Christians becoming objectively more liberal, but not more likely to call themselves liberal

By George Hawley, Ph.D

Part of the religious right's decline in the United States can be ascribed to increasing secularism, but it may also be due to changing views among Christians on policy issues long associated with the religious right. One way to consider this possibility is to see whether Christians are any more or less likely to likely to consider themselves "liberal" Christians. Fortunately, we can use the GSS to consider this question, as for decades it has asked religious respondents whether they consider themselves liberals, moderates, or fundamentalists. The above figure shows these trends for since the 1970s. What we see is that there has actually been fairly little change. The fundamentalists were growing during the 1970s and 1980s, but that reversed in the subsequent decades, and now we are just about where we started.

If we look at specific issues, however, we see a very different picture.

On some questions, it appears that Christians have become even more likely to be biblical literalists. The percentage of Christians that “definitely” believe in hell actually increased between 1991 and 2008 – the first and last years that question was asked. In 1991, about 55 percent of Christians definitely believed in hell; in 2008, that number was about 60 percent. We see a similar increase in the belief in heaven, from about 68 percent to about 73 percent. We see an even more impressive increase in the percentage of Christians who definitely believe in religious miracles – rising from about 48 percent to about 64 percent over this same time period.

On other questions, especially those pertaining to sexuality, we have seen dramatic shifts in a more liberal direction.