Oct 25, 2010

From the Archives

Americans Say Serving the Needy is Christianity’s Biggest Contribution to Society

Most Americans believe that the Christian faith has made positive contributions to American society during the past few years. A new nationwide survey from The Barna Group reveals that most of those contributions fall into one of three categories. Surprisingly, the survey also discovered that Americans are even more likely to identify negative contributions to society by Christianity in recent years.

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Positive Contributions
In response to an open-ended question – meaning that survey respondents were not prompted with a list of possibilities but were asked to provide answers off the top of their head – one out of every five adults (19%) mentioned how Christians in the United States have helped poor or underprivileged people to have a better life. Adults under the age of 25 were especially likely to cite such service (34%). Others who were more likely than average to point out how Christians have helped those in need included blacks (28%) and those who describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on social and political matters (29%). Interestingly, evangelicals (11%) and those who say they are “mostly conservative” on socio-political matters (11%) were among the people least likely to list this as the greatest contribution of American Christianity.

The second most prolific contribution named related to evangelism – i.e., efforts to advance belief in God or Jesus Christ or to promote becoming an adherent of the Christian faith. Overall, one out of every six adults (16%) offered this response. Evangelicals (25%) and non-evangelical born again Christians (23%) were among those most likely to list evangelistic efforts. While one-quarter of all Protestant adults (26%) named evangelism, just one out of ten Catholics (11%) followed suit.

The third most common contribution listed was shaping or protecting the values and morals of the nation. This perspective was given by one out of every seven adults (14%). Those in the “mostly conservative” segment (19%) were among the most likely to mention this contribution. Young adults, Skeptics, and people in the “mostly liberal” categories were only half as likely as the national average to mention this outcome.

Overall, just 6% mentioned positive contributions by the Christian faith that related to marriage, and 5% listed favorable actions related to stopping abortions.

Slightly more than one out of every ten adults (11%) said Christianity had not made any positive contributions to the United States. This perspective was most common among people associated with a faith other than Christianity (23%) and Skeptics (27%).

The most frequent response, however, was the inability to think of a single positive contribution made by Christians in recent years. One out of every four respondents (25%) said they could not recall anything of this nature. Skeptics (34%), unchurched adults (33%), and Independent voters (29%) were more likely than other people to fall into this response category.

Negative Contributions
When asked to identify what they thought were the negative contributions of Christians to American society in recent years, the most frequent response was violence or hatred incited in the name of Jesus Christ. One out of five Americans mentioned such vitriolic attitudes. This was most likely to be mentioned by people associated with non-Christian faiths (35%) and by evangelicals (31%).

Three other responses generated similar levels of support. Thirteen percent said the opposition of Christians to gay marriage was the largest negative contribution. People 25 or younger were twice as likely as other Americans to mention this. Blacks (20%) and Skeptics (20%) also registered above-average levels of concern about that position.

Twelve percent cited churches being too involved in politics as a major negative. Another 12% named the sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests as the biggest black-eye for the Christian faith. Those revelations were particularly disturbing to young adults and Hispanics.

Relatively small numbers of respondents mentioned negative contributions such as the perceived intolerance or bigotry of the Christian body (2%), the failure of Christians to be assertive enough (2%) and the failure of believers to reflect genuine Christian values in their lifestyle (2%). Intolerance was a particularly common reply among Skeptics (12%).

Overall, one out of every eight adults (12%) said they could not think of any negative contributions of the Christian population to American society. Surprisingly, evangelicals were among the subgroups that were least likely to say they were unable to identify any negative contributions by Christians; just 6% of evangelicals fit that category, positioning them as the single, most critical subgroup of all (statistically tied with the 7% of liberals who gave that reply). Evangelicals were especially hard on Christians with regard to their failure to reflect the values and lifestyles taught by Jesus. For instance, while 25% of the nation listed failings such as violence, hatred, bigotry, intolerance, and lack of love for others, nearly twice as many evangelicals (48%) listed those same items.

Another one out of five adults (19%) said they did not know what the negative contributions of Christians had been.

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Additional Outcomes
The survey also pointed out some interesting patterns and connections.

  • Although many churches are worried about offending people by sharing the gospel, less than 1% of the population complained that Christians are too aggressive in their evangelistic efforts. This corresponds with recent Barna studies that have shown that relatively few Christians discuss their faith with non-Christians in ways intended to encourage non-believers to adopt the Christian faith.
  • The people who seemed least aware of either the positive or negative contributions of Christians were the largest segment of Christians: Notionals. Along with the unchurched, Notional Christians were the segment most likely to not be able to identify either a positive or negative contribution of American Christians. Notionals currently represent about half of all Christians in the U.S.
  • Most of the non-Christian segments of the population cited serving the poor and underprivileged as the best thing that Christians have done.
  • Overall, there was a more extensive and diverse list of complaints about Christians and their churches than there was of examples of the benefits they have provided to society.
  • It is ironic that Baby Boomers – the generation famous for Woodstock, sexual liberation, the rise of recreational drug use, introducing the culture of narcissism, and the explosion in the number of divorces – was also the generation most likely to applaud the morals and values that Christians have stood for in the U.S.

George Barna directed the study and cautioned readers to realize that because the questions were asked in an open-ended format, the percentages of people providing many of the responses is substantially smaller than would have been the case had respondents been asked directly if they felt the items listed were significant contributions. The company plans to conduct additional research in this area in the future.

About the Research
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by the Barna Group with a random sample of 1,000 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, August 16-22, 2010. The interviews included 125 among people using cell phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Evangelicals” 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.”

“Non-evangelical born again Christians” are adults who do not meet the evangelical criteria (described above) but do meet the born again criteria (made a personal commitment to Christ that is important in their life today and believe they will go to Heaven after they die because they confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior). Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Notional Christians” are those who consider themselves to be Christian but do not meet the born again criteria (described above).

“Skeptics” refers to people who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic.

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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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