Poll Analysis: U.S. Christ Followers Not Following Church Leaders

Nearly nine in ten Americans who participated in the latest Associated Press-GfK poll identified themselves as Christian but only about half of them fit the typical picture of one – or at least one close to what their leaders try to paint.

Though 86 percent of those polled said they consider themselves a Christian, only 35 percent said they attended religious services at least once a week.

Meanwhile, 51 percent said they believe abortion should be legal in all (19 percent) or most cases (33 percent), and 55 percent said they feel the use of torture against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism activities is often (20 percent) or sometimes justified (32 percent).

Only 47 percent said the use of torture can rarely (18 percent) or never be justified (29 percent).

Notably, however, as religious scholar Martin Marty noted recently, most church bodies, through their leaders, "are clearly on record against our using torture as an offense against human dignity, a contradiction of our nation's most cherished traditions, et cetera."

"A statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2006 and signed by leaders of many Orthodox and Protestant denominations was condemnatory," he noted following the release of another poll questioning Americans about torture.

"The affirmation that humans are made in the image of God and, for Christians, that one is to see the Christ in others should carry some weight," Marty added.

In the earlier poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, Catholics, mainline Protestants, and those not affiliated with the Church were found to be evenly divided between those who believe torture is "often" or "sometimes" justified and those who believe torture is "rarely" or "never" justified.

Evangelicals, meanwhile, were much more likely (62 percent) to believe that the use of torture on suspected terrorists can "often" (18 percent) or "sometimes" (44 percent) be justified though the National Association of Evangelicals renounced the use of torture in a 20-page statement two years ago.

"[O]bviously they ("the leaders") have not roused the laity, nor has it been the wider membership of the churches that has prodded the leaders on the issue of torture," commented Marty.

"We expect some gap between pulpit and pew – which does not mean that 'the pulpit' or the council of bishops or what have you is always right – but the silence on this issue remains disturbing," he added.

In the AP-GfK poll, released Tuesday, 40 percent of respondents said they consider themselves a born-again or evangelical Christian.

Aside from abortion and torture, respondents were asked about the state of the nation, affirmative action, economy/finances, and Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

The poll, conducted May 28 to June 1, was based on a nationally-representative probability sample of 1,000 adults, 18 or older. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.