%) and members of historically black Protestant denominations (57%) say reading the Bible is essential to what being Christian means to them, while only about one-in-four mainline Protestants (27%) and one-in-five Catholics (22%) say this. Evangelicals and black Protestants also place greater emphasis on regular prayer.

Members of non-Christian faiths and people who do not identify with any religion were asked whether the same 16 beliefs and behaviors are essential, important but not essential or not important to what being a “moral person” means to them. Relatively few religious “nones” say that believing in God, reading the Bible or resting on the Sabbath are essential to being a moral person. But most say being honest at all times is an essential part of what it means to be a moral person, and about half say being grateful for what they have is essential to morality.

The remainder of this chapter explores in greater detail the survey’s findings on the essentials of Christian identity and, among non-Christians, views on what it means to be a moral person.

Among Christians, large shares cite belief in God, regular prayer as essentials of what being Christian means to them

Nearly all U.S. Christians say believing in God is essential (86%) or important but not essential (10%) to what being Christian means to them, personally. Large majorities of all Christian groups, from 95% of evangelical Protestants to 79% of Catholics, say it is essential.

Most Christians also say praying regularly is essential (63%) or important but not essential (28%) to their Christian identity. But there is more diversity of opinion on this question among Christian groups. While nearly eight-in-ten evangelical Protestants (79%) and three-quarters of members of historically black Protestant churches (74%) say praying regularly is essential to their Christian identity, only about half of mainline Protestants (49%) and Catholics (48%) share this view.

Next to belief in God and regular prayer, other religious behaviors are less central to Christians’ religious identity. Fewer than half of Christians (42%) say reading the Bible or other religious materials is essential to their identity as Christians. Roughly one-third (35%) say regularly attending religious services is essential to their Christian identity. Slightly more than a quarter (28%) say helping out in their congregation is a key component of their religious identity. And about one-in-five (18%) say resting on the Sabbath is an essential part of their faith.

Highly religious Christians are more likely than those who are less religious to say each of these beliefs and behaviors is essential to what being Christian means to them. In the cases of prayer and religious service attendance, this is especially unsurprising, since frequency of prayer and attendance were the two measures used to determine whether respondents are categorized as “highly religious” or not. But the gap persists on other measures as well. For example, seven-in-ten highly religious Christians (70%) say reading the Bible is essential to their Christian identity, while only 26% of less religious Christians say the same.

Belief in God, prayer widely seen as essential to what it means to be Christian; other religious behaviors less critical

Highly religious Christians most likely to cite honesty, forgiveness as keys to their religious identities

Honesty and forgiveness are highly valued by most Christians. However, there are substantial differences between highly religious and less religious Christians on whether or not these traits are “essential” to their Christian identity. Among highly religious Christians, eight-in-ten or more say being honest and forgiving those who have wronged them are essentials of their Christian identity. By contrast, about six-in-ten Christians who are less religious say this. In both cases, about one-in-ten or fewer say these acts are “not important.”

Honesty, forgiveness widely seen as essential to what it means to be Christian

Highly religious Christians also are somewhat more likely than those who are less religious to say spending time with family is essential to what it means to be Christian (56% vs. 43%). And highly religious Christians are nearly twice as likely as others to say not losing one’s temper is central to their religious identity (47% vs. 24%).

Among Christian traditions, forgiveness is particularly important to evangelical Protestants; fully eight-in-ten evangelicals (81%) say forgiving those who have wronged them is essential to their Christian identity. And keeping one’s cool is particularly important to members of churches in the historically black Protestant tradition, 50% of whom say not losing one’s temper is essential to what being Christian means to them.

Most highly religious Christians say helping poor central to their identity

Highly religious Christians are considerably more likely than those who are less religious to say working to help the poor and needy is an essential part of what it means to be Christian (69% vs. 43%), although large majorities of both groups say it is at least important (if not necessarily essential). Among religious groups, those in the historically black Protestant tradition are particularly likely to see helping the poor as an essential part of their faith, with roughly two-thirds saying that helping the poor and needy is an essential part of what being Christian means to them.

Half of Christians say working to help poor key to their Christian identity; fewer cite environmentalism, purchasing from companies that pay fair wage

Compared with helping the poor, fewer Christians see working to protect the environment as essential (22%) or important but not essential (50%) to their Christian identity. And Christians are more likely to say that buying from companies that pay their employees a fair wage is not important to their Christian identity (37%) than to say it is essential (14%). At the same time, the most common view among Christians is that it is important but not essential (49%). In both cases, members of churches in the historically black Protestant tradition are more likely than other Christians to say these behaviors are vital to being Christian.

Gratitude widely seen as central to being Christian

Highly religious Christians more likely to see dressing modestly as vital to Christian identityAn overwhelming majority of highly religious Christians say being grateful for what they have is essential (84%) to what being Christian means to them. This view is also common among Christians who are not highly religious (63%). Overall, 71% of U.S. Christians take this view.

Fully 43% of highly religious Christians say dressing modestly is crucial to their Christian identity, compared with just 17% of those who are less religious. About a quarter of Christians overall (26%) say dressing modestly is essential to what it means to be a Christian. This view is held by 36% of evangelical Protestants.

Overall, about one-in-five Christians (18%) say being healthy by eating right and exercising is central to their Christian identity.

Ranking priorities within faith groups: Few differences among Christians

Within all major Christian traditions analyzed in this report, belief in God is the highest-ranking item seen as essential to Christian identity. By contrast, buying from companies that pay a fair wage ranks at or near the bottom of “essentials” of religious identity for every group analyzed.

Among Christian groups, believing in God most commonly cited as essential to religious identity

In their own words, about one-in-six Christians name golden rule/kindness as essential to their Christian identity

Roughly equal shares of Christians volunteer religious and moral behaviors as essential to Christian identityThe survey included an open-ended question that gave respondents an opportunity to describe, in their own words, what else (beyond the specific beliefs and behaviors included in the survey) is an essential part of what being Christian means to them.

Christians are about equally likely to cite moral behaviors as vital to their Christian identity as they are to mention explicitly religious behaviors. Roughly a third (34%) say the golden rule and other things that are not explicitly religious, such as “being a good person,” are vital to their Christian identity.14 A similar share of Christians (37%) volunteer clearly religious beliefs and behaviors, such as salvation through Jesus or following the Bible.

Among non-Christians, honesty and gratitude top list of what is essential to being a moral person

Just as most Christians say being honest and being grateful are essential elements of their Christian identity, most non-Christians say honesty and gratitude are “essential” to what being a “moral person” means to them. And roughly half of non-Christians say prioritizing family time is essential to what it means to be a moral person.

Most non-Christians say honesty, gratitude essential to what being ‘moral person’ means to them

Relatively few religious “nones,” who make up 78% of the non-Christians surveyed, say religious beliefs or behaviors are central to what it means to be a moral person. For example, only about three-in-ten respondents without any religious affiliation say believing in God is either essential (13%) or important but not essential (18%) to what being a “moral person” means to them. And only about one-in-ten religious “nones” say attending religious services is essential (2%) or important but not essential (10%) to what it means to be a moral person. By contrast, about half or more of the unaffiliated say honesty and gratitude are essential to being a moral person.

Members of non-Christian faiths are more likely than the unaffiliated to consider religious beliefs and behaviors essential to being a moral person, though they still see attributes such as gratitude and honesty as more vital. For example, 30% of members of non-Christian faiths say believing in God is essential to what being a moral person means to them, and 23% say the same about praying regularly. Much bigger shares say gratitude (67%) or honesty (57%) are essential to being a moral person.

Although members of different non-Christian faiths may have different views on these questions, sample sizes for these groups are too small to be reported separately. Members of all non-Christian faiths received the same questions about whether certain beliefs or behaviors are essential to what being a moral person means to them.

Ideally, the survey would have asked about the “essentials” of religious identity across a wider range of religious groups. For example, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist respondents would have been asked if these behaviors are essential to what being Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist means to them. Because some respondents completed the survey by mail in a paper-and-pencil format, however, it was not feasible to program the questionnaire with language specific to more than a few religious groups.

Many religious ‘nones’ cite golden rule as key to what it means to be a moral personOn an open-ended question posed to non-Christian respondents about what additional beliefs and behaviors are essential to what it means to be a moral person, most religious “nones” (63%) cite attributes or behaviors that are not explicitly religious. This includes about a quarter (23%) who mention the golden rule, being kind or loving others; 15% who mention being a good person; and 12% who say being tolerant and respectful of others is key to being a moral person. Some religiously unaffiliated Americans also cite honesty and helping others, with a smaller number saying being true to oneself is central to what it means to be a moral person.

Only 2% of religious “nones” mention explicitly religious behaviors, such as following the Bible or trusting in God, as essential to what being a moral person means to them.

On the same open-ended question, most members of non-Christian faiths (62%) also volunteer attributes or behaviors that are not explicitly religious, including 22% who cite the golden rule or generally showing love and kindness to others. Relatively few (8%) mention explicitly religious beliefs or practices.

  1. For more on this topic, see Ammerman, Nancy T. 1997. “Golden Rule Christianity: Lived Religion in the American Mainstream.” In Hall, D.D. ed. “Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice.”