Sep 9, 2008

From the Archives

How Americans View ‘Evangelical Voters’

Evangelicals have once again become part of the conversation about the 2008 presidential election. The campaigns of both Barack Obama and John McCain have made strategic efforts to understand and reach out to evangelicals. In August, one of the nation’s leading evangelical pastors and authors, Rick Warren, hosted the presidential candidates at his church for a televised interview. Moreover, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was selected in part because of her appeal among social conservatives.

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There remains considerable confusion about evangelicals, however, both in the media and among political strategists. A new study from The Barna Group explores what Americans think about evangelical voters, including the perceptions of non-evangelicals as well as the self-perceptions of evangelicals.

What Do Americans Think of Evangelical Voters?

In general, evangelical voters are perceived with a mix of skepticism and respect. Americans are not always sure what to make of evangelicals, but they believe the voting bloc has significant influence. Barna examined eight perceptions of evangelical voters. Four of the statements represented the most widely-held views:

  • that evangelicals will have a significant influence effect on the election outcome (59% of American adults said this was either “very” or “somewhat accurate” regarding evangelical voters);
  • that evangelicals will cause the political conversation to be more conservative (59%);
  • that they will be spend too much time complaining and not enough time solving problems (56%);

and that they will be misunderstood and unfairly described by news media (56%).

Surprisingly, given the attention that moral issues have received in connection with evangelicals, only half of Americans (52%) felt that evangelical voters would focus primarily on homosexuality and abortion.

Roughly half said that evangelicals will minimize social justice issues (47%) and another 47% felt they believe that evangelicals will vote overwhelmingly Republican. Roughly two out of every five Americans (44%) believed evangelicals will not approach the election with an open mind.

What Are Evangelical Self-Perceptions?

How do evangelicals perceive themselves as a voting audience? In many ways, they exude both confidence and concern. Evangelicals widely contend that they will have a significant influence on the election (84%), yet the also firmly believe that they will be misunderstood and unfairly depicted by media (81%).

Three-quarters of evangelicals believe their peers will cause the conversation to be more conservative (75%). A similar proportion indicates their fellow believers will vote overwhelmingly with the Republican Party (74%).

One intriguing set of perceptions relates to issues. In all, 48% of evangelicals believe it is accurate that their voting peers will focus primarily on abortion and homosexuality, while 45% reject this characterization. Also, just 28% of evangelicals contend that their tribe will minimize social justice issues, like poverty and immigration; 69% of evangelicals disagreed.

David Kinnaman, who directed the Barna study, put these findings in context. “One 2007 study we completed showed that more than 9 out of 10 evangelicals believe abortion is a major problem – easily making it their top concern. And nearly 8 out of 10 evangelicals say that homosexuality is a major challenge facing the nation. So the fact that many evangelicals are reluctant to describe their voting as primarily focused on these issues seems to reflect their self-awareness rather than their stances on the issues. Like anyone else, many evangelicals care about their image and do not want to be pigeon-holed as one- or two-issue voters, even though these social and moral issues remain very significant for many evangelicals.”

[Note: To define evangelicals, the approach pioneered by The Barna Group is to ask nine separate survey questions that examine respondents’ beliefs and theological convictions. The Barna definition, based upon widely accepted statements of faith from evangelical organizations, does not require a respondent to adopt the evangelical label, instead relying upon people’s views and beliefs. The data in this section reflect the 9-point approach to defining evangelicals.]

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What Are Perceptions of Evangelicals Among Outsiders?

As is the case with evangelicals, there are different ways to define the non-evangelical audience. One way is to simply look at anyone in the culture who is not a self-labeled evangelical, which is nearly three out of four Americans. Among this broad population, the most common perceptions of evangelical voters are that they cause the conversation to be conservative (57%), that they spend too much time complaining (57%), and that they are two-issue voters (55%). Roughly two out of every five non-evangelicals (42%) believe that evangelicals will not approach the election with an open mind.

The other way of slicing the “outsider” segment is to look just at those individuals who do not consider themselves to be Christian – including people from other faith groups as well as atheists, agnostics and no-faith adults. These individuals were actually more likely than average to be concerned evangelicals will minimize social justice issues (54%) and will not approach the election with an open mind (53%).

Are there Areas of Common Ground?

Even though there is skepticism from non-evangelicals toward evangelical voters – and clearly wariness among evangelicals regarding media – the research shows that there are surprising areas of shared perceptions.

First, even among the segment most likely to critique evangelical voters – those who describe themselves as something other than Christian – there is still recognition of their electoral weight: 56% contend that such voters will have a significant influence in the election.

Second, it is interesting to glimpse into the self-doubts of evangelicals. The research shows that 50% of evangelicals believe it is very accurate that evangelical voters will complain too much and 41% strongly contend that their fellow believers will not approach the election with an open mind.

How Did Americans Perceive the Rick Warren Candidate Interviews?

One of the most high-profile examples of evangelicals intersecting the 2008 election was the televised candidate interviews hosted by evangelical pastor, Rick Warren. During the week after Warren interviewed McCain and Obama at his California church, the Barna team explored Americans’ perceptions of that event.

Overall, 41% of Americans said they were aware of Warren’s interview with the candidates. At least some portion of the conversation was seen or heard by a reported 26% of Americans. Most of those who were exposed to all or a portion of the debate did not watch the event live, but saw a clip or sound byte on a news program afterwards.

Most of those aware of the event said it had little impact on their impression of evangelicals. Overall, among those who knew about it, 14% said it gave them a more favorable impression, while 8% said it gave them a more unfavorable view. Most said it did not make a difference (60%), while another 18% were not sure.

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Research Insights

David Kinnaman, who is president of The Barna Group, pointed out that the tightening presidential race will put more focus on evangelicals. “The election cycle promises to unpack more commentary about and analysis of evangelical voters. Some of this will be informed, fair-minded, and will respect the fact that evangelicals are not a monolithic voting bloc. Other analysts and commentators will miss these factors. In turn, evangelicals have to be careful not to respond in kind or to indulge in their own stereotyping of perceived ideological opponents. In fact, as the important issues and candidates spark conversations and debate, evangelicals must remember that their words and attitudes about politics are just as important in representing Christ to others as are the principles they stand for.”

Additional Reading and Resources

  • For more information about how Christians are perceived in culture, check out the critically acclaimed book, unChristian

How Evangelical Voters Are Perceived in 2008

% total accurate
(very + somewhat)
all adultsevangself-id not evangself-id non-Christian
will primarily focus on abortion or homosexuality52%48%55%58%
will spend too much time complaining about politics and not enough time solving problems56%50%57%60%
will have a significant effect on the election outcome59%84%49%56%
will cause the political conversation to be more conservative59%75%57%59%
will be misunderstood and unfairly described by news media56%81%48%49%
will minimize social justice issues, like poverty and immigration47%28%46%54%
will vote overwhelmingly Republican47%74%45%49%
will not approach the election with an open mind44%41%42%53%

* anyone who does not describe themselves as an evangelical
** includes all those from other faiths as well as atheists, agnostics, no faith
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1003 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in August 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Evangelicals” are born again Christians. In the survey, people qualified as evangelicals if they met the born again criteria (i.e., said they had have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and 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) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their religious 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; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that 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 upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

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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