How We Got Here: Spiritual and Political Profiles of America


Research Releases in Faith & Christianity • May 23, 2017

A recent national survey by Barna reveals how America’s five dominant faith segments think—and, importantly, how they differ in meaningful ways when it comes to their views on some of the most contentious political and spiritual issues of the day.

Understanding these five “faith tribes” is important because most reported research relies upon a description of the population’s central tendencies—that is, an average belief or behavior. But sometimes these percentages mask a jumble of perspectives which, though they are outliers compared to the average Americans’, can ultimately have an impact on elections. The cultural gridlock and angst that have characterized the past few years, and particularly the unconventional nature of the 2016 presidential election, may well be the result of the nation’s tribes becoming even more divided and incapable of conversing across those differences.

Barna’s work continues to demonstrate that core religious beliefs and practices are among the primary elements that influence people’s political activities and beliefs. Here’s what Barna has learned about the will of our nation’s core faith segments. (For definitions of each segment, please refer to About the Research at the end of this article.)

1. Evangelical Christians
One of the most talked-about faith segments in the 2016 election was evangelicals. While they are distinct in their political habits, there are multiple nuanced interpretations of what it means to be evangelical, including Barna’s own narrow definition of this group (read more about this criteria). Despite the prolific media coverage they receive, evangelicals are merely 6 percent of the adult population, according to Barna’s definition. They tend to be older than the other four faith tribes and have been for the past two decades. Ethnically, a little over half of evangelicals (52%) are white, with 16 percent being black, 11 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian.

Most evangelicals describe themselves as conservative, fiscally (69%) and socially (79%). Seven out of 10 (71%) take a conservative view of the optimal size and reach of government. Given those views, it is not surprising that more than eight out of 10 (84%) say they are pro-life advocates. Seven out of 10 (69%) admit they are angry about the current state of America. Half (50%) support the Tea Party movement—at least double the proportion of supporters found in any of the other faith tribes.

Most evangelicals describe themselves as conservative—fiscally (69%) and socially (79%). Click To Tweet

Less than two out of 10 (18%) say they could be described as an environmentalist. The same proportion are supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement (18%). Only one out of every 25 says that they are an advocate of LGBT rights (4%). Less than one out of 10 (9%) are willing to engage in civil disobedience. All of these stances are perhaps to be expected, but evangelicals do refute one stereotype: that of being part of a heavily armed “radical right.” In fact, seven out of 10 (69%) do not own a gun.

An obvious lean to the right is consistent with their spiritual moorings. Evangelicals are the only faith segment for which a majority (70%) consider themselves to be theologically conservative. Nearly nine out of 10 (86%) believe in the existence of absolute moral truth, and almost all (98%) support traditional moral values. By definition, they strongly affirm that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches, contend that they have a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others and believe that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful ruler of the world that he created. They also universally reject the idea that Jesus Christ sinned during his time on earth and believe that Satan is a living being, not merely a symbol of evil.

2. Non-Evangelical Born Again Christians
Non-evangelical born again Christians outnumber evangelicals by almost a four-to-one ratio. They currently represent about one-quarter of the adult population (23%), but their numbers have been declining rapidly over the past decade. Two-thirds (66%) of this segment is white, while black (15%) or Hispanic (14%) individuals comprise about one-seventh each. Four percent of this segment is Asian.

This segment is less conservative and less traditional than evangelicals. Slight majorities of the non-evangelical born again Christians describe themselves as conservative on fiscal issues (56%) and social issues (59%). A mere plurality holds a conservative point-of-view on governance issues (41%).

Evangelicals and the non-evangelical born again groups have one critical faith element in common: the confession of their sins and asking Christ to forgive and save them. Even so, the latter group is closer to an ideological mid-point. Twice as many in this segment call themselves environmentalists (37%), twice as many say they support the Black Lives Matter community (36%), and seven times as many claim to be advocates for LGBT rights (27%).

However, they are not exactly political progressives. Nearly two-thirds (63%) identify as pro-life advocates. They also have the highest percentage of gun owners (37%) of all five faith tribes. More than six out of 10 (62%) note that they are angry about the current state of America. A huge majority (87%) says they support traditional moral values.

Their religious views also bear out this more moderate perspective, even though a majority of non-evangelical born agains claim to be theologically conservative. While seven out of 10 believe that absolute moral truth exists, just over half (55%) firmly believe that the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches. And despite the fact that nine out of 10 believe that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful ruler of the world that he created, a minority rejects the idea that Jesus Christ sinned during his time on earth (43%) or believes that Satan is not a symbol but truly lives today (35%). Fewer than one-third of this group (31%) contends they have a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with those who think differently.

3. Notional Christians
The largest portion of Christians in America falls into the notional segment. Unlike either evangelicals or the non-evangelical born again Christians, these adults have not made a commitment to Christ that they believe will guarantee their eternal salvation. Notionals represent the largest of these five faith segments—four out of 10 U.S. adults (42%)—equating to about six out of every 10 Americans who claim to be Christian, and about 45 percent more numerous than the other two Christian niches combined. Fully seven out of 10 notional Christians (70%) are white. Black and Hispanic notionals make up 13 percent each, and Asians 3 percent.

The largest portion of Christians in America falls into the notional segment. Click To Tweet

Notionals have some standout characteristics, in that they:

  • Are the only Christian-oriented faith segment from which a plurality aligns with the Democratic Party
  • Are the only Christian-oriented faith segment that does not have a majority who claim to be conservative on fiscal and social issues
  • Are the only Christian-oriented faith segment that does not have a majority who claim to be pro-life advocates, although a large minority (46%) classify themselves as such
  • Have the highest percentage of any faith segment of people who have served in the military (21%)

Some progressive leanings are evident in this segment, as about four out of 10 say they support the Black Lives Matter movement (38%), claim to be an environmentalist (39%) and advocate for LGBT rights (39%).

Just three out of 10 notional Christians (30%) think of themselves as theologically conservative. This is supported by the fact that just slightly more than half of them (57%) maintain a biblically orthodox view of God; only one out of four (24%) strongly agrees that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches, just one-seventh of them (14%) insist Satan is real, and fewer than one out of every five (17%) defend the sinless nature of Jesus Christ. Fittingly, less than one out of every 10 (8%) firmly believes in salvation by grace alone. Their idea of salvation is based on earning God’s favor through good works and personal goodness.

4. Adherents of Non-Christian Faiths
This spiritually diverse faith segment includes all faith groups not associated with Christianity. Altogether, these various faiths represent 6 percent of the adult population, the same size as the evangelical Christian segment. This group also shares a similar ethnic profile with evangelicals (52% white, 16% black, 10% Hispanic), with the exception of a much larger Asian community (13%). The largest faith groups in this segment are Jews, Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims, constituting about 80 percent of Americans belonging to faiths outside biblical Christianity.

Even though 57 percent say they support traditional moral values and half say they believe in the existence of absolute moral truth (53%), they stand out from the religious crowd. They are the group least likely to own a gun (10%), and few support the Tea Party movement (13%). Just one-third (34%) are pro-life advocates.

About half of them (51%) say they support the Black Lives Matter coalition and (47%) are advocates of LGBT rights. More than four out of 10 (43%) accept the label “environmentalist.” They are the segment most prone to engage in civil disobedience (31%).

Half of this group describe themselves as liberal on social issues, and they are the only faith tribe primarily aligned with the Democratic Party (58%).

Essentially a mixture of any non-Christian faith that exists in the nation, their spiritual profile is an interesting amalgam. While some of their views are expected—such as rejecting the reliability of the Bible or refuting salvation by grace alone—their beliefs about Satan and Jesus are more in line with the non-evangelical born agains than with the more theologically middle-of-the-road notionals. (This is largely attributable to the views of Mormons and Jews.) In the end, though, one of the most telling findings is that less than half of them (43%) say that their religious faith is very important to them today, in line with the spiritually complacent notionals (39%). In other words, most of these adults admit their life is not driven or precisely defined by their set of religious beliefs.

5. Religious Skeptics
The political antithesis of evangelical Christians is the religious skeptics, who make up nearly a quarter (23%) of the population. A majority of this group is white (56%), 14 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are Asian. Of these five faith segments, skeptics have the smallest percentage of black adults (8%).

Few of these adults describe themselves as fiscally or socially conservative. In fact, a substantial majority of them claim to be liberal on social issues (62%). Accordingly, few of these adults support causes generally associated with the conservative universe. For instance, only 9 percent of skeptics back the Tea Party, just 13 percent are pro-life advocates, and less than four out of 10 (38%) say they support traditional moral values.

What do they support? Half claim to be environmentalists (48%), and a majority are advocates of the Black Lives Matter (53%) and LGBT rights movements (66%). About six out of 10 (58%) describe themselves as angry about the current state of America (though presumably they disagree with evangelicals on the root causes of the nation’s problems).

A mere 6 percent claim to be theologically conservative. As support for that stance, the survey found that only one-quarter of them (27%) believes in absolute moral truth, and less than one out of five (18%) believe that, if there is a deity who exists, it can be described as an omnipotent, omniscient creator or ruler of the universe. Not surprisingly, less than one out of every 20 skeptics (4%) say their religious faith is very important to them today, while just one out of every 25 (2%) accepts the principles of the Bible as true.

Only one-quarter of religious skeptics (27%) believe in absolute moral truth. Click To Tweet

What the Research Means
Despite some surprise over the election results, George Barna, special analyst for the 2016 election, reasons that the votes were consistent with these faith profiles. “Evangelicals were overwhelmingly behind Trump, giving him a 79 percent to 18 percent margin over Clinton. Given their political views, that makes sense. The non-evangelical born agains were solidly behind Trump, 56 percent to 35 percent, which also aligns with their views. The notionals, who tend to be more middle-of-the-road, basically split their vote between Trump and Clinton. (Read more about how notionals impacted the election.) The two non-Christian segments overwhelmingly favored Clinton. Given the liberal leanings of those two segments, and the platform of the Clinton candidacy, that also is not a surprise,” comments Barna. “Since the two Bible-driven segments represent about 30 percent of the population, as do the two non-Christian segments, that provided notionals with more influence than they normally have in an election.”

Barna points out a pattern that may affect future elections: “If the born-again constituency continues to decline, and the skeptic tribe continues its rapid growth, it will become increasingly difficult for conservative candidates to win elections. The 2016 contest may have been the last in which conservative candidates were not entering as ideological underdogs.”

About the Research
This research was conducted by the Barna Group using an online survey with a nationally representative sample of adults 18 and older. A total of 1,281 adults were interviewed, resulting in an estimated maximum sampling error for the aggregate sample of plus or minus 4 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. (The sampling error estimate is higher for subgroups within the total sample.) The survey was completed online in two waves, fielded from November 4 through 6, 2016, and then from November 9 through 16, 2016.

The study divided respondents into five unique faith segments based on their religious beliefs. The segments were defined as follows:

Evangelicals met nine specific theological criteria. They say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” that their faith is very important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior; strongly believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; firmly believe that Satan exists; strongly believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; strong agree that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; strong assert that the Bible is accurate in all the principles 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 on church attendance, the denominational affiliation of the church attended or self-identification. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” They represent 6% of the adult population.

Non-evangelical born again Christians say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. However, they do not accept all of the remaining seven conditions that categorize someone as an evangelical. They constitute about one-quarter of the adult population.

Notional Christians are people who consider themselves to be Christian but they have not made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” or believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. Slightly more than four out of ten adults are part of the notional Christian segment.

The Other faith segment refers to individuals who associate with a faith other than Christianity. Among the most common of those faith groups included within that segment were Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. This segment represents 6% of the US adult public.

Skeptics are individuals who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, or who indicate that they do not believe in the existence of God or have no faith-related ties or interests. The fastest-growing of the faith segments, skeptics are currently approaching one-fifth of the adult population.

About Barna
Barna research 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, 2017


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