Jul 9, 2007

From the Archives

Catholics Have Become Mainstream America

Not too long ago, Catholics were seen as a different breed of Americans – mostly European immigrants, urban, blue collar and participants in a minority religion. When John Kennedy became the first Catholic president elected in the United States in 1960, his faith of choice was a significant issue in the campaign.

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Although the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Catholic has dropped from three out of ten to slightly more than two out of ten in the past two decades, Catholics remain the largest denominational segment in the country (22%). These days, however, they are as mainstream as any people group in the nation. A new survey of more than 4000 adults conducted by The Barna Group examined 97 different facets of the lives of Catholics, comparing them to national norms. The outcome is striking: Catholics are virtually indistinguishable from people aligned with other faith groups – except in the area of faith. Overall, there were 33 significant differences, but 82% of those differences related to religious or moral components. In the religious dimension, Catholics were notably different from other Americans on 20 of the 28 faith-related measures examined in the Barna study.

Religious Differences Examined

The survey explored three dimensions of people’s faith: behaviors, beliefs and attitudes. Catholics were significantly different from other Americans in each of those areas. Two out of three Catholics (68%) said their religious faith is very important in their life – the same as was true among non-Catholic adults – but how their faith is manifested is quite divergent.

All five of the faith-related attitudes tested showed a gap between Catholics and other Americans. Among the elements tested were people’s highest priority in life (Catholics were only half as likely as others to mention their faith, and a majority identified family as their priority) and their commitment to the Christian faith (44% of Catholics claimed to be “absolutely committed” compared to 54% of the entire adult population). Further; Catholics were less likely than average to look forward to discussing their religious views with other people, to attending church services, and to reading the Bible. In fact, Catholics were only half as likely as other Americans to say they look forward “a lot” to reading from the Bible.

Of the dozen faith-oriented behaviors tested, Catholics strayed from the norm in relation to eight of the 12 items. Specifically, the typical Catholic person donated about 17% less money to churches; was 38% less likely than the average American to read the Bible; 67% less likely to attend a Sunday school class; 20% less likely to share their faith in Christ with someone who had different beliefs; 24% less likely to say their religious faith has greatly transformed their life; and were 36% less likely to have an “active faith,” which Barna defined as reading the Bible, praying and attending a church service during the prior week. However, Catholics were 16% more likely than the norm to attend a church service and 8% more likely to have prayed to God during the prior week.

The spiritual beliefs of Catholics are also substantially different from the typical views of Americans. Catholics differed from most people on seven of the 11 belief-focused questions raised. For instance, Catholics were significantly less likely to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches and only half as likely to maintain that they have a responsibility to share their faith with others. They were more likely than the norm to say that Satan is not real; to believe that eternal salvation is earned; and to contend that Jesus Christ sinned while on earth.

Interestingly, one out of every four Catholics is born again (based on their beliefs, not their self-description). That ranks Catholics as the second-largest denominational grouping of born again Christians in the nation, behind Baptists, and represents significant growth in the proportion of Catholics who are born again. Even so, they are 37% less likely to be born again than are adults not associated with the Catholic faith.

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Moral Convictions Differ

The moral behaviors of Catholics also stood out in several areas. Among the 16 moral behaviors examined, Catholics were notably more likely to not say mean things about people behind their back, and were more likely to engage in recycling. However, they were also twice as likely to view pornographic content on the Internet and were more likely to use profanity, to gamble, and to buy lottery tickets.

Among the moral behaviors in which Catholics were indistinguishable from other Americans were illegally downloading copyrighted music from the Internet, stealing, engaging in physical abuse, getting drunk, using illegal, non-prescription drugs, lying, committing adultery, and seeking revenge.

The Rest of Life

Regarding aspects of life outside of faith and morals, Catholics are strikingly similar to the rest of the public. For example, from the 14 self-descriptions offered to survey respondents, the only adjective that separated Catholics from other Americans was their disinclination to adopt the term “evangelical Christian.” Catholics were 39% less likely to accept that label. But all of the other adjectives – ranging from “independent thinker,” “seen as a leader,” and “loyal and reliable” to “stressed out” and “clear about the meaning and purpose of my life” – generated virtually identical scores between Catholics and others.

Similarly, people’s attitudes about life differ little according to their faith preferences. The exceptions concerned what people look forward to doing in life. There is less anticipation among Catholics regarding a good night of sleep or reading a good book, and slightly more excitement about spending time working on their garden and yard. But the bulk of the attitudes investigated – regarding media, consumerism, vacations, health and exercise, and even household duties – showed no difference between Catholics and other Americans.

In fact, a series of 11 questions about the existence and extent of poverty in the U.S., and people’s personal responses to poverty, showed no distinctions between Catholics and other adults.

Demographic Similarities

Years ago, politicians counted on Catholics to respond to certain cues based on the unique demographic profile of the group. That distinction has vanished. The survey explored a dozen demographic variables and discovered that Catholics are the same as the rest of the country on ten of those twelve items.

Catholics emerged as a slightly more affluent group. While that represents a noteworthy departure from the past, when Catholics were largely blue collar, the current economic difference is minor in magnitude.

The primary demographic difference relates to ethnicity. The Catholic population presently has a disproportionately low number of blacks and a disproportionately high number of Hispanics. This ethnic imbalance is such that blacks make up one out of every seven Americans, but just one out of every 25 Catholics. On the other hand, Hispanics are currently 15% of the national adult population, but twice that proportion (30%) within the Catholic community.

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Catholics and the Significance of Faith

Sociologists have long noted the tendency of immigrant groups to work hard at embracing their new culture, with the group losing its distinctiveness in the process. One of the edges they often lose is their religious distinctive. That has happened to American Catholics over the past century. Today, they are a large and vibrant group, but one that is faith-aware rather than faith-driven. The survey data portray Catholics as people whose lifestyles and thought patterns are more influenced by the social mainstream than by the core principles of the Christian faith.

While Protestants in America have experienced the same type of spiritual compromise over the course of time, there remains a substantial gap between Protestants and Catholics regarding matters of faith, if not lifestyle and thought. The survey showed that American Catholics are more similar to non-Christians living in the U.S. than they are to the nation’s Protestant adults. Even the born again segment among Catholics showed few differences in lifestyle and attitudes from national norms.

The profile of Catholics raises concerns about that faith segment according to George Barna, who directed the study.

“The history of American Catholics is that of a pool of immigrants who have successfully blended into the native culture. They have done well at adapting to their surroundings and emerging to become a backbone of the community and the national economy. The questions raised fifty years ago about the political loyalties and social objectives of Catholics are no longer relevant in this society,” Barna commented. “Yet, the cost of that struggle to achieve acceptance and legitimacy is that Catholics have largely lost touch with much of their substantive spiritual heritage. They retain an appreciation for tradition and consistency, but have much less of a commitment to knowing and practicing the commands of Christ. For instance, the data show that some of their long-held distinctives, such as being champions of social justice, are no longer a defining facet of their community.”

“The trail of Catholicism in America is a clear example of culture influencing faith more often than faith influencing culture,” Barna continued. “The faith of tens of millions of Catholics is affected by the prevailing culture more than by the central principles and teachings of the Bible. Spiritual leaders who are passionate about remaining true to the scriptures and to Catholicism’s historic commitment to Jesus Christ and the Word of God must address this spiritual drift within the body. If they fail to do so, in the next quarter century American Catholicism could well lose its ability to shape people’s minds and hearts in ways that conform to the historic teachings and purposes of Christianity.”

About the Research

This report is based upon nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of adults, age 18 and older, conducted between August 2006 and January 2007. In total, 4014 adults were interviewed, allowing for a maximum margin of sampling error of ±1.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Within that aggregate, 876 self-identified Catholics were interviewed, providing data for that group with a maximum margin of sampling error of ±3.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to several 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.”

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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