On the eve of the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, we found occasion to look back through survey results over the past quarter-century to get a sense of how modern Americans answer the question Jesus posed to his disciples 2,000 years ago: "Who do you say that I am?"
Eight in 10 Americans have consistently held the belief that Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God*. When we examine Gallup data in greater detail, we discover that about half of this group holds the orthodox position -- that Jesus was in fact God living among men -- while most of the remainder believe that Jesus was divine only in the sense that he was a man who was uniquely called by God to reveal God's purpose in the world.
Americans have been significantly more likely to say they believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ than Britons have; in response to a 1993 survey**, 84% of Americans said they believe Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God, but only 46% of the British did so.
What Was Jesus, the Man, Like?
When asked in 1982 which traits had drawn them to Jesus, Americans' most frequently mentioned responses were his love for humankind, his willingness to forgive, his kindness, and his compassion for all people. They also overwhelmingly indicated they believed that Jesus, the man, had a strong personality and that he was warm (as opposed to aloof), brave, emotionally stable, without sin, and perfect. By smaller margins, Americans also tended to hold the view that Jesus was easy to understand, physically strong, practical, physically attractive, divine (rather than human), and accepting (rather than demanding).
How Does Jesus Influence the Lives of Americans?
In what ways has Jesus entered the lives of Americans? In 1982, Americans' most frequent responses were that: "Jesus has helped me through illness and other difficult times in my life"; "He has been my role model"; "He has given me a compassionate outlook toward others less fortunate than I"; "He has improved my outlook and given me hope"; and "He has given me peace and serenity."
Do Americans feel that they closely follow Jesus' example? Only about 1 in 10 people say they come "very close" to following the example of Jesus. And only 12% of people surveyed said they are making the greatest possible effort to follow Jesus' example.
Whom Does Jesus Influence?
A June 2002 Gallup survey reveals that 80% of U.S. adults consider themselves to be part of the Christian tradition, while 6% say they are part of some non-Christian tradition, and 13% claim no religious tradition.
But survey findings suggest that Jesus' impact extends beyond those Americans who call themselves Christians. When Americans of all religious backgrounds, or none, were asked what impact Jesus has had on their lives as a moral and ethical leader, only 7% of the total sample said, "hardly any" or "none."
*As reported in Who Do Americans Say That I Am? by George Gallup, Jr. and George O'Connell, The Westminster Press, 1986.
**Survey conducted by The Gallup Organization, 1993, as reported in Survey the Religious Landscape, by George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay, Morehouse Publishing, 1999.