A new Winthrop Poll confirms what most people who spend any time in the Palmetto State already know: South Carolinians are unabashedly religious, largely evangelical and armed with a strong belief that the Bible is the infallible word of God.
But faith leaders and parishioners say the poll questions – including one that found 62 percent believe the Bible is the literal word of God – aren’t nuanced enough to incorporate the range of theological interpretations such questions arouse in those who take their faith seriously.
“I see no conflict between the inerrant word of God and seeing things figuratively,” said Don Bowen, a Southern Baptist who describes himself as a born-again Christian. “Jesus says we are to be light and salt, but I don’t think of myself as a 1,000-watt light bulb or a block of salt.”
The Bible, particularly the New Testament, is rich in parables and metaphors and must be studied to understand God’s meaning, he said.
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Even then, he noted, faith remains a mystery. “What I’ve come to the conclusion is, an infinite God is under no obligation to explain to me, Don Bowen as a finite man, how He chooses to reveal himself.”
Roman Catholics don’t take the Bible word for word but see it as divinely inspired and the “word of God in the language of man,” said the Rev. Msgr. Richard Harris, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church and vicar general of the Diocese of Charleston.
“We are free to understand the Bible as literal or not – we have that openness – but the church does insist that the Bible is inspired and inerrant and what it teaches is the truth,” Harris said.
Some aspects are quite literal, including the Roman Catholic belief that in consecrating the bread and wine it becomes the body and blood of Christ, which distinguishes Catholicism from Protestantism. But some biblical stories are enhanced by deep theological interpretation.
“What about Jonah and the whale?” Harris said. “We are not doubting that God has the capability to create a whale that someone could live in for three days, but there is a lot of symbolism there.”
The Rev. Joe Copeland, one of Bowen’s pastors at North Trenholm Baptist Church, said the lessons and language of the Bible propel discussions in Sunday School, church and Bible study. “As far as a church, we believe the word to be inspired and inerrant,” Copeland said. “Where we have discussions is how do we interpret the passages.”
The poll, which surveyed 878 adults living in South Carolina, was taken between Jan. 28 and Feb. 6, excluding Super Bowl Sunday, and covered a range of issues, from the outlook on the economy to quality of life and health issues. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.31 percent.
As with questions over the economy and outlook on the future, many of the answers to the Winthrop University-run poll split along political lines.
That’s why the Rev. Paul Pingel, pastor of Ebenezer Lutheran Church in downtown Columbia, wasn’t quite satisfied with a question that focused on the role of government in legislating morality.
Nearly 61 percent of all respondents worried “somewhat strongly” or “very strongly” that the government is getting too involved in issues of morality as compared with 30 percent who thought government should do more to protect morality.
Sixty-seven percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents held the strongest opinions that government’s role was becoming too strong, while 53 percent of Democrats held that opinion. Pingel said those polled likely are focusing on a variety of moral issues when it comes to figuring out the role of the state in creating a moral climate and might alter their opinion depending on the issue.
“Morality for some is abortion and the death penalty and morality for others is caring for the poor and making sure people don’t fall through the cracks,” Pingel said.
Harris, the St. Joseph’s pastor, believes it is important to understand the concept of the common good in a democracy, whether individuals are people of faith or not.
“The government should protect the common good,” Harris said. “The common good involves the moral health of the individual. ‘Moral’ does not necessarily mean ‘religious.’ If citizens are moral then the society is both moral and healthy itself.”
For Copeland, the North Trenholm pastor, there is also an issue of trust in government.
“I don’t think we feel very confident that our government is able to make good laws,” he said, noting the political gamesmanship that dominates in Washington. “When there is good law that restrains evil you are encouraged by that.”
Pingel laments that society is so “ideologically charged” that it is hard for pollsters to tease out answers that could really make a difference in how people view the world and the role of spirituality.
“What is the takeaway of knowing that 60 percent take the Bible literally? What is the takeaway that 83 percent believe that it (the Bible) is written by men but is the word of God?”
One question focusing on whether man has dominion over the earth or is a steward of the earth may reflect the increased Christian awareness of what has become known as “creation care.” More than 66 percent of the respondents said man should be a steward.
But that also may not be an “either-or” answer, said Bowen, a retired insurance and real estate executive. “To me, you can have dominion but be a good steward.”
Pingel pointed out that some religious pollsters have found people tend to be evasive when discussing their religious lives, often inflating the number of times they engage in religious practices, such as worship and prayer.
Copeland, the North Trenholm pastor, particularly wondered about the 83 percent who claim they view the Bible as the word of God. “They may believe it, but I don’t think they adhere to it,” he said. Only 13 percent of respondents said the Bible was written by man and not the word of God.
Among Protestant Christian respondents, 65.5 percent described themselves as “born again” or evangelical Christians, while nearly 30 percent did not.
Prayer remains an important component in the lives of South Carolinians, with 51.5 percent saying they prayed several times a day and 21.9 percent saying they prayed once a day. Only 4 percent said they never prayed.