Aug 14, 2006

From the Archives

Barna Survey Offers a Profile of How Americans See Themselves

An analysis of how Americans perceive themselves in relation to 33 different descriptions studied in research conducted by The Barna Group, of Ventura, California– reveals that adults generally see themselves as good people, spiritually stable, and living a good and honorable life. Yet, despite the spiritual focus people claim, the study found that people’s lifestyles, attitudes and self-perceptions are more likely to be affected by their life-stage and ethnic culture than by their faith commitments.

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Most adults hold a generally favorable impression of themselves. At least nine out of ten said they are “a good citizen” (97%), “friendly” (94%) and “generous” (90%). At least eight out of ten claimed to “feel at peace” (83%), to be “clear about the meaning and purpose of your life” (81%), and to be “making a positive difference in the world” (80%). Nearly seven out of ten who have children in their home said they are “an effective parent” (69%).

When posed with descriptions that were not flattering, most adults rejected those adjectives. For instance, only 13% said they are “in serious debt” and only one out of every five (21%) are “feeling unfulfilled.” One out of three (34%) admitted to feeling stressed out – the highest level recorded for that descriptor in the past five years. And four out of every ten adults (40%) admitted to being overweight.

Views about the World

Americans carry some anxiety about the state of the world. Most of them (81%) say that they are “well-informed about current events,” leading a large majority (86%) to state that they are “concerned about the nation’s moral condition” and nearly two-thirds (63%) to say they are “concerned about terrorist attacks.”

Lifestyle Perspectives

Amazingly, more than eight out of ten Americans (82%) believe that they “live a simple life.” A slight majority claims to be “into new technology” (58%) and to be “active in the community” (53%). Four out of ten adults acknowledge that they are still “trying to find a few good friends” (40%). Roughly one-quarter admit to an aggressiveness in their lifestyle, as 29% described themselves as a “social activist” and 25% said they are “often trying to persuade others to change their views.” One out of every eight (12%) also noted that they are “dealing with an addiction” that personally haunts them.

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One of the more surprising – and, perhaps, challenging – points of view reflected in the survey was the three-quarters of adults (75%) who said they are “very open to moral views that differ from yours.” In some ways, that conflicted with the fact that two out of three people (66%) admit that they “like to be in control” and the slight majority (52%) who indicated that they are “very convinced that I am right about things in life.”

Half of all Americans (50%) said they are “turned off by politics” and a mere 6% consider themselves to be rich.

Personal Faith Profile

Often described as “the most religious people on earth,” most Americans “feel accepted by God” (88%), see themselves as “deeply spiritual” (62%) and believe they can be accurately described as “a fulltime servant of God” (59%).

Americans describe their personal faith in various ways. While more than eight out of ten (84%) view themselves as Christian, a lesser but significant majority label themselves as a “committed Christian” (60%). Within that framework, people’s self-identity includes 45% who call themselves a “born again Christian,” 42% who claim to be an “evangelical Christian” and one out of four who adopt the label “charismatic or Pentecostal Christian” (26%).

The survey also highlighted the fact that people who are in the born again constituency (based upon their beliefs, rather than their self-identification) are less likely than atheists to be social activists (42% of atheists claimed that label, compared to just 29% of born again adults and only 20% of evangelicals). Despite their activism, though, atheists emerged as being less clear about their purpose in life and less likely to feel at peace. Not surprisingly, they were also considerably less concerned about the moral condition of the country.

Born Again Distinctives

Individuals whose beliefs (as opposed to their self-description) classify them as born again Christians differed significantly from other adults on all seven of the religious categories evaluated, but were less distinct from the population on the self-perception adjectives (just three distinctions across the 12 measures), related to their views about the world (only one perspective differed among the four tested), and attitudes (two notable differences among the five elements assessed). There were no significant differences between born again and non-born again adults in the seven lifestyle dimensions examined. Overall, then born again adults were similar in their self-descriptions to non-born again individuals in relation to 20 of the 26 dimensions examined, apart from the religious self-descriptions.

In each of its surveys, The Barna Group defines a person as being born again if they indicate they have “made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ” that is important in their life today, and who believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Based on that definition, rather than people calling themselves “born again,” the study found that adults who fit the more detailed definition of born again differed from non-born again adults on various self-perceptions.

Americans’ Self-Perceptions
born again
non-born again
Deeply Spiritual
A fulltime servant of God
Born again Christian
Committed Christian
Evangelical Christian
Feel accepted by God
An effective parent
Clear about the meaning and purpose of their life
Making a positive difference in the world
Concerned about the nation’s moral condition
Very convinced they are right about things in life
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)


An American Profile

Overall, the data were described by George Barna, the survey’s director, as showing that Americans have a generally positive and secure view of themselves. However, he also noted that the information shows some conflicting elements in their self-view (e.g., most people claiming to lead a simple life yet a majority noting that they are either in serious debt, are stressed out or are into the latest technologies).

Barna also pointed out that while most people claim that their faith is one of the fundamental self-defining elements of their life, the data indicate that people’s perspectives are more likely to be influenced by their age and ethnicity than anything else.

The survey also underscored the difference between those who are born again based on their beliefs about salvation and those who simply embrace the label without trusting Jesus Christ for their salvation. In total, one out of every five adults who claims to be “born again” does not believe that their salvation is based on their confession of sins and reliance upon Christ. Barna also pointed out that nearly one-quarter of the people who are born again, based on that criteria, reject the “born again” label.

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Research Details

The data in this report are based on interviews drawn from nine national telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group with random samples of adults, with each survey involving between 1002 and 1015 individuals. Each sample included 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 within each survey is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. 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. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate 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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