Give people in the pews some credit.
Every so often, a story pops up making light of religious illiteracy because a significant percentage of the population cannot identify facts such as the names of the four books of the Gospel. More often, researchers and media pundits attempt to classify different believers by how they vote or their stands on controversial social issues.
Yet, American Christians can and do articulate for themselves what matters most.
Ask Orthodox Christians about the importance of regular attendance at services, and six in 10 will say you can be a good church member without going to church every Sunday.
But inquire about the resurrection, and 96 percent will say you cannot be considered a good Orthodox Christian if you do not believe Jesus rose from the dead, according to The Orthodox Church Today study.
In a Gallup Poll, 42 percent of American Catholics said the teaching claimed by the Vatican is very important
But twice as many, 84 percent, said belief in Jesus' resurrection from the dead was very important to
them as a Catholic. Overall, 97 percent said the belief was important to their faith.
As Christians prepare to celebrate Easter this Sunday, it is clear that they do differentiate among beliefs and practices and traditions. And the belief that Jesus rose from the dead is overwhelmingly at the center of their faith.
Interest in the historical Jesus has led to thousands of studies in recent decades seeking to recreate the life of Christianity's founder from determining what he actually said to the historicity of Gospel accounts of the resurrection.
Some scholars have argued that the Gospel accounts of Jesus appearing before his followers after being crucified never happened, or were hallucinations. Some Christian scholars have said the resurrection should be considered in symbolic terms rather than as an actual occurrence.
Yet even as U.S. Christians have changed their views dramatically on issues such as same-sex marriage and women clergy, they have overwhelming held fast with the traditional view of the resurrection.
Consider these findings:
- In the 2008-2009 wave of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 94 percent of evangelicals, 91 percent of Catholics and 78 percent of mainline Protestants said Jesus was raised bodily from the dead after his crucifixion.
- Jesus' resurrection from the dead was an actual event, said three-quarters of the more than 25,000 respondents to congregational surveys offered by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research from 2004 to 2010. Most of the participants were mainline Protestants.
- More than two-thirds of Christian respondents, including 84 percent of black and evangelical respondents, strongly agreed with the statement, "Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead," according to the Portraits of American Life Study.
Ninety-five percent of respondents to the Gallup Poll who attended church at least two or three times a month said belief in the resurrection of Jesus was very important to them as Catholics. Less than three-fifths of those Catholics who seldom or never attended church said belief in the resurrection was very important.
What these findings indicate, some scholars say, is that contrary to those who would label individuals "cafeteria" Catholics or Baptists or Lutherans because they disagree with one or another stand of church hierarchies, U.S. Christians do have boundaries, theological rocks upon which they build their faith.
It is incumbent upon church leadership, said the late Catholic University of America sociologist Dean Hoge, to "know the hierarchy of truths ... that which the laity know in their minds and hearts."
The sermon message "It may be Friday, but Sunday's coming" is one Hartford Seminary sociologist Scott Thumma has heard in thousands of churches, and it endures because of the comfort and hope it gives to individuals who can identify both with the suffering of Christ on Good Friday and the promise of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
"When you're in despair, it's the quintessential event in the Gospel that provides hopefulness," Thumma said.
If one diminishes the doctrine of the resurrection to mere symbolism, it waters down the spiritual significance and power of the belief, he said.
On the other side, the challenge is to make the belief more than just a creed that is recited each week.
One of the gifts of the black church and some successful megachurches has been the ability to apply the doctrine in such a way it energizes people throughout the week, said Thumma, co-author with Warren Bird of "The Other 80 Percent: Turning Your Church's Spectators Into Active Participants."
There may be no better time to start than Sunday.