“Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like the United States.” Those words were not spoken by Osama bin Laden but by comedienne turned talk-show hostess Rosie O’Donnell on a nationally broadcast program in October. Her statement generated a wide range of reactions. A new nationwide survey of that reaction, conducted by The Barna Group, suggests that although few Americans would challenge her right to make such statements, just as few share her point of view.
Lost in the Noise
Despite the media hailstorm stirred by her controversial remark, only one out of every six American adults (17%) was aware of her words. The group most likely to know of her verbal assault was evangelical Christians, who were twice as likely as other Americans (36%) to have heard about her statement. Even within the Christian community, other segments remained largely ignorant of the slur. For instance, only 17% of all other adults who consider themselves to be Christian but are not evangelicals knew of her words, similar to the statistics among Catholics (18%) and Protestants (20%). The episode failed to generate much buzz among non-Christian adults: only 10% of those who associate with a non-Christian faith, and 14% of atheists and agnostics were aware of her remarks. The outburst was no better known within the gay and lesbian community, of which Ms. O’Donnell is an outspoken champion: only 14% of adults who associate with that lifestyle were aware of her comments.
Few Agreed with Rosie
Most Americans disagreed with Ms. O’Donnell’s point of view. In total, just 10% strongly agreed with her statement and 18% agreed somewhat, while 15% disagreed somewhat and 48% disagreed strongly. In total, then, about one out of every four Americans (28%) agreed to some extent, while more than twice as many – two out of every three (63%) – disagreed.
Levels of disagreement varied substantially across faith groups. For instance, eight out of ten evangelicals strongly disagreed compared to only one out of three non-Christians. Strong disagreement was measured among half of all Catholics (47%), nearly six out of ten Protestants (57%), and eight out of ten Revolutionary Christians (79%).
The general pattern related to the expression of strong emotion showed that only four people groups out of the 64 studied were more likely to strongly agree than to strongly disagree with the statement. Those segments included liberals (32% strongly agreed, 23% strongly disagreed); gays and lesbians (41% versus 27%); atheists and agnostics (26% to 18%, respectively) and those who do not associate with the Christian faith (30% versus 20%, respectively).
In contrast, every Christian-oriented faith segment examined was many times more likely to express strong disagreement than strong agreement, ranging from evangelicals (79% strong disagreement versus 3% strong agreement) and Revolutionaries (79% – 0%) to notional Christians (40%-11%).
Appropriate Behavior and Response
Just one out of every three adults (35%) said that such comments were appropriate for national television broadcasts. (The program was aired on the ABC network.) Approval of broadcasting such content was least likely among evangelicals (23%), Revolutionary Christians (20%), conservatives (24%) and African-Americans (25%). There were several population segments in which a majority expressed support for making such comments on nationally broadcast programs: upscale adults (52% of those who are college graduates and have household incomes above $60,000 annually), atheists and agnostics (54%), homosexuals (55%), people who are not associated with the Christian faith (56%), and liberals (61%).
Although most people felt Ms. O’Donnell’s comments were wrong and were inappropriate for television, only half of the nation (49%) believes that she owes the Christian public an apology. Such sentiment was most common among evangelicals (63%), born again adults who are not evangelicals (62%), conservatives (60%), African-Americans (61%) and people with a high school education or less (61%). Individuals least likely to expect such an apology were those not associated with Christianity, liberals, homosexuals and upscale adults.
Relatively few people – just 25% – felt Ms. O’Donnell should be fired by ABC for her statement. The only segments in which a majority embraced such action were evangelicals (51%) and Revolutionary Christians (51%).
Context for the Opinions
The research demonstrates some important cultural realities, according to George Barna, who directed the research study.
“There are several significant outcomes from this experience,” the California-based author explained. “First, notice that relatively few people were even aware of Miss O’Donnell’s comments. That highlights the difficulty of cutting through the clutter of media noise to grab people’s attention and influence their thinking. Second, notice that a substantial portion of the adult population shares some level of agreement with Miss O’Donnell’s perspectives on Christianity. As churches and other ministries seek to advance the Christian message, progress will be made in an increasingly challenging, if not hostile environment. Finally, the fact that so few adults who consider themselves to be Christian felt that they were even owed an apology speaks volumes about the self-image of Christians and the centrality of their faith in their life.”
The data in this report are from a national survey conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of adults, age 18 and older, conducted in October 2006. In total, 1003 adults were interviewed. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those 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 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.”
“Revolutionaries” were classified on the basis of meeting 11 specific criteria. They have a clear sense of the meaning and purpose of their life; describe their relationship with and faith in God as the top priority in their life; consider themselves to be “Christian”; read the Bible regularly; pray regularly; deem their faith to be very important in their life; contend that the main objective in their life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul; describe God as the “all-knowing, all-powerful being who created the universe and still rules it today”; have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to heaven only because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; and say that their faith in Christ has “greatly transformed” their life.
“Notional Christians” are those who describe themselves as Christian but are not born again. In other words, they do not believe that when they die they will have eternal life solely because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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