NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Protestant pastors overwhelmingly believe that Oprah Winfrey isn't a Christian, but three-quarters of them say former president George W. Bush is.
Winfrey and Bush, along with Glenn Beck, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, comprised the list that LifeWay Research presented to Protestant pastors along with the question, "Which, if any, of the following people do you believe are Christians?"
The majority of Americans self-identify as Christian, and Protestant is the largest category of Christian denominations. With that in mind, LifeWay Research set out to examine the beliefs of pastors leading Protestant churches. The national telephone survey took place Oct. 7-14 and included 1,000 interviews.
Winfrey earned the lowest affirmative response, with only 19 percent of pastors saying they believe she is a Christian. The other television personality on the list, Beck, earned the second lowest affirmative response at 27 percent.
"Most Americans consider themselves Christian and, for many of them, the Oprahfication of American spirituality has been a good thing," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. "Yet, the overwhelming majority of Protestant pastors don't view Oprah as a Christian."
Among the politicians on the list, Bush earned the highest affirmative response, with three-quarters of pastors (75 percent) saying they believe he is a Christian. Palin earned the next highest response at 66 percent, and Obama received the lowest affirmative response with less than half of Protestant pastors (41 percent) saying they believe him to be a Christian.
Four percent of pastors say none of the listed prominent personalities are Christians, and 15 percent respond only with "Not sure."
"For many people, 'Christian' is a box they check on a demographic survey," Stetzer said. "Protestant pastors, however, often have a more detailed view – many apply terms like 'born again,' 'evangelical' and 'a changed life' as synonyms for 'Christian.' Thus, their standard is often different than the prevailing view.
"Using their standard, the majority would not agree that President Obama is a Christian, though he is a mainline Protestant," Stetzer explained. "And it is likely that Glenn Beck's Mormonism, widely viewed by Protestants as a different religion rather than a different Christian denomination, probably caused many to indicate he is not a Christian."
Overall, more pastors believe the three politicians are Christians than believe the two television personalities are, though the characteristics of the pastors themselves do impact their responses.
Protestant pastors who self-identify as Democrats, politically liberal or very liberal, or mainline are more likely to indicate these prominent personalities are Christians. For example, 88 percent of those who self-identify as liberal or very liberal say Obama is a Christian compared to only 31 percent of those who say they are conservative and 12 percent of those who say they are very conservative.
The ages of the pastors also reveal differences. Older pastors are most likely to say Winfrey is a Christian, with 46 percent of pastors who are 55 and older responding affirmatively, compared to only 30 percent under the age of 55.
Pastors in the 55-64 age bracket are the most likely to say Obama is a Christian at 48 percent. Overall, 83 percent of pastors over the age of 55, compared to only 74 percent of those under 55, say Obama is a Christian.
"For many, 'Judge not' are the only words of Jesus they know," Stetzer said. "To those people, it may be inconceivable that Protestant pastors might consider some Christians and others not. Yet Jesus said much more about following Him. Protestant pastors have theological views and beliefs about what it means to be a Christian – and those opinions influence many in America, so it's important to know what they believe."
Methodology: The LifeWay Research telephone survey was conducted among Protestant pastors Oct. 7-14, 2010. Churches were selected randomly and each interview was conducted with the church's senior pastor, minister or priest. Responses were weighted to reflect the geographic distribution of Protestant churches. The sample of 1,000 provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed ±3.2 percent for the total sample. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.