More than half of all Americans believe they have been helped by a guardian angel in the course of their lives, according to a new poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion. In a poll of 1700 respondents, 55% answered affirmatively to the statement, "I was protected from harm by a guardian angel." The responses defied standard class and denominational assumptions about religious belief; the majority held up regardless of denomination, region or education — though the figure was a little lower (37%) among respondents earning more than $150,000 a year.
The guardian angel encounter figures were "the big shocker" in the report, says Christopher Bader, director of the Baylor survey that covered a range of religious issues, parts of which are being released Thursday in a book titled What Americans Really Believe. In the case of angels, however, the question is a little stronger than just belief. Says Bader, "If you ask whether people believe in guardian angels, a lot of people will say, 'sure.' But this is different. It's experiential. It means that lots of Americans are having these lived supernatural experiences."
Sociologists may need further research to determine how broadly the data should be interpreted. The Baylor study tested other statements that might indicate a similar belief in the supernatural intruding into everyday personal experience — "I heard the voice of God speaking to me"; and "I received a miraculous physical healing." But far fewer people claimed to have had those experiences. This raises the possibility that guardian angels, which famously support an industry of sentimental accessories, are just so darned attractive that they exist in a charmed belief niche of their own.
But other factors may be in play. On one end of the spectrum of American religion are the analytical churches, on both the right and the left theologically and politically, which are primarily concerned with establishing Biblical principles to live by — and are suspicious of any modern-day irruption of the supernatural into religious life. Their miracles all took place in the Bible. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the more experiential churches, like many African-American denominations and those in the Pentecostal movement, that lay heavy emphasis on the workings of the Holy Spirit, where the supernatural, through gifts like healing, prophesying and speaking in tongues, makes regular visits in the pews. In the middle are sacramental faiths like Roman Catholicism, where the supernatural has a regular place on the altar (after all, the Eucharist is said to be the literal body and blood of Christ) but one that occurs only within the restrictions of very specific ritual.
What's interesting about the Baylor findings on guardian angel experiences is that they cross all boundaries. They have scriptural writ (in Psalm 91 and elsewhere). They are clearly experiential. And guardian angels are a prominent part of Catholic belief that happens to float freely outside of a sacrament. The cross-spectrum legitimacy of the notion of angelic interventions may free Americans to engage in the kind of folk faith that is part of almost any religious system but is not always officially acknowledged.
Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at New York's Barnard College, says that the Baylor angel figures are one in a periodic series of indications that "Americans live in an enchanted world," and engage in a kind of casual mysticism independent of established religious ritual, doctrine or theology. "There is," he says, a "much broader uncharted range of religious experience among the populace than we expect." Just possibly, Baylor has begun to chart it.