Mar 16, 2016

From the Archives

Most Christians View Their Faith as a Force for Good

The recent furor over evangelical support for Donald Trump has illuminated the deep divisions among faith segments in America, particularly when it comes to politics. Though Barna’s data shows Cruz as the preferred candidate among evangelicals during the primaries, there is still wide swaths of evangelical support for the controversial billionaire.

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There are varying theories on Trump’s growing popularity among the devout, but in an age of secularism and religious antagonism, when Christians are increasingly tense, it’s no wonder support for a hardline candidate who vows to protect Christians, is growing. But, despite experiencing those tensions, people of faith are optimistic about their role in society.

In research conducted for David Kinnaman’s new book Good Faith, Barna looked at how people of faith are feeling in society today. Though large numbers believe they are misunderstood, persecuted, and marginalized, most feel as though their faith is not only essential, but a force for good in today’s world.

The Tension of Being a Person of Faith

Among those who consider themselves a “person of faith,” Barna asked how they feel, personally, in society today. Looking at the broadest segment of practicing Christians, a group that includes Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline churchgoers, a majority say they feel misunderstood (54%), and persecuted (52%), while many others use terms like “marginalized” (44%), “sidelined” (40%), “silenced” (38%), “afraid to speak up” (31%), and “afraid to look stupid” (23%) to describe living their faith in today’s world.

Millennial practicing Christians, in particular, are getting hit from all sides. They are more likely than other practicing Christians to feel the negative repercussions of their faith. Most feel persecuted (60%) and misunderstood (65%), and almost half (47%) say they feel “afraid to speak up.” In addition to millennial practicing Christians, evangelicals are just as likely to perceive their experience of faith in culture in these negative terms. They feel equally as misunderstood (65%) and persecuted (60%) as millennial practicing Christians, and even feel slightly more silenced (50% compared to 46%) than their younger counterparts. Both groups report relatively higher than average numbers compared to the rest of the faith segments represented.

Good Faith in Society

The majority of people of faith, even though they feel misunderstood, persecuted, and marginalized—and as Barna has reported more recently, are increasingly viewed as extreme—believe their faith is not only a force for good, but a primarily positive contribution to society. Large majorities of practicing Christians, especially millennials and evangelicals, report two confident attitudes: they feel they are a force for good, and they feel they are essential. Even the lowest percentage among each faith segment represented here who believe their faith is a force for good is nearly nine in 10 (88%).

Almost all evangelicals (98%) believe their faith is a force for good, and more than nine in 10 (93%) believe they are essential. However, evangelicals consistently report scores that differ from the other faith groups, providing valuable insight into this segment. For instance, evangelicals report the lowest levels of acceptance among all people of faith. A mere 57 percent feel they are accepted, 24 percent lower than all those who consider themselves a person of faith. In addition to that, only seven in 10 (71%) feel they are empowered, the second lowest percentage among the groups. Though these numbers are still fairly positive, they are relatively low among the various faith groups.

Evangelicals also feel their faith is distinctive at a rate much higher than average (86% compared to 60% among all people of faith). So although evangelicals appear confident about their faith and its potential as a force for good in the world, they feel more marginalized (less empowered, or accepted) than any other group. This is consistent with the previous table and the story it tells about evangelicals and their higher than average feelings of persecution and marginalization. It appears that evangelicals are more likely than any other faith segment to perceive they are losing cultural capital.

Practicing Christian millennials are another standout group for similar reasons. They are the group most likely to feel as though their faith is countercultural, at over six in 10 (62%), a rate 20 percent higher than any other group. Coming of age in a more secular American context, it’s not hard to imagine younger generations feeling more countercultural about their faith than the broader Christian population. Interestingly though, they are also more likely to feel empowered (81% compared to 69% among all people of faith) than the rest of the faith segments.

What the Research Means

“Believers are feeling significant pressure,” says David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and the lead designer and analyst on the study. “There is a shared sense that the cultural tide is turning against religious conviction, and people of faith are starting to feel the effects of this growing antagonism in tangible ways.”

“It’s encouraging to see how many Christians still feel optimistic about the positive role their faith can play in society today,” continues Kinnaman. “So it makes sense that Christians feel frustrated when they possess something they feel is so good for the world, that ends up being marginalized.

“We see an inclination among Christians to either respond by forcing their beliefs or shrinking back from offering them, but living with good faith is the true way forward into an uncertain future,” concludes Kinnaman. “This means being the people of God who, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, help the world and the people in it to flourish.”

Comment on this research and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @roxyleestone | @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

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About the Research

The study on which these findings are based was conducted via online surveys from August 17 to August 21, 2015. A total of 1,000 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The completion rate was 66% percent.

Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables. The online study is derived from a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys.

“Evangelicals” are those who meet nine sets of criteria, including having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believing that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. The seven other conditions for evangelicals include saying their 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 Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; 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.”

“Other faith” indicates respondents who self-identify with a religion other than Christianity.

“Practicing Christians” are self-identified Christians who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

“Practicing Christian Millennials” are self-identified Christians who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life. Millennials are the generation born between 1984 and 2002.

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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