A Global Evangelical Elite
Published on: February 29, 2012
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  • Ed Fisher

    Just to point out the obvious: you are confusing two different versions of a biblical authority question. The doctrine of inerrancy, as the name suggests, affirms that that Bible is free from error (“in the original autographs”), and does not necessarily entail biblical literalism. Surprising that someone with your reputation would make such a fundamental error.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I believe you are blaming the messenger. Apparently the PEW Survey asked the question about Biblical “inerrancy” and did not ask about literalism.

    That 90% believe the Bible is “the word of God” but about 50% do not believe the Bible is “inerrant” implies that Evangelicals are not monolithic literalists.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I believe the most remarkable statistic reported is that 81% of Evangelicals believe the government should take care of the very poor.

    Many other surveys indicate that Evangelicals by and large are Republican in political affiliation.

    These two statistics do not fit the typical stereotype of conservative Christians, which indicates that Evangelicals may be distinct in this regard.

    During the Real Estate Bubble from 2003 to 2008, it was interesting to see the religious legitimation from Evangelicals of not just housing for the poor but “affordable housing” – e.g., new luxury housing for the working class as a political entitlement. “Affordable housing” had been traditionally defined as older, obsolescent housing in less desirable locations, which made the housing cheaper and thus affordable (used cars are affordable, new cars typically are not).

    This legitimation contributed to the social blindness to the reckless government lending policies that have only resulted in harming lower income families. I have yet to read any of those same Evangelical affordable housing advocates regretting the consequences of such policies.

    This indicates there is less tension with the Welfare State among Evangelical leaders than is believed. If we are to believe the findings of Patrick Moynihan and Charles Murray about how the Welfare State has harmed lower income families, the Evangelical belief in an “inerrant” Welfare State is remarkable.

  • Danny

    Good stuff Wayne. Would be interesting to do a broader study on that issue.

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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Thanks Danny for your comment.
    Jill Shook, an Evangelical Christian, has been one of the most outspoken advocates for not just housing for the poor (which I favor) but “affordable housing.”

    You can find reviews of her book Making Housing Happen at Amazon.com – link:

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  • Robbins Mitchell

    Well,somebody once said that arguments about ‘inerrancy’ are the “shoal waters” of Bibical scholarship…and aside from a few 0ld Testament (KJV)references to “unicorns”,I am inclined to agree…as a member of the Church of Christ,I found that my own views on matters in the questionaire comport pretty closely with the vast majority of those polled…but I will take a pass on the so called “prosperity gospel” and leave that to the more mass market minded

  • Dave Bennetch


    I agree with you about the unfortunate consequences of the Church’s endorsement of an over-reaching welfare state, but I think you miss Ed’s point about the difference between literal-ism and inerrancy. The article reports that 50% don’t believe in word-for-word literal-ism and then incorrectly claims that this is the same as inerrancy.

    Much of the Bible is metaphorical or poetic (like the Psalms)in style. I believe that all of the Bible is the word of God, inerrant and true, even though I recognize that some parts aren’t meant to be taken literally.

  • mere citizen

    As someone who would identify themselves as an evangelical, I believe there is some misunderstanding regarding the government taking care of the very poor. The article as well as a commentator seem surprised that evangelicals can have this belief. That said neither actually understand the nuances. By far the vast majority of fellow evangelicals I know as well as myself fully believe the mark of a civilized Christian society is the old, sick and vulnerable are taken care of.
    That does not mean it is appropriate to support those whose poor decisions have put them where they are. In other words we believe as well in personal responsibility. We believe it is wrong to have policies that encourage dependancy of able bodied adults, or rewards those who keep having children they are not supporting.
    The fact that I don’t believe in taking care of those who can but won’t take care of themselves or their children is taken as the belief that as a society we are not obligated to take of those who can’t take care of themselves, when that is not true. That reality however does not fit the narrative of liberal secularists who have a vested interest in painting an inaccurate picture of beliefs they have never taken the time or effort to understand. Nor are they interested in doing so. Thus the seeming amazement that the stereotype could be wrong.

  • mere citizen

    I might also note that early Methodists bear almost no relationship.to today’s Methodists, and could easily be confused with later pentacostals. They were also a leading force in the “social gospel”, a movement that morphed eventually into the welfare state. History really does mean something.

  • gbaikie

    “outspoken advocates for not just housing for the poor (which I favor) but “affordable housing.”

    I think a problem is a faith in government.
    A faith in God is substituted for a faith in government- a violation of first commandant.

    This problem is not new to Jewish or Christian faith. Similarly, faith in government is similar faith the religion’s establishment. One might imagine Protestant might better in this regard, but apparently not- though this is a meeting involving their establishment.

    No one sane is against better housing for everyone- the only debate is how.
    And since government effort have all been utter failures, what being reflected is the poor journalism not making this more clear- a their drumbeat that this could somehow be done by government [this time- for sure, if only more tax dollars are used and done more wisely].

  • Mike Bergsma

    Most of the Christians I know support the welfare safety net but view it as less effective than Christian charity. The only ones I know of any stripe against government aid for the poor are libertarians and paulbots.

  • Geoff

    The problem with asking should you “take the Bible literally, word for word?” is that even the most devout believer in inerrancy thinks that different styles should be handled differently. For example, highly symbolic forms of writing like Revelation aren’t taken “literally.” But if you asked the question, I would know what you are trying to ask.

    See the Chicago Council on Biblical Inerrancy for a robust statement on the matter if interested.

  • Tennwriter

    The report is indeed wrong to ask for literalism.

    I’d be curious to see how that very poor got defined. You have a fair chunk of people who are conservative who are willing to have the gov’t help….as the very last resort.

    Its a ‘we’re not going to let people die in the streets if they have no ability or friends or church to help them’….but thats a much thinner safety net than is currently in place.

  • Montjoie

    I think you went flying off the handle, there, Wayne. There is a huge difference between taking care of very poor people and the welfare state. I think you may also be conflating people like Jim Wallis with conservative evangelicals.

  • dan driscoll

    “However, and that is surprising, only 50% believe that “The Bible should be read literally, word for word”. That formula quite accurately sums up what is meant by Biblical “inerrancy”—an idea that has commonly been equated with Evangelicalism.'”
    That formula is an badly distorted caricature of the doctrine of inerrancy.

  • Allan Crowson

    I question the numbers about being unfriendly to Hindus, Muslims, etc. Did the survey ask literally, “Are you friendly/unfriendly to Hindus, etc.? or did it ask the respondents’ opinions about the sufficiency of Hindu beliefs? Believing that Hindu beliefs are insufficient or in error would not seem to constitute being “unfriendly” to Hindus, for example. One might be very friendly toward someone with whom one agrees on very important matters, after all.

  • Marc Blais

    Ed is right. Here is the pdf

    No mention of ‘errancy’ or ‘inerrancy’ in there. Lots on ‘literal’. As Ed mentioned, ‘literal’ and ‘inerrant’ are two different topics. Any Evangelical Bible college freshman who fills in the short answer quiz with:

    “The Bible should be read literally, word for word”. That formula quite accurately sums up what is meant by Biblical “inerrancy”.

    gets zero points.

    Since the article is partly about common misunderstandings of Evangelicalism, its worth noting that it is incorrect here. To clarify,

    “The Bible should be read literally, word for word”. That formula quite accurately sums up what is meant by “wooden literalism”, a simplistic method of biblical interpretation which fails to take into account that the Bible contains poetic, figurative, and allegorical passages as well as historical narrative.

  • R.C.

    Argh. Yes, Peter Berger seems to have badly messed up the inerrancy/literalism issue.

    Here’s a quick primer, for those of you who either never went to Sunday School as children, or who slept through it:

    Literalistic Interpretation: The brain-dead practice of interpreting every passage of Scripture as if it were a newspaper article without regard to the kind of writing the author intended it to be.

    Literal/Literary Interpretation: The more creditable practice of interpreting a passage of Scripture in a fashion which takes into account the type of writing being used, with the goal of correctly understanding what the author intended to convey.

    Inerrancy: The belief that (since God the Holy Spirit is, in cooperation with the human authors, the primary author of Scripture and granted its human authors a special gift of grace which allowed them to express without error all that the Holy Spirit wished them to express) there are no errors to be found in what the authors intended to convey.

    Got it? Let’s look at an example:

    Suppose for the sake of argument there were a passage like this:

    “Then Ezra peeked out
    And by light of a candle
    Watched water pour forth
    From the spout of the temple
    ‘It rains cats and dogs!’
    Quoth he, and retreated
    And seeing six Levites
    Their help he entreated
    To seal the roof tight
    And to guard against leaking
    Where the sacred scrolls lay.”

    A person who believed in Inerrancy would say that, provided we know what the author was intending to convey to us, what the author was intending to convey to us is true.

    A person who practiced Literal/Literary interpretation would notice that this is an account of a historical figure but with obvious signs of stylized or poetical writing. He would conclude that while it might be intended to convey historical events, some artistic license can be expected in certain details.

    If that person believed in Biblical Inerrancy, he would conclude that IF the author only intended to convey Ezra’s concern for keeping the sacred books of the law undamaged, then the real historical Ezra was the kind of guy who was concerned about that.

    He would also conclude that IF the author intended to relate an actual historical event, then it was raining hard that day…but there might have been five Levites or nine, because the number six (with its alliteration) may be mere artistic license unrelated to what the author intended to convey. Because, again, an interpreter who believes in Inerrancy but who takes the literary form of the writing into account when interpreting it, first has to be sure what the author intended to convey, and sometimes there’s more than one option.

    By contrast, a person who practiced Literalism would say that this is all historical, that the fact that there’s a rhyme scheme has no bearing on the type of writing being used, and that when Ezra looked out, small domesticated mammals were falling from the sky.

    Make sense?

    And, oh, by the way, most Evangelicals with any kind of seminary training have always intended to take the Literal/Literary approach, not the silly Literalistic approach. But of course you encounter laity or self-proclaimed prophets who haven’t a lick of training, who sometimes take the Literalistic approach because they worry that anything more nuanced is motivated by a lack of faith.

  • R.C.

    By the way, the terminological distinction between “Literal/Literary” on the one hand and “Literalistically” on the other is not uniform across all subcultures of Christianity. Definitions and terms vary.

    So, in some places, the sensible approach will be called “Literary” and the silly everything-is-a-newspaper-article approach will be called “Literal.”

    On the other hand, where I grew up, the sensible approach was called “Literal” and the silly approach was called “Literalistic.”

    And I’m sure there are other terms used in different places for each.

    So, I suspect that at a meeting of Evangelical leaders, the reason you got a 50% number for “The Bible should be read literally, word for word” was because some Evangelical leaders interpreted the question, “The Bible should be read LITERALISTICALLY” and answered “No,” and other Evangelical leaders interpreted the question, “The Bible should be read the way its original authors intended it to be understood, with due attention to the LITERARY FORMS taken into account,” and answered “Yes.”

    In short: A dumb question, probably written by someone so unfamiliar with hermeneutics and Scripture study that he hadn’t a clue he was asking it in a way that guaranteed misunderstanding.

    Oh, well.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    The Bible says that Jesus is the Lamb of God, but under no circumstances do I take that to mean that He is a member of the species Ovis aries. Nor does anyone else, no matter how “literalistic” they claim their approach to biblical hermaneutics might be.

    Come on, people! A little common sense, please!

  • I think what Ed was saying is that there’s more than one way of reading the survey question…

    I would disagree with “The Bible should be read literally, word for word” – arguing that the Scriptures should be read as they are intended to be read in their various genres. This doesn’t necessarily imply anything about my belief in inerrancy.

    To give an exampe: many theological conservatives have read the erotic poetry of Song of Solomon very un-literally as a metaphor for God’s love for His people. This doesn’t imply anything about whether they regard the scriptures as free of error or not. Arguments that “Scripture must be read literally” go beyond the evangelical issue of inerrancy into the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism.

    It’s possible that the response to this survey question represents at least partly an awareness of this issue.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Thanks Dave for the clarification

  • “I believe the most remarkable statistic reported is that 81% of Evangelicals believe the government should take care of the very poor”

    While surprising, it’s not as surprising as you think. It’s where the rubber meets the road that we deeply diverge from liberals and those who embrace social justice.

    WHO are the very poor? In truth, at present there are very, very few “very poor” in America, which appears to inform your paradigm.

    Second, WHAT government, or more clearly, what level of government?

    And last, what constitutes “taking care?” Does footing the bill for birth control (either directly or through mandates) for young, healthy, law school students at one of the most prestigious (and expensive) law schools in the world qualify as “taking care of the very poor”?

    Or perhaps it’s something else…

    As an Evangelical, I’m going to be part of the 19% who object, although I don’t object in the case of emergency situations.

    The core of my objection is rooted in human nature. Gov’t welfare inevitably corrupts the conduit (gov’t) and the recipients. The incentives for the conduit and the recipients are at odds with the stated goals. Religious welfare runs the same risk, but since the religious giver is voluntary, the religious conduit is far more accountable, and the recipient isn’t trading votes for bread, the risk is much, much lower. The risks that the gov’t welfare model presents can be ameliorated by adopting many of the characteristics of the religious welfare model, the most significant of which is accountability to the donors by the conduit. This is done by driving the entire edifice of gov’t welfare down to the most local level possible.

    In closing, I’ll offer the following observation: everywhere in the world where poverty is greatest, and thus the need for gov’t care of the very poor is highest, gov’t is also the most corrupt. Bad gov’t is a huge part of the problem. To be clear, I’m not saying that everybody in gov’t is corrupt, for even in the most corrupt gov’ts on the planet there are honest folk.

    In the “First World”, the only reason for gov’t to provide welfare to the very poor is because the Church isn’t doing so. In such cases, rather than call on the gov’t to do it’s job, the Body of Christ should step up. In the “Third World”, the gov’t itself is either so poor as to be incapable of shouldering the burden, or so corrupt as to be untrustworthy to do so. Deja vu. Again, the Body of Christ should step up, ’cause the gov’t either can’t or won’t.

    Grace and peace.

  • I had a “born again” experience which I attribute to Ouspensky’s “Fourth Way”. Do not identify. Do not consider. Do not tell lies. Do not express negative emotions.

    Given that I am not a Christian I would have to assume that this is either not possible or I am deluded in some way. I was never a fan of Christian parochialism.

  • the vast majority of fellow evangelicals I know as well as myself fully believe the mark of a civilized Christian society is the old, sick and vulnerable are taken care of.

    That must explain why so many evangelicals in America favor drug prohibition. They support the medical cartel over cheap natural drugs that can serve the same purpose as cartel drugs. In fact such a policy is perfect. It supports BOTH drug cartels. The poor don’t stand a chance. Socialized medicine is of course the cure.

  • The only ones I know of any stripe against government aid for the poor are libertarians and paulbots.

    And more than a few economists.

    Why? Well the poor in America are fat. They own houses, cars, TVs, microwaves, and have indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, air conditioning, heat. Computers, high speed internet etc. And that accounts for 60% or more of the poor for each item mentioned. Is it a struggle to keep all that together on low end income? Sure. But 60% to 99% do depending on the item.

    So what needs attending to? Child abuse and the resultant PTSD. About 70% of female heroin users were sexually molested in childhood. Who will join me in taking up their cause?

  • I think you are on a roll, Peter, yet another decent and helpful analysis.But just to add to the discussion about the subject of inerrancy and literalism.

    The best set of words that I can find about the inspiration of the Bible are from the book “Know the Truth” by Bruce Milne, with a forward by J I Packer. On page 37 it states:

    “In the process of inspiration God sovereignly supervised and ordered the background, heredity and circumstances of the individual writers; as a result, when they recorded events, meditations or sermons in writing, the words used were consciously the free composition of the authors at the same time the very word of God”

    There are many responses to the reliability of the Bible. One proceeds along the following lines:

    “Yes, BUT the Bible needs to be interpreted…and therefore cannot be relied upon”.

    But for Christians the statement that the Bible needs to be interpreted is not a threat. The Bible is the very word of God but there are common sense rules of interpretation that can assist all of us in our attempts to understand and apply it properly to our lives. Or to put it more technically, it is important to employ a correct hermeneutic.

    In Peter’s second letter Chapter 3: verses 15, and 16 we are told of how Paul in his letters, according to the wisdom that God gave him, contains

    ” … some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do other Scriptures to their own destruction.”

    Attempts have been made in the course of Christian history to use such words and others in the Bible to persuade people that it is too difficult for the common man to appreciate. The natural intellect cannot grasp the Bible. It’s subject is so deep,its language so difficult to understand and ambiguous that it is not for you and I, not for the common man to be let loose on it’s meaning. Only those specially commissioned or trained can and should have meaningful access to it and it’s true meaning. It is a dangerous book.

    And yet when you examine these verses carefully it is far from a justification for such reasoning. We are not here stopped from reading the Bible because it is difficult to understand. It only says “some things” and not “many” and although they are hard not incapable of being understood. The difficulties in the Bible relate not to the words themselves but to that nature within us which is opposed to what God wants, and that pride which does not wish to seek his enlightenment from what He has written. The word “ignorant” here is not referring to illiteracy but to those “who have not been and are not themselves being taught by God” and the word unstable, is referring to those with no stable well thought through convictions who turn to whatever doctrine suits them.

    This argument that there is a need for correct interpretation is not to state therefore that the Bible should be the preserve of the few or to suggest some weakness in it, it is just sensible as an aid to understanding and applying properly what is said. Such an approach will help us to arrive at the truth of what is said and, provide assistance in helping us not to go to extremes or off on a tangent.

  • ChrisGreen

    Many are making the mistake of conflating the opinions expressed in the poll with the opinions of North American Evangelicals. For example, I doubt evangalical christianity is nearly as associated with conservative politics (small government) in Africa and South America than in the United States. The results of the poll should NOT be taken to automatically represent, for example, a southern evangelical in Kansas City.

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