Anyone passing the Hoffman home in the Cincinnati suburbs during the holidays will see festive blue and white lights and an inflatable bear in the front yard -- a bear wearing a Santa cap and holding a candy cane.
This is where things got complicated, with a typically blunt question from a child: Should Jews have a bear in the yard during Hanukkah?
"I said it was a Jewish bear," said Neal Hoffman, a marketing executive. "One of our boys came right back with: 'What about the candy cane? Don't candy canes have something to do with Christmas?' I said I didn't think there was anything specifically Christian about a candy cane. Is there?"
Well, that's complicated, too, since the candy cane often shown with Santa Claus is a symbol that links the shopping-mall superstar back through the mists of history to the 4th Century St. Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. The saint was a bishop and, thus, this spiritual shepherd carried a crook staff -- which in Western church tradition is shaped like a large candy cane.
"The main thing is that I want my kids to know that they're Jewish and our celebration of the holidays is different," said Hoffman, in a telephone interview. "They also know mommy is a Catholic and we celebrate both holidays, but we really celebrate Hanukkah -- big time.
"We're in both worlds, but we're trying make a statement that we're different and that this is a good thing."
The holiday puzzle is really complicated during Hanukkah, the eight-day "festival of lights" that began at sundown on Tuesday, Dec. 16, this year. The season's primary symbol is a menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum that represents a miracle in which a one-day supply of pure oil burned for eight days after Jewish rebels -- the Maccabees -- liberated the temple from Greek oppressors.
Part of the puzzle, of course, is that this relatively minor Jewish holiday is aligned with Christmas during "The Holidays," an explosion of secular marketing and festivities that dominate American life this time of year. Many Jews avoid Christmas altogether, striving to focus on Hanukkah traditions. Some keep the season's gift-giving modest, to avoid appearances of turning Hanukkah into a "Jewish Christmas."
However, many Jews -- especially in interfaith homes -- have made their peace with Christmas, while exploring the line between the sacred and secular. Is a green tree safe, especially when topped with a six-pointed Star of David? Do snowflakes and icicles suggest the North Pole and, thus, Santa Claus?
Holiday cards also inspire a "swirling snow globe of emotions" for many Jews, noted Lenore Skenazy, of the reality television show "World's Worst Mom." Most generic holiday cards don't cry out "Victory for the Maccabees!"
"So the question is: Does sending a not-specifically-Hanukkah card mean the sender is buying into Christmas?", she asked, in an essay for The Forward. Some Jews choose "purely wintery" blue and silver cards -- avoiding red and green -- seeking a look that is "neither Santa nor latke."
But some people question all those winter symbols, too. "Snowmen, believe it or not, turn out to be a minefield all their own," she noted. One friend she contacted stressed, "No trees, wreaths or snowmen for me! ... By trees, she meant Christmas trees. Ditto, Christmas wreaths. But snowmen? Big, smiling balls of snow? Those are taboo?"
Are reindeer safe? How about polar bears? When one of his sons begged for one of the hip "Elf on the Shelf" plush toys, Hoffman responded by creating a "Mensch on a Bench" alternative. This toy is now sold nationwide, with its a hardback story book explaining its Yiddish roots.
In the age of social media -- especially zillions of visual Pinterest boards -- all kinds of secular and religious Jews are sharing tips on how to create do-it-yourself traditions that reflect their own unique family trees, he said. It's hard to imagine a more American approach to solving the holiday puzzles in the lives of many modern families.
"We're just not accepting what's been done before and what's out there on the shelves and that's that," said Hoffman. "We're thinking this through as a family and coming up with a plan that is meaningful for us. ... That's what matters the most. We are all in this together, as a family."
The blitz begins while Jack-O-Lanterns are fresh and Thanksgiving turkeys are still frozen, a manic parade of hip elves, sexy angels, reluctant Santas, wisecracking families, toy-obsessed children and even those Euro-trash terrorists who crash holiday office parties.
Entertainment industry pros still call them "Christmas movies."
While the logic may be circular, a "Christmas movie is a movie that everyone expects to be shown on television during the Christmas season two or three years after it was released and then at Christmas for years and years after that," said entertainment scribe Hank Stuever, author of "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present."
"It's easy to explain why people think 'Love Actually' is a Christmas movie, or 'Home Alone' is a Christmas movie, or 'Elf' is a Christmas movie. What's hard to explain is why 'Die Hard' as a Christmas movie."
All it takes for a movie to earn this label is few holiday touches. This means adding symbolic dollops of decorations, lights, songs, tears, travel, parties and shopping to a family-friendly script, said Stuever, a veteran Washington Post reporter. Most importantly, these movies can be chopped up and surrounded by all of the advertisements that power the season.
"The television is always right there in the middle of everything and everyone in the room -- all ages -- needs to agree to watch what's on," he said.
Skeptics might ask how "Christmas movies" are linked to the actual holy season on the Christian calendar. That misses the point, said Stuever. The rites depicted in these movies are not about Christmas, as much as they are evidence of how most Americans actually celebrate Christmas.
Take the classic "A Christmas Story," with its tale of young Ralphie and his life-and-death quest for an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. This may be "the least religious Christmas movie ever made," he said.
Instead, it tracks the preparatory rites for an American Christmas, such as worrying over the perfect Santa letter, struggling with tree decorations, facing the store Santa, preparing an epic meal and, of course, endless litanies of hints about must-have toys. Everything must be perfect in order to produce the explosion of joy and wonder that is supposed to surround the Christmas-morning extravaganza.
For centuries, Christians prepared for the 12-day Christmas season -- which begins on Dec. 25 -- with four solemn weeks of Advent. "What we have now is a kind of secular Advent. ... That's what we see in 'A Christmas Story,' " noted Stuever. While believers used to fast and pray during Advent, now "we shop and watch television."
At the opposite pole of the Christmas-movie spectrum is the Golden Age Frank Capra classic "It's a Wonderful Life," noted the Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus, whose runs the DecentFilms.com website.
Rather than depicting a holiday season centering on gift giving and festivities, it offers a parable -- which peaks with shouts of "Merry Christmas!" -- about pain, greed, faithfulness, sacrifice and, ultimately, redemption. It's almost impossible to picture a similar film being made today, let alone by a Catholic filmmaker who wove religious symbolism and themes into his story.
"When you look at 'It's a Wonderful Life' and then you look at a more modern film like 'A Christmas Story' you realize that both of them reflect the eras in which they were created," said Greydanus. "One tells a story about sacrifice and family and faith and community and redemption. The other tells a few funny stories about Christmas and that's that."
So what's the ultimate message?
Greydanus noted that in one popular modern holiday vision, "The Santa Clause 2," the character who is both Scott Calvin and Santa Claus tells adults assembled for a dreary holiday party that they must remember "what the true spirit of Christmas is all about." That turns out to be a wave of child-like wonder produced -- literally -- by bags of toys.
"So in the end, a good Christmas movie these days is one that fits the narrative we see all around us," he added. "It's supposed to provide us with happy, joyful feelings and a wave of nostalgia that we have been taught to associate with Christmas. ...
"Whether that has anything to do with the meaning of the real Christmas season is another matter altogether. But it seems to be hard to make movies about that."
When members of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church celebrate their patron saint's feast day on Dec. 6th, they may be able to mark the occasion with prayers on newly blessed ground in lower Manhattan.
It depends on work schedules at the construction site for their new sanctuary, which will overlook the National September 11 Memorial. This is a problem Greek Orthodox leaders welcome after a long, complicated legal struggle to rebuild the tiny sanctuary -- 80 yards from the World Trade Center's South Tower -- which was the only church destroyed in the 9/11 maelstrom.
"It's all of this powerful symbolism and its link to that Sept. 11 narrative that lets people grab onto the effort to rebuild this church and see why it matters," said Steven Christoforou, a youth ministry leader at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Facing the giant holes at Ground Zero, he said, it was natural to see them as tombs, as symbols of never-ending grief. Today, the footprints of the twin towers have become fountains in reverse, with curtains of water pouring into a dark void that disappears down into the underground at the 9/11 memorial and museum.
But sometime in 2016, or early 2017, the new St. Nicholas National Shrine will literally shine -- a dome lit from within, through layers of marble and glass -- over this memorial plaza.
"From our perspective, this is really about hope and the Resurrection," said Christoforou, who is making videos about the project for young people. The "smoking hole in the ground" after 9/11 became an "archetypal symbol of death, grief and loss for millions. ... We really need to believe that something can rise again, out of that void."
St. Nicholas vanished beneath a firestorm of concrete, steel, glass and heat. Few objects survived, other than an embroidered velvet Bible cover, minus its Bible, and a bell clapper, minus its bell. Workers found marble altar fragments, a twisted candelabrum and beeswax candles -- which survived even though a 700-pound fireproof safe vanished.
"We remember this very place filled with ruins, hiding under piles of debris, the pulverized remains of 3,000 innocent victims. Breathing a very heavy air, saturated with the dust of storm, wood, iron and with tiny particles of human bodies, we remember walking with heavy hearts to the specific place where our St. Nicholas Church stood as a building for more than a century," said Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, during recent groundbreaking rites for the shrine.
"We stood there frozen, paralyzed and cried."
It was horrible, yet holy. A sanctuary had become a small collection of relics.
One icon that did survive is called the Life-Giving Font and its Byzantine image shows the Virgin Mary embracing the Christ child, above a font of blessed water that flows into a large marble basin below, which is shaped like a cross. In the symbolic language of iconography, this one image -- now connected to 9/11 -- combines baptism, sacrifice, death and new life.
The canvas icon is mounted on a wooden board that has been broken and crushed to the point that the ripped icon is all that is holding it together, said Father Evagoras Constantinides, a member of the archdiocese team on this project. It will be placed, with other objects found at the site, somewhere in the new shrine -- perhaps in the interfaith center for meditation and mourning, which will be outside the main sanctuary.
"We do have some relics, you might say, from the original church," said Constantinides. "We know this place, this shrine, will become a destination point for pilgrims from all over the Orthodox world. But we also know that this is not a Greek thing. This is not just an Orthodox thing. This is for everyone."
When it's time to consecrate the church, he added, its leaders will focus on one final symbolic detail. The safe that vanished contained a gold-plated ossuary holding small bones from three saints -- including St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th century saint who is the patron saint of orphans, merchants, sailors and all those in distress.
"That is the time when we can reach out to other churches" around the world dedicated to St. Nicholas, he said. "That is when we will try to find a way to replace what was lost and bring St. Nicholas home again."
Long ago, back in Sunday school in Nebraska, something happened that changed how television talk legend Dick Cavett would think about faith forever.
When he was a boy, his mother got breast cancer. Then a "seemingly helpful old lady said, 'Dickey, if you pray your mother will get well,' and," he said with a long pause, "she didn't."
This anecdote was highly relevant, during a recent New York City forum, because Cavett was interviewing author Eric Metaxas about his new book, "Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life."
In other words, young Cavett prayed for a miracle, it didn't happen and that certainly did shape his life.
"That didn't help either my attitude toward religion or helpful old ladies," he said, drawing sad laughter from the live audience during this "Socrates In The City" webcast. "I felt that I did it wrong, of course. I didn't do it right and I was partly responsible."
Metaxas, founder of the "Socrates" series, added: "Is this old lady still alive? Because I would like to give her a piece of my mind."
Cavett, of course, knew he was playing devil's advocate. This was the role an Upper West Side audience would have expected him to play in a chat that included -- in addition to the Big Bang and the Resurrection -- references to Woody Allen, Carl Sagan, Barbra Streisand, Jerry Falwell, Groucho Marx, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Buckner and, as a running punch line, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
One of the problems with "miracle" discussions is that there is no one definition, noted Metaxas, in the book. In a dictionary a miracle is "an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs." The Christian scholar C.S. Lewis -- author of a 1947 bestseller on the topic -- argued that miracles were unique events that break patterns so well established that few people even think they can be broken.
Skeptic David Hume set the standard for public debate, defining "miracle" as a "transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent."
But when religious believers use the term -- Metaxas collected stories from dozens -- they often talk about two other kinds of miracles.
The first is when something unusual definitely happens, but it may or may not be a miracle. For example, why do some cancers go into remission? This may be natural, but doctors don't really know.
Also, many of the stories Metaxas heard center on personal revelations -- such as prophetic dreams -- that don't violate natural laws, but are certainly strange. Then there are events that may not violate natural laws, but the odds against them are so high that it's almost irrational to think they are random.
For skeptics on the outside, stressed Cavett, the big questions have to do with why miracles happen in some cases, but not others. And why does God -- like an "auctioneer" -- need to hear prayers in the first place and, if so, does God have a "minimum number that he needs to get" before the miracle formula works?
These are not skeptical questions, stressed Metaxas. They are rational questions.
"At some point there are no answers to this," he said. "Who knows? These are mysteries. When I pray, I don't know whether if I prayed five minutes longer it will have an effect. But I do think that the mind wants to ask those questions."
But there is "no trick" that controls the "God of results," he said. It would be a form of "dead religion" to think believers can say the right number of Rosary Prayers and then the "magic will happen. ... No, I think something else is going on."
When considering miracle stories, either historic or contemporary, Metaxas said he hopes both believers and skeptics will ask tough questions and weigh the evidence, even if this challenges their presuppositions.
"There are mysteries here and I think that it is a bit arrogant for us to simply dismiss them or to claim that we fully understand what is happening," he said, in a telephone interview.
"But there is no reason that we can't talk about these things, even on the upper West Side of Manhattan. There is nothing to fear, here. We are talking about the nature of reality -- period."
With Catholic leaders still sweating after the Extraordinary Synod on the Family firestorm, Pope Francis has once again tried to cool things down -- by publicly affirming core church doctrines.
The question, however, was whether Catholics could balance edgy front-page headlines about sex, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality and modern families with the pontiff's orthodox sermons, which have received very little ink in the mainstream press.
"We know that today marriage and the family are in crisis," said Pope Francis, opening this week's Vatican conference on "The Complimentarity of Man and Woman in Marriage." It drew 300 leaders from a many world religions, including Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and several branches of Christianity.
Rather than yielding to the "culture of the temporary," the pope said, it's time to stress that "children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother. ... Do not fall into the trap of being swayed by political notion. Family is an anthropological fact -- a socially and culturally related fact. We cannot qualify it based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history. We can't think of conservative or progressive notions."
These words came days after an Italian Catholic Medical Association address in which Pope Francis attacked any "false compassion" that rationalizes abortion, euthanasia and the use of human beings as "guinea pigs."
"So many times in my life as a priest I have heard objections. ... 'Why is the church opposed to abortion, for example? It's a religious problem?' No, no. It is not a religious problem. ... It's a scientific problem, because there is a human life and it is not lawful to take out a human life to solve a problem," he said. The same truth "applies to euthanasia. ... This is to say to God, 'No, the end of life, I do as I want to.' "
This latest media drama resembles what happened after the famous interview in America and other Jesuit publications in which Francis said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods." Rather, he added, the church "cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."
Those words have are frequently quoted as evidence that Pope Francis is seeking a ceasefire in public efforts to defend church doctrines. Yet, shortly after that interview, he bluntly told physicians that Catholics must keep proclaiming: "Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world."
Angered by this confusion, many Catholics have blamed the media, arguing that the pope's words ring true when read in context. Others are more critical, saying that this charismatic pope means well, but is naive about how off-the-cuff remarks will be heard in the public square. On the edges of cyberspace, a few critics hint that he is a liberal Machiavelli who is steering the church toward public-relations icebergs in order to force massive doctrinal changes.
A key moment in recent debates came when New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a doctrinally conservative Catholic, noted that Pope Francis has "repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life -- sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality."
Any open rejection of established doctrine, he warned, in the world's most powerful newspaper, would "put the church on the brink of a precipice. ... It would sow confusion among the church's orthodox adherents -- encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism."
One thing is certain, said Russell Shaw, former communications director for the U.S. bishops. The Pope Francis honeymoon may not be over, but it's evolving.
"Respect for the papacy guarantees that questioning and criticism in the Catholic mainstream will be more muted, and the media coverage, if at all responsible, will mirror that," he noted, in a TheCatholicThing.org essay. "But the pluses for the media in a less adoring approach to Francis are obvious. Factual reporting and fact-based analysis are what they exist for.
"Fairness is all. Cheerleading isn't part of a journalist's job description. Not even cheerleading for a pope."
When two global religious leaders embrace one another, someone is sure to turn the encounter into a photo opportunity.
The photo-op on Nov. 7 was symbolic and for many historic. The elder statesman was the Rev. Billy Graham and, rather than an evangelical superstar, the man who met with him at his North Carolina mountain home was Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. This visit was linked to a Hilarion address to a gathering of Protestant and Orthodox leaders in Charlotte, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
After generations of work with organizations such as the Episcopal Church and the World Council of Churches, the archbishop said many Orthodox leaders now realize that -- on issues of sex, marriage, family life and moral theology -- some of their ecumenical partners will be found in evangelical pulpits and pews.
"In today's pluralistic world, the processes of liberalization have swept over some Christian communities. Many churches have diverted from biblical teaching ... even if this attitude is not endorsed by the majority of these communities' members," said Hilarion, who is the Moscow Patriarchate's chief ecumenical officer.
The most pressing current issue is the blessing of same-sex unions, which clashes with centuries of Christian tradition on marriage. The Orthodox cannot compromise on this point of doctrine, he stressed.
"The church has always been called to proclaim the truth of Christ and condemn sin, even in defiance of the demands of the society and 'the powers that be'. ... How little does this resemble the discourse of today's liberal Christians who seek to adapt the church to the standards of this world, to make it tolerant, not towards people, not towards sinners, but towards sin."
Ironically, Hilarion's visit to the United States took place during a semi-public debate about this very issue -- on a youth-ministry website operated by the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russian roots. At the center of the storm was an essay, entitled "Never Changing Gospel; Ever Changing Culture" by Father Robert Arida (archived copy here). He serves as pastor of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Boston, which has been praised on the Facebook page of the "Pro-Gay Orthodox Christians" network.
"While the past cannot be ignored it also cannot be the only point of reference for the Orthodox Christian," wrote Arida. If church leaders do not acknowledge "that the Holy Spirit continues to work here, now and in the future the past will easily be transformed into an oppressive tyrant."
It's especially important, he stressed, for Orthodox leaders not to be swayed by the views of converts to Orthodoxy, particularly evangelical Protestants.
"If the church is to engage culture, if it is to contribute to the culture and if it is to synthesize what is good, true and beautiful coming from the culture to further the Gospel then it will have to expose and ultimately expel the 'new and alien spirits' that have weakened its authentic voice," argued Arida. "Among these spirits are Biblical fundamentalism and the inability to critique and build upon the writings and vision" of the theologians and "fathers" of early Christianity.
After fierce online debate and "consultation" with fellow OCA bishops, Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard publicly confirmed that he requested the Arida essay be taken down, along with the online comments appended to it by numerous priests and laypeople.
During his North Carolina address, Hilarion stressed that there must be more to ecumenism between evangelicals and the Orthodox than one or two issues, mentioning global threats to social justice and religious freedom -- especially among the persecuted churches in the Middle East. He also pleaded for unity in defense of the "right of a child to be born, to defend the right of the aged to die a natural death rather than from a lethal injection administered by a doctor, to defend the right of doctors to refuse to administer abortion or euthanasia for moral considerations."
The goal, he said, is for churches to welcome the lost, while refusing to compromise on doctrines defended through the ages -- including sexual ethics.
"We do not at all insist that the church should refuse to help sinners," he said. "Christians are obliged to pray for all sinners and to wish them salvation. ... But the church cannot bless a vice. She cannot reform the norm of faith as sealed in the holy Gospel and the letters of the apostles."
Crack open a traditional hymnal and most American Protestants will be able to belt out the classic hymn, "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!"
The last verse states: "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity."
Also, most practicing Catholics will be familiar with these Catechism lines: "The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. ... The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the 'consubstantial Trinity'."
The language is mysterious and ancient. Yet according to a new survey probing what Americans believe on crucial theological issues, a majority of those polled -- 71 percent -- believe in the Trinity.
But what about that whole "God in three persons" thing? Not so much.
In fact, 75 percent of Catholics polled by LifeWay Research agreed that the "Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being" -- a shocking number in light of the fact that only 52 percent of non-Christian Americans took that unorthodox stance. Among "mainline," mostly liberal, Protestants, 74 percent denied the personhood of the Holy Spirit along with a small majority -- 58 percent -- of evangelical Protestants.
The spring survey is the latest to show that most Americans affirm traditional religious beliefs, sort of, but turn into "cafeteria" believers who pick and choose whatever makes them feel comfortable when it comes to doctrinal specifics, said LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer. Things can get foggy and confusing in the "mushy middle" of the religious spectrum, where Americans worship a "Christian-ish god," rather than the God of traditional Christian faith.
"There are people out there -- 25 percent or so -- that we call 'convictional Christians' and that has been stable for decades," he said, referring to past research by the late pollster George Gallup, Jr., and others. "That number may have compressed a little in recent years, but there is great stability there. ...
"So that is why so many conservative people think the world is collapsing, but then things really haven't changed that much in their own church. The work goes own among the people who still believe that they believe."
The real action in the "Theological Awareness Benchmark Study" conducted for Ligonier Ministries of Orlando, Fla., is among "nominal" believers. Stetzer described this "mushy middle" as the 25 percent of Americans who are "cultural Christians" in name only and another 25 percent who are "congregational Christians" who may visit sanctuary pews at Christmas and Easter.
The bottom line: Increasing numbers of ordinary Americans no longer think of themselves as "sinners," especially on issues of sex, and don't really care what their pastors or churches think about that. In fact, 82 percent say their church has no authority to "declare that I am not a Christian." On the Bible, 48 percent said it was the "Word of God," while 45 percent said the scriptures were written for each person to interpret as he or she sees fit.
Heaven is real for 67 percent of Americans and 61 percent believe in hell. Then again, 55 percent of "mainline" Protestants and 67 percent of Catholics, compared to 19 percent of evangelicals, believe there are many different ways to find salvation. Only 55 percent of "mainliners" and 45 percent of Catholics affirmed that salvation is found through Jesus, alone.
In all, 67 percent of those polled affirmed that most people are basically good, even though everyone sins a little. Rather than stressing repentance and grace, most Americans see salvation as a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" process, said Stetzer.
The key is that more and more nominal believers are now sliding into the growing camp of truly secular, vaguely "spiritual" or "religiously unaffiliated" Americans -- the so-called "nones" phenomenon described in a famous 2012 study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"We can expect the movement by 'nominals' to into secularism to continue," said Stetzer. "Would people in the mushy middle choose to identify with the right, which will increasingly be portrayed as harsh and judgmental and even bigoted? No way. More and more 'nominals' will join the 'nones.' "
If the goal is to map the evolving landscape of American religion, the late George Gallup, Jr., once told me, it is crucial to keep asking two kinds of questions.
The kind attempted to document things that never seemed to change or that were changing very, very slowly. Thus, Gallup urged his team to keep using old questions his father and others in the family business began asking in the 1940s and '50s, such as how often people attended worship services, how often they prayed and whether they believed in God.
The second kind of question, he said, tested whether these alleged beliefs and practices affected daily life.
"We revere the Bible, but don't read it," he warned, in one 1990 address. "We believe the Ten Commandments to be valid rules for living, although we can't name them.
"We believe in God, but this God is a totally affirming one, not a demanding one. He does not command our total allegiance. We have other gods before him."
About that time, I shared a set of three questions with Gallup that I had begun asking, after our previous discussions. The key, he affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. My journalistic goal was to probe doctrinal changes that revealed fault lines in churches. The questions:
* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
Through the years, I have discussed these questions -- my GetReligion.org colleagues call them the "tmatt trio" -- with journalists and other pollsters, seeking their insights. However, the leaders of LifeWay Research recently went so far as to write my questions into a new "Theological Awareness Benchmark Study" conducted for Ligonier Ministries.
The results echoed decades of work by Gallup and others indicating that surprisingly high numbers of Americans affirm -- in words -- many traditional religious beliefs. Yet when questions push them toward real conflicts with life in mainstream culture, an increasing number of Americans waffle and move toward what LifeWay President Ed Stetzer calls the "mushy middle."
On one side -- approximately 25 percent of those polled -- are "convictional" believers who actively practice their faith, he said. On the other side are truly secular, vaguely spiritual or "religiously unaffiliated" Americans, the growing "nones" camp that received so much media attention after a 2012 study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And in the middle?
To no one's surprise, the resurrection question drew the most positive responses -- with 45 percent of those polled strongly affirming that doctrine and 23 percent agreeing "somewhat." At the denominational level, 91 percent of evangelical Protestants affirmed the resurrection, to one degree or another, along with 84 percent of black Protestants, 73 percent of "mainline" Protestants and 73 percent of Catholics.
Concerning belief that salvation is through Jesus alone, 35 percent strongly agreed and 18 percent agreed "somewhat." However, there were clear denominational fault lines -- with 85 percent of evangelicals and 74 percent of African-American Protestants agreeing. However, only 55 percent of "mainliners" and 45 percent of Catholics affirmed this doctrine.
Similar cracks appeared on my third question, with 31 percent strongly agreeing, and 17 percent "somewhat," that sex outside of marriage is sin. However, 26 percent of those polled strongly disagreed and 17 percent disagreed "somewhat." In the pews, 76 percent of evangelicals and 74 percent of black Protestants endorsed this belief, as opposed to 44 percent of mainline Protestants and a mere 40 percent of Catholics.
In Gallup terms, the resurrection question probed an orthodox doctrine that many of those polled would find hard to reject. The questions about salvation and sex, however, pushed many people into conflict with life in modern America.
"America is a churched nation, for the most part. Most Americans are either going to church or they used to go to church," Gallup told me in 2004. "At some point we need to start focusing more attention on what is happening or not happening in those churches. ... Are our people learning the basics? Is their faith making a difference in their lives?"
NEXT WEEK: Probing faith questions in "mushy middle."