Jul 23, 2001

From the Archives

Born Again Adults Remain Firm in Opposition to Abortion and Gay Marriage

Although there has been a closing of the gap between the behaviors and attitudes of born again Christians and non-born again adults in the past quarter century, a new report from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California shows that there are at least two issues related to which their differences remain substantial. The national survey of born again and non-born again adults shows that the former are much more likely to reject both abortion and homosexuality as defensible activities.

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Abortion Views Far Apart

When a national, representative sample of 1003 adults were asked to select one of four positions related to abortion, 18% said abortion should be legal in all circumstances, 24% said it should be legal in most cases, with a few exceptions, 32% said it should be illegal except in a few, special circumstances, and 23% said it should be illegal under all conditions. Four percent did not have a position on the matter – an unusually small proportion of people who refuse to take a position on a controversial issue.

However, people’s answers differed markedly according to their religious inclinations. For instance, just 1% of evangelicals said abortion should be legal in all situations, compared to 9% of all born again Christians (i.e., both evangelicals and non-evangelical born again adults), 23% of all non-born again adults, 36% of adults aligned with a non-Christian church, and 40% of atheists.

When examining the proportion of individuals from those segments who said that abortion should either be illegal in all instances or illegal in all but a few special circumstances, 94% of evangelicals and 73% of all born again adults took that position. In contrast, just 43% of all non-born again adults concurred, including 24% of adults connected to non-Christian faiths and 30% of atheists.

The study showed that there is even a huge gap within the Christian community. Half of all adults (50%) who attend a mainline Protestant church said abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, which was nearly double the proportion (29%) among Protestants attending non-mainline congregations. Similarly, only 11% of mainliners said abortion should be illegal under all circumstances, while three times as many other Protestants (33%) took that position. Not quite two out of every three Catholics (63%) said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, including 26% who said it should be illegal in all cases.

Labels associated with one’s position on abortion can be confusing, or even deceptive. The nation is evenly split between those who describe themselves as “pro-life” (45%) and “pro-choice” (45%), with 10% not embracing either label. Even though 73% of the born again population said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, only 65% chose to describe themselves as “pro-life.” Similarly, among adults who are not born again, 43% held that abortion should be illegal in all or most situations, yet just 32% embraced the label “pro-life.”

Homosexuality Somewhat Less Divisive

When asked if homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal or not legal, a slight plurality of adults (48%) said such relationships should be legal, while 42% said they should not be legal. One out of every ten adults did not have an opinion on the matter. The gap between born again and non-born again adults was less pronounced on this issue than was the gap related to abortion rights. While 57% of non-born again adults opted for the “legal” response, they were joined by just 34% of the born again constituency. The relative closeness of opinion on this issue is partially attributable to a surprisingly large proportion of adults who attend non-mainline Protestant churches preferring the legalization of homosexual relations.

Americans are evenly divided on the matter of whether homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle. In total, 45% said it should be considered an acceptable alternative while 46% said it should not, and the remaining 9% were not sure. The religious gap was wider on this item with born again Christians twice as likely as non-Christians (66% vs. 34%, respectively) to portray homosexuality as an unacceptable lifestyle. The distinction between mainline and non-mainline churches was larger on this issue than was true regarding the legality of homosexual relations: only 44% of the adults who attend mainline churches said homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle, compared to 64% among those attending non-mainline Protestant churches.

While there is evidence that a growing number of people believe that homosexuality is genetic, about half of all adults (49%) contend that homosexuality is due to non-genetic factors such as upbringing and environment, one-third say people are born gay (34%), and the remaining 17% are not sure. Eighty-five percent of evangelicals, 61% of born again adults, and 65% of those who attend non-mainline Protestant churches believe that a person chooses to be a homosexual. On the other hand, 45% of adults affiliated with non-Christian churches, 44% of atheists and 40% of Catholics contend that a person is born into homosexuality.

The biggest gap observed relates to clergy marrying gay couples. By a 2-to-1 margin (62% – 30%) adults disapprove of clergy marrying gay couples or blessing their marriage unions. Disapproval was virtually universal among evangelicals (97%) and widespread among born again adults (79%) and Catholics (61%). In sharp contrast, just one-third of atheists (33%) and those who associate with non-Christian faith groups (36%) disapproved of such clergy involvement.

Younger Adults Leaning Liberal

One of the trends that emerged from the research concerns the divergent perspectives of young adults. People 35 and younger are substantially more likely to approve of abortion in all or most circumstances than are people over 35; are much more likely to describe themselves as “pro-choice” than are any other age segment; were much more likely to argue that homosexual relations should be legal; substantially more likely to consider homosexuality an acceptable lifestyle; and notably more likely to approve of clergy conducting or blessing gay marriages.

George Barna, who directed the study, explained the significance of this finding. “Over the long term, we expect to see a growing acceptance of abortion and homosexuality as Baby Busters and Mosaics, the youngest generation, become more influential in public policy and business policy. The comparatively liberal views of the younger two generations will not have as significant an impact upon Christian churches since churches often base their positions on these matters upon biblical views. However, even the debate on these matters may become less divisive than might be expected since Busters and Mosaics are less likely to participate in the life of such churches and, consequently, will have relatively less impact on the positions taken by Protestant churches.”

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Insights Into the Findings

The study shows that the traditional moral values upheld by Christians are continuing to lose ground. Overall, about seven out of ten born again adults have consistently pro-life positions and about six out of ten consistently oppose homosexuality. However, because the born again population represents just four out of every ten adults, and one-third of all teenagers, reaching a national consensus on such issues may be more difficult in the years ahead. Traditional moral stands are held by a bare majority of adults on abortion, while adults are about evenly split on matters related to homosexuality.

The data indicate that a significant minority of people who attends Christian churches maintains that abortion and homosexuality should be legal activities. “Increasingly we find that the positions on moral issues that are taught from the pulpit are not necessarily views embraced by regular attenders of those churches,” according to Barna. “Most congregations exhibit a diversity of opinion on doctrinal and moral matters that would shock the average pastor.”

Barna noted that people who read the Bible have a more conservative view on these issues. “Among people who read the Bible on their own, three-quarters oppose abortion, two-thirds call themselves “pro-life,” three-fifths say homosexuality should be illegal, two-thirds call homosexuality an unacceptable lifestyle, and three-quarters oppose clergy participation in gay marriages. Exposure to the Bible clearly affects a person’s views on these matters, compensating for other factors such as age, education and church ideology. It seems that if conservative Christians have any chance of restoring a more traditional moral perspective to America, it is most likely to be accomplished by encouraging people to base their moral choices on the basis of God’s Word rather than on the basis of cultural leanings or political arguments.”

The researcher also pointed out that millions of Americans have made a distinction in their minds regarding legality and morality. “Americans are more likely to support the legality of behaviors that they, personally, do not endorse than they are to shift their personal moral views in relation to those matters. That’s why we have millions of individuals – including numerous born again adults – who say that homosexuality should be legal but not church-sanctioned. Strategically, that’s a wise decision if people believe that the Church is influencing our culture sufficiently to enable Americans to make informed moral choices. One must wonder, however, if the emerging generations of Americans are being adequately and compellingly exposed to Christian perspectives to make such informed choices.”

The data clearly underscore the breadth of the gap in moral views between those associated with Christian churches and those associated with non-Christian faith groups or atheism. “In all six of the items tested in the research, evangelicals were at one end of the ideological continuum while atheists and people from non-Christian faith groups were at the other end. We seem to be on the precipice of a moral showdown in which the Christian moral foundations are being challenged by the growing proportion of Americans who have embraced non-Christian faith traditions.”

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Survey Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1003 adults in May, 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys 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” or if they considered themselves to be “born again.”

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet 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; 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 has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service by typing your e-mail address in the field above located at the top of this page on the left-hand side.

Views on Abortion Differ by Religious Leanings (N=1003)
all adultsevangelical born againnot born againProtestant mainlinenon-mainlineCatholicnon-Christian faithatheist
legal, all cases18%1%9%23%18%12%12%36%40%
legal, with a few exceptions24414303217213328
illegal, with a few exceptions323339283635381523
illegal, all cases 2361341511332697
don’t know424433483
Views on the Acceptability of Homosexuality as a Lifestyle(N=1003)
all adultsevangelical born againnot born againProtestant mainlinenon-mainlineCatholicnon-Christian faithatheist
an acceptable lifestyle45%2%27%55%49%29%47%64%72%
not an acceptable lifestyle469566344464382720
don’t know93711761598

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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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