Episcopal Church releases ‘Jesus in America’ study; polling data shows wide-ranging faith views

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 9, 2022

[Episcopal News Service] Most Americans see Jesus as an important spiritual figure. More than 30% of Americans have decreased their participation in religious activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. And only one in 10 thinks those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were associated with organized religion.

Those are some of the findings of a national study commissioned by The Episcopal Church and conducted by the polling firm Ipsos. The results of the “Jesus in America” study, released March 9, highlight the wide-ranging faith perspectives of a diverse cross section of Americans, including those who identify as nonreligious.

Episcopal leaders say the study points to both the popularity of Jesus’ teachings and the ways Christians are often perceived as failing to live up to those teachings.

“We are encouraged that the research shows Americans still find Jesus compelling, but we also see that the behavior of many of his followers is a problem, and it’s not just certain Christians: it’s all Christians,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a press release announcing the study. “This is a wake-up call for us, and based on what we have learned, we are refocusing our efforts on being a church that looks and acts like Jesus and models its behavior on his teachings. In this process, we hope to ignite a revival of love that encourages all Americans to do a better job of loving their neighbors.”

To conduct the study, global market researcher Ipsos polled 3,119 Americans, ages 18 and older, from Nov. 22 to Dec. 2 in English and Spanish, with a margin of error of 2%. The results will be used by Episcopal leaders to help plan for the post-pandemic church.

“The goal of the ‘Jesus in America’ research project was to identify the most compelling themes and narratives about Americans’ attitudes and perceptions of who Jesus is, his enduring importance and impact on society, how the pandemic has shaped how people pursue and find spiritual and religious fulfillment, and how Christians are currently perceived by non-Christians,” Amanda Skofstad, the church’s public affairs officer, told Episcopal News Service in a written statement.

Christopher Moessner, who oversaw the study’s Ipsos research team, emphasized in an interview with ENS that the large nationwide pool of respondents is representative of a wide range of faith backgrounds.

“We did not want to limit our audience to only Christians or only Americans who held a particular view. We wanted to survey all Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs or no religious beliefs,” said Moessner, senior vice president of public opinion polling at Ipsos.

That approach helped the study more clearly examine common perceptions of Christianity and Christians in the United States. One question asked respondents what they thought was Jesus’ most important teaching. More than a third said “love your neighbor,” including nearly a fourth of respondents who reported no religion. About 20% of all respondents answered with “not judging others, without first judging yourself,” and those with no religion gave that answer at about the same rate.

“Not many polls get into what do you really believe Jesus was about,” Moessner said. “This poll also sought to understand where the intersection was between all faiths. Where’s the common ground?”

He pointed to questions about what activities offered by religious organizations would most interest respondents. Some of those results were similar across all faiths, with respondents generally emphasizing outdoor activities and helping others.

Another question asked what characteristics respondents associate with Christians. The words most chosen by the Christian respondents were “giving,” “compassionate,” “loving” and “respectful,” while non-Christians associated Christians most with “hypocritical,” “judgmental,” “self-righteous” and “arrogant.”

That disconnect underscores a central reason the church commissioned the study. Episcopal leaders hope that by better understanding public perceptions of Christianity, the church can more effectively spread its message of Jesus’ love and compassion in contrast to what they see as distortions of the faith by some Christian and political leaders.

Curry has taken up that cause prominently since 2018 when he joined an ecumenical group of Christian leaders in launching the Reclaiming Jesus initiative. Spearheaded with the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, it sought to address “a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches” and to affirm what it means to be followers of Jesus in today’s world.

Curry and group

The Rev. Jim Wallis, second from left, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry lead fellow clergy in a vigil titled “Reclaiming the Integrity of Faith During Political and Moral Crisis” as they process to the White House in May 2018. Photo: Reuters

Such efforts gained urgency after riotous supporters of then President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, seeking to block the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer.

At the time, Episcopal leaders lamented that some attackers had displayed crosses and other Christian symbols on their flags, banners, signs and clothing – suggesting that Christian identity was “being put to violent use by people who want to establish a nation in which power and privilege is held exclusively by white Christians,” the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, said at the January 2021 Executive Council meeting. “This violent and exclusionary movement is on the rise in the United States. … We have a special responsibility to stand against it.”

For the “Jesus in America” study, pollsters asked: “Do you think the events at the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6 are associated with organized religion?” Overall, 11% said yes, with wide variation among respondent groups. The study found 24% of non-religious respondents answered that way.

When the 11% of respondents who said yes were asked a follow-up question, 63% said they associated the attack more specifically with evangelical or Protestant Christians.

The study also produced data on how the pandemic has disrupted churchgoing over the past two years. When asked about their “ability to participate in organized religious or spiritual activities,” 37% of mainline Protestants said their participation had decreased, while 55% reported no change in participation.

“Lent is a time of intentional reflection and action,” Curry said in a press release, “and we are especially mindful of our resolve to continue building meaningful and inclusive communities in our post-pandemic world that encourage all Americans to listen without judgment and celebrate differences.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.