Mar 14, 2006

From the Archives

Americans Reveal Their Top Priority in Life

Most American adults consider themselves to be not merely “religious,” but “deeply spiritual.” That’s the claim of 62% of all adults interviewed in the annual religious tracking survey conducted by The Barna Group, of Ventura, California. However, when the religious and spiritual commitments of Americans were studied more closely, those outcomes question the meaning of being “deeply spiritual.”

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In particular, the research discovered that when adults were asked to identify their single, most important priority in their life these days, commitment to their faith placed second – but was listed by just one out of every six people.

Top Priorities Identified

By far the top priority listed by adults – named by half of the population (51%) – was their family. Some segments were especially likely to list family as their highest commitment: people with children under the age of 18 living in their home (74%), adults in their twenties and thirties (67%), those who are married (61%), Catholics (60%), and Hispanics (60%). Several people groups were much less likely to place family at the top of their list. Those groups included people 60 or older (36%), singles (37%), African-Americans (39%), and Asians (39%).

Faith was the runner-up category, listed by 16% of all adults. This included a wide-ranging set of commitments, such as connecting with God, living consistently with one’s faith principles, having peace with God, being a committed church member, honoring God, and growing in faith.

Among the different people groups measured there were substantial disparities regarding the listing of faith as the top emphasis. For instance:


  • People over age 40 were twice as likely as those under 40 to make faith their highest priority (20% versus 9%).
  • Evangelicals were twice as likely as non-evangelical born again adults (47% vs. 21%), and almost five times more likely than notional Christians (47% vs. 10%) to place faith at the top of the list.
  • Protestants were more than three times as likely as Catholics to prioritize faith (24% versus 7%). Among Protestants, those associated with a church that is not part of the mainline denominations were more likely to select faith than were those aligned with a mainline church (27% vs. 18%).
  • African-Americans were nearly twice as likely as whites (27% vs. 15%) and almost three times as likely as Hispanics (10%) or Asians (11%) to select faith as their priority.
  • Those who define themselves as being “mostly conservative on social and political issues” were nine times more likely than those who describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on such matters to identify faith as their keenest priority (26% versus 3%).

Other priorities, besides faith and family, that made the list included health (7%), lifestyle (5%), vocational matters (3%), money (3%), achieving success (3%), friendships (1%), leisure pursuits (1%), and having influence (1%). (The question was posed as an open-ended inquiry, allowing respondents to provide their highest priority without choosing from a list of options.)

Relationship of Faith to Other Perspectives

The survey pointed out that while most Americans think of themselves as being highly spiritual, that view is not supported by other self-perceptions or behaviors evident in their life. For instance, among the 59% of adults who described themselves as a “full-time servant of God” – of which only a few were clergy or in full-time ministry positions ” a mere one-quarter placed faith as their highest life priority.

Similarly, among the people who deemed themselves to be “deeply spiritual” only one out of every four named their faith as their highest priority. Even among the seven out of ten Americans who strongly affirmed that their religious faith is “very important” in their life, barely one out of every five (22%) awarded faith the highest priority in their life. And among the two-thirds who claim that the “single, most important purpose of your life is to love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul,” less than one-quarter (23%) put faith at the top of the priority list – a direct contradiction in their thinking.

Something’s Amiss

George Barna, who directed the tracking study of religious beliefs and practices, noted that the relationship between people’s perception of their religious commitment and their reticence to make faith their top priority points to a significant disconnect.

“Spirituality is in vogue in our society today,” he commented. “It is popular to claim to be part of a ‘faith community’ or to have a spiritual commitment. But what do Americans mean when they claim to be ‘spiritual?’ The recent Grammy awards were perhaps indicative of this breakdown between self-perception and reality. The members of the group that won the award for best song thanked God for the victory then immediately followed with profanities that had to be bleeped from the broadcast. It seems as if God is in, but living for God is not. Many Americans are living a dual life – one filled with good feelings about God and faith, corroborated by some simple religious practices, and another in which they believe they are in control of their own destiny and operate apart from Him.”

Citing further evidence of this dualistic perspective, the author of more than three dozen books on faith and culture stated, “The survey also noted that among those who say their faith has ‘greatly transformed’ their life, just one out of four positioned their faith practices and pursuits as their highest life priority. It certainly seems that millions of Americans are fooling themselves into thinking that they have found the appropriate balance between God and lifestyle.”

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Research Background

The data in this report are based on interviews with 1003 adults from across the nation. These telephone surveys were conducted by The Barna Group, during January 2006, based upon a random sample of people 18 years of age and older living within the 48 continental states. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In the research, the distribution of survey respondents corresponded to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“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 were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

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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