In a wide-ranging discussion about the state of faith in America, veteran researcher George Barna recently addressed questions raised by his new book, The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter. In that book, Barna outlines seven diverse faith segments, profiling their lifestyles, religious beliefs and practices, values and life goals. The seven tribes include Casual Christians, Captive Christians, Mormons, Jews, Pantheists, Muslims and Skeptics.
During the course of the conversation, Barna answered a series of questions about the largest – and potentially most powerful – tribe, the Casual Christians. Barna’s studies indicate that Casual Christians represent 66% of the adult population of the U.S. (The percentage of the adult population represented by the other half-dozen tribes included 16% who are Captive Christians, 2% Jews, 2% Mormons, 2% Pantheists, one-half of 1% Muslims, and 11% Skeptics.)
Question: You describe the Casual Christian tribe as spiritually middle-of-the-road, perhaps even ambivalent about their faith. Why, then, are they so important to the nation’s future?
Barna: Each of the seven tribes is important to our nation’s future because they include millions of American citizens. The Casual Christian tribe is especially significant because it represents a huge majority of the nation’s population – two out of every three adults. This particular tribe is comprised of significant proportions of minimally active born again Christians and moderately active but theologically nominal Christians. If a catalyst were added to this mix to deepen this tribe’s integration of faith and lifestyle, or even to simply create a more extensive sense of community and purpose within the tribe, unprecedented changes could occur.
Question: What have you found to be the appeal of Casual Christianity, as opposed to what draws people to the Captive Christian or even the Mormon tribes – that is, other tribes that are much more fervent about their faith?
Barna: Casual Christianity is faith in moderation. It allows them to feel religious without having to prioritize their faith. Christianity is a low-risk, predictable proposition for this tribe, providing a faith perspective that is not demanding. A Casual Christian can be all the things that they esteem: a nice human being, a family person, religious, an exemplary citizen, a reliable employee – and never have to publicly defend or represent difficult moral or social positions or even lose much sleep over their private choices as long as they mean well and generally do their best. From their perspective, their brand of faith practice is genuine, realistic and practical. To them, Casual Christianity is the best of all worlds; it encourages them to be a better person than if they had been irreligious, yet it is not a faith into which they feel compelled to heavily invest themselves.
Question: What are the critical elements that make the Casual Christians tick?
Barna: The comfort that this approach provides. It offers them life insights if they choose to accept them, gives them a community of relationships if they desire such, fulfills their inner need to have some type of connection with a deity, and provides the image of being a decent, faith-friendly person. Because Casuals do not view matters of faith as central to one’s purpose or success in life, this brand of Christianity supplies the multi-faceted levels of satisfaction and assurance that they desire.
Question: Is Casual Christianity bad for America?
Barna: That, of course, depends on your point of view. Several of the non-Christian tribes consider all Christians to be heretics or at least spiritually misguided. Captive Christians consider Casuals to not be genuine followers of Christ. In terms of the future of the republic, there is something to be said for people who are willing to compromise for the good of the whole community, but there are also difficulties raised when people do not stand for anything or cannot identify the truths that are worth championing. From a spiritual vantage point, that is especially important if moral and spiritual truths are all considered to be relative. Casual Christianity, because of its moral receptivity and pliability, generally eliminates spiritual backbone from moral discussions. And yet, Casual Christians would typically embrace the 20 shared values that all seven of the tribes adopt as part of their moral code.
Question: If you had to list the single, most defining characteristic of each of the seven tribes, what would each tribe’s defining faith attribute be?
Barna: Casual Christians are driven by a desire for a pleasant and peaceful existence. Captive Christians are focused on upholding the absolute moral and spiritual truths they glean from the Bible. Jews coalesce around their sense of community. Mormons are identifiable by their family centeredness. Pantheists are best understood by their resigned acceptance of their reality. Muslims are characterized by their commitment to faith-driven behavioral standards. Skeptics are highly independent. Every tribe will reject these singular descriptions, and rightfully so because each tribe is complex and robust. But these factors give a short-hand sense of the heartbeat of each tribe.
Barna: The lives of Captive Christians are defined by their faith; their worldview is built around their core spiritual beliefs and resultant values. Casual Christians are defined by the desire to please God, family, and other people while extracting as much enjoyment and comfort from the world as possible. The big difference between these two tribes is how they define a successful life. For Captives, success is obedience to God, as demonstrated by consistently serving Christ and carrying out His commands and principles. For Casuals, success is balancing everything just right so that they are able to maximize their opportunities and joys in life without undermining their perceived relationship with God and others. Stated differently, Casuals are about moderation in all things while Captives are about extreme devotion to their God regardless of the worldly consequences.
Question: With the Casual and Captive Christian tribes cumulatively reflecting more than 80% of the adult population, do non-Christian tribes have any real hope of influencing the nation if those two tribes concur on a matter?
Barna: One of the beauties of living in a democratic republic is that everyone has a chance to influence the development of the nation. A group that is small in numbers but has big ideas and internal unity can have amazing success at shaping the will of the public. We have repeatedly experienced this in recent decades. The sexual revolution of the sixties was driven by a minority. The establishment of equal rights for blacks was accomplished by a tiny minority. The movement toward gay rights is being driven by a segment that is just 3% of the population. The urgency and intensity required to introduce seminal change is often accessible only to tightly-knit, manageable, finely focused bands of vision-driven comrades – what the Bible refers to as a remnant.
Question: What makes you so confident that tribes with such divergent doctrine and life principles such as Skeptics, Muslims, Jews and Captive Christians can really agree on how to return the country to a state of stability and health?
Barna: I am not confident that we will. But I believe that this is a critical time for the United States, and that our faith tribes are crucial to who we become as a nation, and whether we can save ourselves from ourselves. These seven tribes are very different, but they share some important values and desires. The ultimate outcome may depend on whether we receive the leadership that will focus our attention and energy on what matters, rallying people around a shared vision of the common good based on values that each tribe can champion. I pray that our research can help to open up some lines of respectful dialogue, based on a greater understanding of each other, what’s at stake, and the potential for a positive outcome.
The data discussed in George Barna’s interview are based on interviews conducted by The Barna Group with more than 30,000 randomly selected adults from the 48 continental states, sampled in ways that replicated the adult population of the nation.
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