Pat Robertson surprised me recently. Not for saying something completely outlandish about gay people, or Muslims, or blaming a woman for her husband cheating on her. Nope, he actually said something that will likely inflame an entirely different sector of the population: fundamentalist Christians. On April 30, during a taping of his program the 700 Club, 89 year old Pat Robertson said:
“This universe that we live in is … 14 billion years old and there’s no question about it and we have tremendous geological records and all the rest of it and that 6,000 year stuff just doesn’t compute.”
Whoa! Robertson is seen as one of the last remaining voices of a Christian Right, a group that argued for a very theologically and politically conservative reading of the Bible. The Religious Right’s anti-abortion views are predicated largely on a literal reading of the Bible. Now, Robertson seems to be backing away from such a view of the Bible, at least in this instance. He went on to note that the school that he founded, Regent University, teaches that the Earth is billions of years old in its science courses. And when some members of the university community wanted to start a course called creation science, Robertson noted that, “it was just nonsense and it was so embarrassing.” (As an aside, Ken Ham, the guy who runs the Creation Museum has challenged Pat Robertson to a debate on this topic.)
This seems like a good time to mention that Pat Robertson ran for president of the United States in 1988 as a Republican and actually did pretty well. In fact, he finished second in the Iowa caucuses, beating the eventual nominee George H.W. Bush. The link between a literal view of the Bible and the Republican party is unmistakable, right? With the release of the 2018 wave of the General Social Survey data, I think that it’s time to take stock of how a person’s view of the Bible is related to their political affiliation. Are there biblical literalists who are Democrats? How many Republicans don’t put much stock in the Bible? And, how has the view of the Bible changed over time?
The GSS gives essentially three options when it comes to answering the view of the Bible question.
- 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, word for word
- The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men
Respondents could also indicate “other” and “don’t know” but those are typically very small percentages and have been excluded from this analysis. The graph below displays how each of the three substantive views have shifted over time. The GSS began asking the question in 1984, therefore we have 34 years of trends to track.
The overall impression here is one of relatively stability. The “inspired” view of the Bible has been the most popular option for the entire length of the survey. Even until the early 2000’s, half of survey takers would choose this option. Now, it has dropped and hovers in the mid to upper 40’s, although there has been an odd and inexplicable jump in 2018 on this measure. The literal view of Bible had hovered around ~35% until the last few years, when there has been a decline to the lower 30’s, but the 2018 wave indicates support for this view is closer to 30% now. On the over hand, the “ancient book of fables” view has climbed steadily in recent years. Even until 2002, less than 10% of people held to this opinion. Today, 1 in 5 Americans believe that the Bible is not authoritative. Consider this: in 1985, 37.2% of Americans were literalists, but today it’s 29.7%. On the other hand, 13.3% held to the “ancient book of fables” view in 1985, but in 2018 it was 21%. All the while, the “inspired” camp stayed exactly the same.
How has the composition of the Republican party changed in their view of the Bible? The graph below visualizes this every decade beginning in 1988. Again, the relative stability here is striking. Note that a third of Republicans in 1988 were biblical literalists, and today it’s just slightly higher at 35.8%. On the other hand, the “ancient book of fables” view is now slightly less prevalent among Republicans – down from 16.7% in 1978 to 12.5% in 2018. The key here is the lack of change.
The Democrats offer a much more intriguing story. In 1988, 36.2% of Democrats held to a literal view of the Bible. Think about this: in 1988 the share of literalist Democrats was higher than the share of Republicans who were biblical literalists. That’s hard to wrap my head around given what we know about the rise of the Religious Right. The other thing to take stock of is how the ends of the spectrum – literalist vs. book of fables – has transformed in the last three decades. In 1988, 15.5% of Democrats held to the least authoritative view of the Bible, that number has almost doubled by 2018 to 28.8%. On the literalist side, the number of biblical literalist Democrats has dropped by 33% since 1988.
For some reason I am reminded of the Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” when he writes: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Except, in this case, it’s the only thing that is holding when it comes to American’s view of the Bible. The share of the Republicans who believe the Bible is inspired is 1.4% different in the last thirty years, and for Democrats the difference is .1%. However, the edges are turbulent. More and more of the nones are flooding in on the Democrats’ side – which is evident in the “book of fables” growth, and the GOP is becoming more of a religious party as biblical orthodoxy is a growing share among their ranks. But, most people – whether in 1988 or 2018 – are in the middle of the spectrum. It’s hard to remember that sometimes, but moderation is the norm. However, while that’s where the weight of the parties are, that is seemingly not where the most energy is. Perhaps Yeats was right after all.