How Political Views Shape Beliefs About Global Poverty


Research Releases in Culture & Media • June 19, 2018

Barna has recently reported on some of the reasons to be optimistic about the fight against extreme global poverty, particularly within the Church. Yet, as in most discussions about complex topics in the U.S. today, political ideologies prove divisive when it comes to poverty. Simply put: Conservatives and liberals hold very different beliefs on the subject—though there are signs pointing to common ground among those with a practicing faith.

In this excerpt from The Good News About Global Poverty, a new Barna report produced in partnership with Compassion International, we look at how politics influences issues around poverty.

What Is Our Responsibility?
Conservatives and liberals overall (both inside and outside the Church) differ on what they believe is their personal responsibility to serve the poor. Americans who identify as politically liberal are twice as likely to report extreme concern for global poverty (37% vs. 19% of self-identified political conservatives). Conservatives—especially Boomers and Elders—are much less inclined to say it’s important to be personally involved on global poverty (43% vs. 71%). Conservatives tend to be more concerned with local poverty, though still at slightly lower levels than liberals (78% vs. 83%).

Practicing faith has a strong positive influence on people’s engagement with the poor, regardless of political ideology. Click To Tweet

Things change when you look only at practicing Christians. Practicing faith has a strong positive influence on people’s engagement with the poor, regardless of political ideology. It’s important to note that Christian conservatives far outnumber practicing Christian liberals—about half of practicing Christians consider themselves conservative, one-third is moderate, and only one in seven says their beliefs about political and social issues are liberal. Due to the small sample size of practicing Christians with liberal social values, Barna has combined them with moderates here for the purpose of analysis. The results show that an active faith indeed produces some consistency in ideas about and engagement with the poor.

Some gaps do remain between conservative and moderate/liberal practicing Christians in their reported activities, and even more so in their mindsets. For instance, nearly half of practicing Christians who identify as liberal or moderate (42%) express extreme concern about global poverty, while conservative practicing Christians align with the average American (26%).

So what is it that stops people from engaging? When asked what keeps people from taking actions to reduce poverty, liberals highlight a lack of hope and conservatives highlight a lack of trust. While liberals indicate people might hold back because they don’t know where to start (40%), don’t believe poverty is solvable (40%) or doubt their own ability to make a difference (39%), conservatives assume the greatest obstacles are a lack of confidence in the governments of poor countries (36%), in non-profit organizations (33%) or in the wisdom of spending on foreign rather than domestic concerns (33%).

When asked what keeps people from taking actions to reduce poverty, liberals highlight a lack of hope and conservatives highlight a lack of trust. Click To Tweet

How Do We Best Fight Poverty?
One thing both liberals and conservatives agree on: It’s not primarily an individual’s job to fight global poverty—and, in fact, the two groups share a sense of personal helplessness. Fewer than one in 10 from either ideological camp agrees to the statement, “I could have a major influence on global poverty.” Accordingly, just 6 percent of each group assign primary responsibility for global poverty to individuals donating through non-profit organizations. However, when you expand beyond personal responsibility to liberals’ and conservatives’ ideas of who (or what) is accountable for global poverty, some important distinctions emerge. While both liberals (37%) and conservatives (33%) feel the governments in poor nations are crucial in caring for their poor, liberals lean on non-profits (39% vs. 24% of conservatives), whereas conservatives are more likely than liberals to consider churches (7% vs. 2% of liberals) or individual citizens of that nation (12% vs. 6% of liberals) as an authority. Unsurprisingly, practicing Christians in each group are slightly more likely than average to place responsibility on churches (14% of practicing Christian conservatives and 6% of practicing Christian moderates and liberals).

Who Should We Help?
There are poignant divides between liberals and conservatives when it comes to who and what they choose to support in the fight against poverty. It’s not hard to see the connections to political messaging reflected in each group’s reported interest in supporting environmental causes, economic development in poor countries, empowering girls, refugee response and global warming. On less politically charged topics, conservatives are more inclined to be supportive, though still at consistently lower rates than liberals. This trend continues with activities specific to anti-poverty efforts overseas, including education, social empowerment for children, economic development, job skills or general assistance to the poor. Conservatives are more likely than liberals, however, to personally prioritize religious causes like child evangelism (44% vs. 32%) and church-building (45% vs. 29%). This also surfaces in their reported donations: Conservatives say they give to missions organizations (47% vs. 25%) and churches (60% vs. 31%) more often than liberals.

An Opportunity for the Church
This particular survey can’t fully parse the many ways in which religion and politics intermingle in the U.S. But it does show that being a practicing Christian at least increases the likelihood of feeling that the Church bears responsibility for global poverty (14% of conservative practicing Christians, 6% of moderate and liberal practicing Christians), looking for biblical perspectives on how the American Church should be involved in social justice (53% of conservative practicing Christians, 38% of moderate and liberal practicing Christians) and seeing pastors as credible sources on the topic (53% of conservative practicing Christians, 56% of moderate and liberal practicing Christians say “definitely”). In particular, moderates and liberals—those outside the Church and especially those within the Church—are looking for the Church to do more in the fight against global poverty.

From this data emerges a challenge and an opportunity for today’s pastors: to not abdicate this authority solely to non-governmental and non-profit organizations. Conservatives and liberals, even Christian ones, may fundamentally disagree on many policies and opinions. But caring for the poor is central to Jesus’ teaching, and church leaders who take this to heart offer a message that reaches across American ideologies and affiliations as well.

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About the Research
The data in this report originated from a series of research studies conducted by Barna Group of Ventura, California.

Phone interviews and web-based surveys for U.S. Adults were conducted among a representative sample of adults over the age of 18 in each of the 50 United States. Once data was collected, minimal statistical weights were applied to several demographic variables to more closely correspond to known national averages. Protestant senior pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches. Data were minimally weighted to match church characteristics from the National Congregation Study for denominational affiliation, church size and region.

Photo by Peter Berko on Unsplash

About Barna Group
Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2018

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