Jan 21, 2008

From the Archives

Americans Describe Their Moral and Social Concerns, Including Abortion and Homosexuality

The 2008 presidential election is engaging more people than any recent presidential election. With voters having already spoken in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina, one topic is already generating significant coverage and commentary: the role moral and social issues will play among voters this November. What are the most pressing problems, according to Americans? What are the moral and social issues that concern Christian voters the most?

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A new study from The Barna Group provides a data-driven snapshot of the U.S. population, providing a dose of objectivity to some much-debated, often-misunderstood issues. The Barna research explores matters beyond “who-will-Christians-vote-for” questions – for now – in favor of examining the perceived importance of 10 diverse issues. Those include a pair of elements (abortion and homosexuality) often linked to so-called values voters, as well as other issues that relate to morality, justice, and social concern.

Ranking the 10 Issues

Americans are troubled by a diverse palette of concerns. Three types of issues are of particular concern, perceived as “major” problems facing the country by three-quarters of the population. Those included poverty (78%), the personal debt of individual Americans (78%), and HIV/AIDS (76%).

A quartet of issues emerged as moderate concerns, including illegal immigration (60% of adults said this is a major problem facing the country), global warming (57%), abortion (50%), and the content of television and movies (45%).

Following that, homosexuality was identified as a major problem facing the nation by about one out of every three Americans. This issue was assessed with the use of two questions to determine if Americans have different degrees of concerns about “homosexual lifestyles” or the “political efforts of homosexual activists.” One-third of Americans said they were significantly concerned about “activists” (35%) and the same proportion felt “lifestyles” (35%) were of major concern. In fact, out of more than sixty different subgroups reviewed, there were no differences of opinion on these two survey questions, suggesting that the two issues may be linked in Americans’ minds.

Christians have garnered both criticism and skepticism in the aftermath of recent elections. Will there be a backlash against Christian voters this November? To help gauge that possibility, the study also examined the percentage of Americans who said they believed “the political efforts of conservative Christians” are a major problem facing the country. While this was the least significant of the 10 issues explored, nearly one out of every four Americans (23%) – representing about 51 million adults – described this factor as a major source of distress.

Born Again and Evangelical Voters?

How do Christian voters rank these issues? The survey explored two important slices of the Christian vote: born again Christians, a group of Americans who accounted for about half of all ballots cast in the 2004 election and the smaller, more socially conservative subset of born agains, labeled as evangelical voters. Evangelicals represent about one-fifth of all born again Christians. [Note that Barna surveys do not classify a person based upon a respondent’s use of the terms “born again” or “evangelical,” instead basing the classification on what a person believes about spiritual matters.

The nation’s 68 million registered voters who are born again Christians were most concerned about personal indebtedness (79%), poverty (78%), and HIV/AIDS (77%) – levels similar to that of other voters. However, born again Christians emerged as distinct from other voters in relation to many other issues. They are more concerned than were non-born again adults about illegal immigration (68%), abortion (67%), the content of television and movies (60%), homosexual lifestyles (51%), and homosexual activists (49%).

The subset of evangelicals (representing about 15 million of the born again voters) displayed a significantly different view on many issues. Evangelicals’ top concern – by a wide margin – was abortion (94%). This was followed by the personal debt of Americans (81%), the content of television and movies (79%), homosexual activists (75%), and gay and lesbian lifestyles (75%). Evangelicals were more likely than other adults to be concerned about illegal immigration, but they were less worried about HIV/AIDS than virtually any other segment of the population. One of the most significant differences of opinion expressed in the survey was the skepticism evangelicals harbor toward global warming (only 33% identified it as a major issue) compared to the rest of the population.

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Party Lines and Faith Allegiance

Faith affiliation does not neatly follow party lines: about two out of every five registered Democrats are born again voters, while roughly three out of every five Republicans is classified by the Barna team as a born again. Analyzing the interplay between faith and party reveals some unique relationships.

  • Out of the 10 issues assessed in the research, born again Republicans are most concerned about Americans’ personal indebtedness (80%) and abortion (80%), while non-born again Republicans are most concerned about debt (74%), HIV/AIDS (68%), poverty (66%) and immigration (65%).
  • Born again Democrats are most likely to identify HIV/AIDS (86%) and poverty (86%) as major problems facing America. These are the same top-two concerns identified among non-born again Democrats (85% and 84%, respectively).
  • Born agains who are registered as Independent are most concerned with personal debt levels (77%) and poverty (72%). Interestingly, these are also the leading concerns among non-born again Independents (75% and 77%, respectively).
  • As expected, born again members of the GOP are significantly more concerned than are born again Democrats about abortion (80% versus 58%), media content (69% versus 48%), homosexual activists (61% versus 38%), and homosexual lifestyles (58% versus 43%). However, born again Democrats are more likely to be concerned than are non-born again Republicans about abortion, media content and same-sex relationships.As for denominational connections, Catholics and Protestants showed very similar levels of concern in relation to each of the 10 issues. The only exceptions pertained to global warming (an issue of slightly greater concern to Catholics, 59% to 52%) and homosexual activism and lifestyles (each of which was twice as worrisome to Protestants). A majority of both Catholics (52%) and Protestants (56%) described abortion as a major problem.

Research Perspectives

“Understanding the faith-driven vote is as complex as assessing the nation’s spiritual profile,” commented David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group. “Around election time, Christian voters – and in particular, evangelical voters – the power and perspectives of evangelical voters are stereotyped. If you use a belief-based definition of evangelicals, which is a means of definition that most evangelicals would be comfortable with,you discover that the size of the evangelical voting group is actually quite small. It represents only about 1 out of every 11 voters.”

“Conversely, observers often miss the enormous size of their spiritual cousins, non-evangelical born again Christians, who account for nearly 2 out of every 5 voters. Combined, evangelicals and other born again Christians accounted for half of all votes cast in 2004. Moreover, analysts underestimate the diversity of the moral and social values that concern evangelicals and born agains. Part of the reason these two segments are not a monolithic voting bloc is that they possess a wider set of concerns and perspectives than they are often given credit for.

“One of the myths about the 2008 election is that the evangelical vote is splintering over issues such as abortion and homosexuality. In fact, when defined based upon a consistent set of theological perspectives, evangelicals remain very united on abortion and homosexuality,” Kinnaman explained. “However, concerns about same-sex relationships are less unifying and less troublesome to the broader born again constituency. Born agains are far less concerned about homosexuality than they are about abortion. Protestants and Catholics don’t agree on same-sex concerns. Evangelicals and non-evangelicals differ. Homosexuality remains important for 2008, but the debate is shifting and taking on new dimensions for many people.”

Kinnaman’s new book, unChristian, explores 16- to 29-year-olds’ attitudes related to matters such as homosexuality and political engagement. He noted that “elections offer Christians a tremendous opportunity to engage those who are not like-minded in thoughtful and respectful conversations that can go a long way toward advancing our society. While politics often makes ordinary citizens feisty, polarizing, hyper-critical and arrogant, Christians can inhabit the political arena as informed, engaged, willing to learn, and humble servants seeking the common good.”

Additional Reading and Resources

  • To order the Barna Group’s best-selling book, unChristian

About the Research

This report is based upon nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group with random samples of adults, age 18 and older. These surveys were conducted in January 2007 and July-August 2007. The January survey involved interviews with 1007 adults; the August survey included 1004 adults. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample for each of those surveys is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

“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.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) 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.”

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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