With the 2008 presidential election campaign well underway, a new survey suggests that the biggest issue of them all may well be one that leaders do not seem to be focused upon: the well-being of America’s children. When asked to indicate which of eleven changes were “absolutely necessary” for the U.S. to address within the next ten years, the issues that emerged as the frontrunners were “the overall care and resources devoted to children” and “the quality of a public school education.” Each of those challenges was listed as changes that were absolutely necessary within the coming decade by 82% of the adult population.
Trailing the focus on children were matters such as improving national security (72%); helping the poor and disadvantaged (69%); upgrading the reliability and honesty in news reporting (63%); increasing the nation’s investment in environmental protection (60%); and enhancing the state of marriage and families (60%).
The least significant issues to address were improving the spiritual state of the country (53%); increasing people’s sense of belonging to a community (45%); enhancing the moral content within entertainment (44%); and advancing the health of Christian churches (44%).
Desired Changes in the United States
Question: Think about how you would like the United States to change within the next 10 years. If you had the ability to make the decisions, tell me how important each of the changes I describe would be to you: absolutely necessary, somewhat important, not too important, or a waste of resources.
|Condition||absolutely necessary||somewhat important||not too important||a waste||don’t know|
|the overall care and resources devoted to children||82%||15%||2%||*%||1%|
|the quality of a public school education||82||15||1||1||1|
|national security in the U.S.||72||21||3||1||1|
|the lives of poor and disadvantaged people||69||25||3||3||1|
|the reliability and honesty in news reporting||63||26||6||4||1|
|the investment in environmental protection||60||33||5||1||1|
|the state of marriage and families||60||26||7||6||2|
|the spiritual state of the country||53||27||10||7||3|
|people’s sense of belonging to a community||45||44||6||3||2|
|the moral content within entertainment||44||32||13||9||2|
|the health of Christian churches||44||28||16||9||4|
* indicates less than one-half of one percent
Interestingly, there were four issues posed that generated the most divergent opinions among adults – and all four pertained to matters of faith, morality and family. In examining the responses from adults in each of 80 different subgroups of the population (e.g., men, women, conservatives, liberals, Catholics, Protestants, etc.) and comparing the percentage of each segment who said change in a specific dimension was “absolutely necessary,” the Barna Group reported that each of those four issues produced a range of more than fifty percentage points!
Enhancing the health of Christian churches over the coming decade was seen as absolutely necessary by 93% of evangelical Christians but by only 4% of adults who do not believe the Bible can be interpreted literally. That range of 89 percentage points was the largest gap recorded.
Improving the spiritual state of the country was viewed as an absolutely necessary action by 88% of the people who say that their faith is the top priority in their life, but by only 12% of those who do not take the Bible literally.
Upgrading the state of marriage and families was deemed to be an absolutely necessary undertaking by 91% of evangelicals, but only 30% of those who do not take the Bible literally concurred.
In contrast, the issue that produced the greatest alignment across the board was enhancing the overall care and resources devoted to children. The range of response was 28 percentage points, which is less than half the difference registered for the four most divisive issues.Addressing and bettering the moral content of entertainment was a hot issue for 73% of evangelicals, but a mere 16% of atheists and agnostics agreed.
Groups That See Things Differently
The survey underscored that the most divergent opinions are held by groups distinguished by their affluence, ideology, faith, gender and race.
The survey revealed that there were statistically significant differences between upscale and downscale adults on 10 of the 11 issues. Similarly, evangelical Christians were significantly different from non-Christians on 10 of the 11 issues. Whites differed from blacks on nine of the 11 dimensions; likewise, conservatives and liberals substantially parted company on nine of the 11 items tested. Men and women exhibited notable differences of opinion regarding eight of the 11 items.
The average difference of opinion varied across those groups, however. The most radical differences were between evangelicals and those who are not born again Christians. The average difference in the proportion of each group saying it was “absolutely necessary” to address a given issue was 26 percentage points. The average difference between conservatives and liberals was 22 points; between upscale and downscale was 19 points; between whites and blacks was 13 points; and between men and women was 10 points.
How Evangelicals View the Future
Evangelicals prioritized the eleven issues studied somewhat differently than did other people. The three highest priorities among evangelicals were enhancing the health of Christian churches, upgrading the state of marriage and families, and improving the spiritual condition of the U.S. In each case, evangelicals were more than 30 percentage points more likely than other adults to identify each of those issues as an absolutely necessary focus for the immediate future. They were also 29 points above the national norm in listing improvements in the moral content of mass entertainment as a priority.
In a different way, evangelicals stood out regarding their views on the environment. Only 35% said that protecting the environment should be a top priority – the lowest score recorded among any of the 80 subgroups studied. The national average was 60%. Oddly, evangelicals were also 20 percentage points below the national norm in saying that improving the overall care and resources devoted to children is an absolute necessity. Again, that placed evangelicals at the lowest end of the continuum in terms of support for that idea. Evangelicals were also 12 percentage points below the national average regarding the necessity of improving the quality of public school education and enhancing the lives of the poor and disadvantaged. That outcome also positioned evangelicals as the group least likely to portray those two issues as top priorities for the nation.
Overall, evangelical Christians stood out as the segment that holds views that are most dissimilar from the typical perspectives of Americans. They were at least 10 percentage points different from the national average in relation to eight of the eleven issues tested. In comparison, that same level of differentiation was discovered among atheists and agnostics regarding seven of the eleven issues; and conservatives, liberals, and upscale adults all veered substantially from the norm on six of the 11 issues.
Currently, evangelicals represent 8% of the national adult population. That projects to approximately 20 million adults.
People Want a Different Future
The results of the survey struck George Barna, who directed the study, as suggesting that Americans want the future to be more different than similar to the way things are in the nation today.
“A majority of Americans said we need significant change in relation to eight of the 11 issues we posed to them,” noted the California-based author of forty books on faith, leadership and social conditions. “The desire for a new direction is harbored not simply by those on the ideological extremes, but by a majority of those who hold the ideological middle ground, as well. Americans contend that they lead a good life, but the survey points out that it is not necessarily their desired life, nor are they comfortable with the society they are leaving to their children.
“The challenge for today’s leaders is to find the intersection of doing what is right and best with doing that which is popular and achievable,” Barna continued. “The lack of a common vision for the future is making the identification of such common ground increasingly difficult, if not impossible. The presidential candidates seem to delve rather quickly into promoting programs rather than establishing a consensus around the ideal of what America represents and where it needs to go in the years to come. Gaining widespread ownership of such a broad-based vision of the character and goals of the United States must be the starting point for rebuilding unity and strength within the nation. Providing a compelling and comprehensive notion of who we are as a people and what we stand for as a nation would be the most valuable contribution our leaders could offer.”
Additional Reading and Resources
- For research related to church health, check out The Habits of Highly Effective Churches
- To understand the current spiritual state of the US, read Barna Group’s annual tracking report on faith from May 2007, click here
- Data about raising children is available on Revolutionary Parenting
About the Research
This report is based upon a nationwide telephone survey conducted by The Barna Group in August 2007 among 1000 adults, age 18 or older, randomly selected from households in the 48 continental states. The sample has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The survey was independently developed and funded by The Barna Group.
“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.”
“Upscale” adults are those who have completed a 4-year college degree and reside in a household earning at least $75,000 annually. “Downscale” adults are those who have not attended college and whose annual household income is $20,000 or less.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org.
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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