Polls can be problematic, but journalistic blessings upon Gallup's long, long religion trend lines

Let’s admit it. The news media are poll-obsessed, especially with politics. But don’t blame pollsters if journalists over-work surveys or neglect necessary caveats.

Take Michigan’s presidential vote. A November 3 poll for Detroit’s Fox2 put Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 46 to 41 percent.

Did news reports mention the “margin of error” of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points? With that factored in, Trump could actually have been slightly ahead, and in fact he won Michigan by three-tenths of a percent.

In “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith,” sociologist Robert Wuthnow doubted any polls are representative nowadays since “response rates” among randomly selected respondents are so low. GOP pollster John McLaughlin pursues another complaint, that sampling techniques consistently undercount Republicans. 

So religion scribes must be wary. Nonetheless, blest be the Gallup Poll, especially for trend-tracking because it has posed the same questions across years and decades, e.g. the famous “did you, yourself, happen to attend” worship this week?

Sure, fibs and faulty memories may inflate the results, but the downward trend line is noteworthy.  

Gallup’s annual “Values and Beliefs” poll in May finds the most permissive U.S. views to date on 10 of 19 moral issues -- though adultery still gets mere 9 percent acceptance. That got more coverage than Gallup’s subsequent report on the poll’s responses about the Bible that presumably shape moral opinions. (Note the sampling error of plus or minus 4 points, with no “response rate” in the fine print.)

Since 1976, Gallup has asked about three choices: “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word; the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally; or the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man.”

Over the years the middle stance has drawn the strongest support, at stable levels between 45 and 51 percent, currently 47 percent. Note this news: Strict literalism has fallen to 24 percent while 26 percent now pick “fables” and “legends.”

News analysts should recognize problems with  “literal” and “word for word.”  People in the middle camp may well believe the Bible is inspired “word for word” though not always “literal.”  And even Fundamentalism wouldn’t say everything is “taken literally” since the Bible is full of poetry, figures of speech, parables, etc.

Instead, liberals and conservatives alike seek what scriptural writers intended. As 300 staunch conservatives proclaimed in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,  “we must pay the most careful attention to [a passage’s] claims and character as a human production. .... History must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are ...”

One prominent 1978 endorser, J.I. Packer, explained in his classic “ ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God” (1958) that “a literalistic type of exegesis is wholly groundless. There is nothing inconsistent in recognizing that real events may be recorded in a highly symbolic manner,” for example the Fall in Eden.  

The peskiest issue is the Genesis creation account. Gallup’s new poll asked about that, posing its standard three options:   

(1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, (2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process, (3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?

The rigidly literal (3) was chosen by 38 percent, down somewhat from 44 percent in 1981. Middle option (1) drew 38 percent support in both 1981 and 2017.

The news here? Backing for skeptical (2) has doubled over the years to the current 19 percent. Can you say "nones"?

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