Jul 23, 2007

From the Archives

American Individualism Shines Through in People’s Self-Image

Sociologists have good reason to call this the era of hyper-individualism, according to data from a newly released study from The Barna Group. Based on interviews with a nationally representative sample of more than 4000 adults, the self-image of American adults came through loud and clear.

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Most Americans think of themselves as leaders (71%) and believe they are well-informed about current events (81%). They almost unanimously view themselves as independent thinkers (95%), and as loyal and reliable people (98%). They also say they are able to easily adapt to changes and a whopping four out of five people believe they are making a positive difference in the world. Two out of three adults noted that they like to be in control of situations.

And while most Americans contend that they are free thinkers who are “very open” to alternative moral views (75%), a huge majority support traditional family values (92%), resulting in a large majority who claim to be concerned about the moral state of the nation (86%). Interestingly, though, only one out of four adults is concerned enough to try to convince other people to change their views on such issues.

Most Americans navigate the complexities of contemporary life by relying upon their religious beliefs and practices for strength and guidance. A large majority say that their religious faith is very important in their life today, and nearly two-thirds go so far as to describe themselves as “deeply spiritual.” The Christian leanings of most Americans are emphasized by the fact that seven out of ten adults claim to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important to them. These religious attachments help to explain why more than four out of five adults claim to have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life.

In terms of lifestyle, few adults admitted to being in serious debt (13%), to having an addiction of some type (12%), or to being stressed out (34%). A majority of adults seem to have their relational network in place, although a sizeable minority (40%) says they are still trying to develop a few good friendships.

The Half-and-Half Elements

About half of all adults admit to being “turned off by politics.” Similarly, about half of the population claims to be “active in the community,” ranging from participation in churches to involvement in non-profit organizations and local sports activities.

Half of the adults in the U.S. also submit that they are “very convinced” that they are right about things in life.

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The Influence of Faith

The different faith groups in the U.S. show evidence of their faith in their self-image.

For instance, evangelicals were notably different from non-evangelical born again Christians in various ways. Evangelicals are more likely to see themselves as fulltime servants of God; as being deeply spiritual; and more likely to seek to persuade others to adopt their views. Evangelicals were less likely than born agains who are not evangelical to have an open mind toward alternative moral views and were also less likely to admit to adapting easily to change.

The aggregate born again population – that is, both evangelicals and the non-evangelical born again segment – were substantially different in self-image from Americans who are aligned with a non-Christian faith. The born again populace was twice as likely to view themselves as fulltime servants of God, nearly twice as likely to be dealing with an addiction, but only half as likely to be in serious debt. The born again group was also significantly more likely to say they are deeply spiritual, very concerned about America’s moral condition, and to be convinced they are right about things in life. They were also 21 points more likely to see themselves as making a positive difference in the world. Born again people were less stressed, less lonely, and less flexible in the midst of change than were people of other faiths.

The gap between born again adults and people of no faith (i.e., atheists and agnostics) was equally substantial. Not surprisingly, the born again contingent was much more likely to see themselves as servants of God, deeply spiritual, supportive of traditional family values, and concerned about American morality. However, the religious segment was also distinguished by a greater likelihood of being active in their community; believing that they are making a positive difference in the world; are less likely to be turned off by politics; have greater clarity about the meaning and purpose of their life; and are much less adaptable to cultural change.

The Barna study also revealed that there are amazingly few differences between Catholics and Protestants regarding self-image. Protestants were significantly more likely to see themselves as fulltime servants of God and slightly more likely to say they are deeply spiritual. They also were a bit more likely to say they are clear about the meaning and purpose of their life. Catholics, on the other hand, were somewhat more likely to be very open to alternative moral perspectives.

Americans and Their Identity

According to George Barna, who directed the study, the results are consistent with past findings from his research. “We have consistently found that Americans have a hierarchy of self-perceptions,” he explained. “Although more than four out of five adults say they are Christian, they do not consider their faith to be their primary defining attribute. They are more likely to see themselves as Americans, consumers, spouse and parent, and even employee than to describe themselves primarily in terms of their faith commitment.”

Barna also noted that the current political debate about the changing electorate may be overstated. “Keep in mind that the survey showed 92% of adults expressed support for something called ‘traditional family values.’ Media reports have concluded that people have moved past ‘traditional family values’ to more progressive social ideas. However, the people weren’t aware of that shift,” the researcher continued. “The research suggests that people are open to discussion about values and lifestyles, but they are not as open to changing what they believe to be acceptable behavior or policy. They remain worried about the moral condition of the nation precisely because they see things moving in a direction that scares them.”

The differences among faith segments also caught Barna’s attention. “There are important distinctions between evangelical Christians and other segments within the Christian community,” he stated. “That small 8% segment of the public is substantially different from others in how they apply their faith principles to every dimension of their life. The only other faith group demonstrating similar consistency between faith and practice were atheists, whose fundamental dismissal of social conventions and participation in favor of more self-centered views and behaviors helped them to stand out from the crowd in a different way.”

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About the Research

This report is based upon a series of four nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group from January through September 2006. Each survey included 1003-1005 adults, age 18 and older, randomly sampled and distributed in proportion to the population of the 48 contiguous states. In total, 4014 adults were interviewed, allowing for a maximum margin of sampling error of ±1.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Within that aggregate, the report examined subgroups of evangelicals (n=333); non-evangelical born again Christians (n=1523); notional Christians (n=1391); adults associated with non-Christian faith groups (n=229); and atheists and agnostics (n=398). There were 847 people who identified themselves as Catholics and 2200 adults associated with Protestant churches. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several demographic variables.

“Evangelicals” are people who meet the born again criteria (described below) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

Notional Christians are those who describe themselves as “Christian” but do not meet the born again criteria.

The “other faith” segment includes all people who did not describe themselves as Christian, but did indicate they are associated with a religious faith. The most common of those associations were Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Scientology, and “new age.”

Atheists are people who say they do not believe that God exists. Agnostics are those who say they are not sure whether or not God exists, or that humankind can never know if God exists.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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