Despite the 2020 presidential election having officially come to a close months ago, many Americans still feel wary around loved ones when it comes to engaging in political conversations. In turn, Christians might also feel the strain of political polarization in the nation at large, in their homes and also within their congregations.
Though differing political ideology and party affiliation are common denominators in relationships wounded in last year’s election, a recent Barna survey allows us to explore how other demographics and factors—including church engagement—correlate with relational impact.
Church Engagement, Age, Race, Factor into Whose Relationships Are Negatively Affected
As of February 2021, 22 percent of all U.S. adults say, yes, they have a close relationship that has been negatively impacted by the 2020 presidential election. While the relational experiences of the political climate aren’t drastically different across demographics, including among faith groups and levels of faith practice, researchers do observe some significant fluctuations in the data.
Churched U.S. adults—that is, those who have attended a church service either online or in-person within the past six months—are more likely than all other Americans to say they have a close relationship that was affected by the election.
When it comes to age, the most significant gap occurs between Gen Z and Gen X, with the former being more likely to say they have a relationship that soured due to the election (28% vs. 20% Gen X).
Topics of race and racial justice featured heavily in the debates and events surrounding the ballot. Black adults, however, are less likely than all other groups to say they had a relationship that was negatively affected by the election, perhaps an indication of solidarity within their own families or circles.
Naturally, both political ideology and party affiliation play a role in whose relationships were impacted during the election. Ideologically, respondents who identify as “mostly conservative” are more likely than those who are “mostly liberal” or “in-between” to say a close relationship of theirs was impacted (27% vs. 21% mostly liberal, 19% in-between). Along party lines, Republicans and Democrats are both more likely to have had a close tie negatively impacted than those who are Independent or not registered to vote (26% Republican, 22% Democrat vs. 18% Independent, 16% not registered).
Family Ties Are Most Strained Relationships for Women, White Adults
So which relationships were the most affected? Taken together, over half of U.S. adults say close ties with friends (58%) and family members (56%) were negatively impacted by the presidential race. One in five (20%) says a close work relationship was affected, while one in 10 (11%) names other impacted relationships.
Though men and women track similarly for how many close relationships were affected (21% men, 23% women), differences emerge when looking at which relationships were affected. Women are far more likely than men to say their affected relationships were among family members (62% vs. 49% men). Men, on the other hand, are more likely to say other relationships were impacted (15% vs. 8% women).
White respondents are more likely than all non-white respondents to say that close ties with a family member were negatively impacted.
What the Research Means:
Political tension—though felt sharply during the year surrounding the 2020 election, a racial justice movement and the pandemic response—is nothing new. Churches are by no means exempt from a politically fraught climate, and past Barna research from Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture outlines the numerous issues that pastors feel pressured and unprepared to address. As church leaders continue to care for the well-being of their congregations and communities, it's worth taking note of the relational fallout of politics and where the church might step in to understand and even counter sources of division. Here are some questions or points of prayer the research may prompt:
- Relationships with family members are more affected for certain groups, especially women. Close ties with friends are more affected for other groups. When you look into your pews, do you see evidence of such strain? Who within your church needs connection, guidance or support?
- What stories from scripture can be examples for you or members of your church when it comes to responding to political upheaval, repenting, speaking up or pursuing reconciliation and repair?
- Barna studies and other research speak to the value of personal relationships in building empathy and helping different people talk and connect, even across seeming impasses. Does your church create environments where such ties or conversations are possible, respectful, prayerful and empathy-building?
- Data from The Connected Generation, as well as other Barna research on young adults, show that Christian Gen Z and Millennials especially desire for their local church to be a place that both fosters connection and does not shy away from issues of justice. How do these needs factor into your approach to ministry and to reaching, leading and retaining young adults in a politically divisive time?
About the Research
The research for this study was conducted online among 2,007 U.S. adults, from January 28 to February 10, 2021. The sample error for this study is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Barna 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, 2021