Presidential elections are rarely kind and congenial affairs, but many pundits and politicos—and even the current president—think this year’s primary season has been more abrasive than usual. Aside from the candidates and their teams practicing civility, is there anything else that might improve the tenor of American political discourse?
According to American Bible Society’s annual “State of the Bible” survey powered by Barna, half of American adults (51%) say politics would be more civil if politicians engaged in regular Bible reading. A similar majority (53%) says American politicians would be more effective if they read the Bible on a regular basis. In addition, nearly half of all adults (46%) say they wish the Bible had greater influence on American society.
These views are likely influenced by most people’s belief that the Bible is sacred literature (80%) and that it contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life (66% strongly or somewhat agree). Among Elders aged 70 and older and Boomers 51 to 69, the percentages are even higher: nine out of 10 Elders (91%) and Boomers (88%) consider the Bible sacred and three-quarters (79% Elders, 74% Boomers) agree the Bible’s contents are sufficient for living a meaningful life.
Overall, Americans hold the Bible in high regard.
Younger Generations Are More Skeptical
Americans with a positive opinion of the Bible and its teachings are in the majority—but the majority is not evenly distributed across the population. Generally, American adults under 50 tend to be more skeptical, or at least more ambivalent, about the Bible than older adults, and this is especially true of Millennials aged 18 to 31. For example, fewer young adults consider the Bible sacred literature (71% of Millennials and 75% of Gen-Xers, compared to 88% of Boomers, and 91% of Elders), and Millennials (22%) are three times more likely than Elders (7%) to say that none of the books considered sacred literature by many religions—including the Torah, the Koran, the Book of Mormon and “other”—are holy books.
Similarly, smaller percentages of younger adults strongly agree that the Bible contains everything a person needs to know in order to live a meaningful life (27% of Millennials and 40% of Gen-Xers) compared to older adults (56% of Boomers and 65% of Elders)
Given their skepticism about the Bible itself, it makes sense that younger Americans are also more ambivalent than older adults about the Bible’s role in society and politics. Whereas Elders (58%) and Boomers (59%) tend to say the Bible should have a greater influence on American society, Millennials and Gen-Xers are not so sure. Just two out of five Gen-Xers (42%) say it has too little influence and only three in 10 Millennials (30%) agree. In fact, Millennials are slightly more likely (34%) to say the Bible has too much cultural influence than any other generation.
Likewise, young adults are less convinced than older Americans that regular Bible reading is the solution to uncivil and ineffective politics. Only about one-third of Millennials (31%) and half of Gen-Xers (47%) say politics would be more civil, compared to two-thirds of Boomers (66%) and seven in 10 Elders (71%). Likewise, about one-third of Millennials (33%) and half of Gen-Xers (49%) say politicians would be more effective if they read the Bible more often. By comparison, two-thirds of Boomers (66%) and three-quarters of Elders (76%) say so.
What the Research Means
“From the ten commandments to the golden rule, the Bible certainly contains principles for political discourse—even for the non-Christian,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief of Barna Group. “And for Americans, who are steeped in both a historical and present Christian cultural influence, the Bible remains an important moral document, not just a religious one. It’s no wonder that, when two-thirds of the population sees a book as having everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life, that they would also see that book as a valuable rubric for public civility. And who among us wouldn’t mind seeing a candidate turn the other cheek once in a while?
“Of course, this particular two-thirds of the population is made up of an aging demographic,” continues Stone. “As Gen-Xers and Millennials—and the generation following them—grow skeptical of the Bible’s value, they also question its role in society. In a world where the blending of religion and politics is seen as increasingly dangerous and extreme, it’s not a surprise to see young people hesitant about granting political influence to a religious document of any kind.”
About the Research
Two research methodologies were used for the “State of the Bible 2016: The Bible and Politics” study; one included 1,008 telephone interviews (including cell phone interviews) with adults 18 and older in all 50 states, while the second consisted of 1,000 online surveys using a nationally representative panel. The use of two methodologies provides a larger sample size for key questions and ensures greater representation among all age groups. The telephone interviews were conducted Jan. 20–28, 2016. The online surveys were conducted Jan. 28—Feb. 16, 2016.
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.
© 2016 by Barna Group.