How do you write a logical, coherent news report about a survey that offers evidence that Americans are not the most consistent pack of people in the world when it comes to matters of absolute truth and eternal life?
That's the challenge facing journalists writing about a new LifeWay Research survey probing the current status of several ancient Christian doctrines in postmodern America.
Based on two early reports, it appears that the crucial question is whether the survey is newsworthy because it shows that lots of Americans are out of step when it comes to holding on to core beliefs in traditional Christianity or because it shows that evangelical Protestants are out of step with ordinary Americans.
First, here is the top of a Religion News Service piece -- "On God and heaven, Americans are all over the map" -- on this subject. Spot the approach.
(RNS) Two-thirds of Americans believe God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The exception: Americans with evangelical Christian beliefs, according to LifeWay Research’s 2016 State of American Theology Study. Only 48 percent of evangelicals share the belief God accepts all worship.
The study comes in the same year that Larycia Hawkins -- Wheaton College’s first black, female professor to receive tenure -- parted ways with the evangelical flagship school after she posted on Facebook that both Christians and Muslims worship the “same God.” The controversy stirred fresh debate among evangelicals about whether all religions worship the same God, and whether God accepts the worship of all religions.
Evangelicals are strange in lots of other ways too, readers learn. I was curious when the story would get to the clashes and contradictions found among some of the other questions.
The RNS report did get there, but after stressing the evangelicals-are-abnormal theme. I found myself wondering: How many of these strange evangelical doctrines are found, oh, in the Catholic Catechism or in other sources that are much older than American evangelicalism.
Eventually, there is this:
... The study also suggests Americans as a whole hold seemingly incompatible beliefs: Seven in 10 Americans said there’s only one true God -- expressed as the Christian Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the survey found.
Ah, and that's crucial since a Trinitarian God is explicitly rejected by Islam and Judaism. It helps to know that. And then, back to the incompatible beliefs:
Among those beliefs, 6 in 10 Americans said “heaven is a place where all people will ultimately be reunited with their loved ones.” But on a separate question, 54 percent of Americans said “only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”
So somewhere, there are people in a 6 percent (roughly) slice of the American public who believe in Universal salvation and in salvation through faith in Jesus, alone? Frankly, I am surprised the "confusion" factor is that small.
Now, let's contrast this evangelicals-are-strange approach with the top of a report from Baptist Press.
Yes, that's a denominational wire, but this report was written by Godbeat veteran Bob Smietana. If you follow religion news, you know that byline well. So let us attend:
NASHVILLE (BP) -- Americans apparently don't know much about theology, according to a study released today (Sept. 28).
Most say God wrote the Bible. But they're not sure everything in it is true. Six in 10 say everyone eventually goes to heaven, but half say only those who believe in Jesus will be saved. And while 7 in 10 say there's only one true God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- two-thirds say God accepts worship of all faiths.
And later on there is the heart of the matter:
Scott McConnell, executive director of the evangelical research firm, says most Americans still identify as Christians. But they seem to be confused about some of the details of their faith.
For example, he said, about two-thirds of Americans believe Jesus is God while half say Jesus is a being created by God. Those two beliefs don't seem to match, he said.
"Contradictory and incompatible beliefs are okay for most people," McConnell said.
So what is the news story here?
Is it the fact -- true, this is -- that millions of Americans have put various elements of traditional and unorthodox faith in the blender and hit spin? Is it that there are very, very few Catholics left who hold all the doctrines of their church? Is it that LifeWay needed to consult some traditional Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers in order to use wordings on a few of these questions that would be, well, less evangelical-centric?
Is it, that for many journalists, "evangelical" has become the new "fundamentalist," a kind of milder curse to pin on the weirdos who believe ancient Christian doctrines?
Oh, heckfire, what are doctrines anyway? Religion is all about opinions, right?
Why sweat the details?