Dec 3, 2002

From the Archives

Surprisingly Few Adults Outside of Christianity Have Positive Views of Christians

One reason why evangelical churches across the nation are not growing is due to the image that non-Christian adults have of evangelical individuals. In a nationwide survey released by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California among a representative sample of people who do not consider themselves to be Christian, the image of “evangelicals” rated tenth out of eleven groups evaluated, beating out only prostitutes. The non-Christian population was not as dismissive of all Christians or religious people, however, as ministers and “born again Christians” were among the three highest-rated segments evaluated.

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Impressions Count

Adults who do not consider themselves to be Christian were asked to provide their impressions of eleven groups. The only group that received a “favorable” opinion from a majority of the non-Christian individuals was “military officers.” Fifty-six percent had favorable opinions of the group and just 6% had an unfavorable opinion. (The remainder was somewhere in-between or did not have an opinion of the group.) Higher positive scores were awarded this group by men (64% held favorable impressions), people 55 or older (67% favorable), whites (62%) and college graduates (65%).

Just less than half – 44% – said they have favorable opinions of ministers, with only 9% having a negative opinion of the group. Born again Christians ranked third, with one-third (32%) saying they had a favorable impression of the group, and half as many (17%) indicating an unfavorable impression.

Among the remaining eight groups, half had a higher positive than negative image and two had a predominantly negative image. The segments whose image tended to be more favorable than unfavorable included Democrats (32% favorable, 12% unfavorable), real estate agents (30% positive, 11% negative), movie and television performers (25% positive, 14% negative), and lawyers (24% positive and 18% negative). Republicans (23% favorable, 22% unfavorable) and evangelicals (22% favorable, 23% unfavorable) were the only groups whose image was equally positive and negative. Groups with a predominantly negative image were lesbians (23% positive, 30% negative) and prostitutes (5% favorable, 55% unfavorable).

In terms of the actual positive and negative percentages awarded to different groups, the study points out that less than half of the non-Christian public has a favorable impression of any of the three religious groups evaluated. Just 44% have positive views of clergy, only one-third (32%) have a positive impression of born again Christians and just one-fifth (22%) have a positive view of evangelicals.

Views Vary by Demographics

Different slices of the non-Christian population possess divergent views of such groups. For instance, non-Christian men were more likely than non-Christian women to have a positive view of military officers (64% vs. 47%, respectively), while non-Christian women had substantially more positive impressions of born again Christians (38% vs. 27% among men), lesbians (31% vs. 15% of the non-Christian males), and lawyers (33% compared to 17% of the men).

Age impacts people’s perspectives, too. Non-Christian Baby Busters – those aged 19 to 37 – were nearly three times more likely to have a favorable impression of lesbians than were older non-Christian adults, and were also more likely to have a positive view of movie and TV stars (32% compared to 18% among people 38 or older). They were less likely than their elders to have a favorable impression of evangelicals (18% vs. 25%, respectively). Busters were twice as likely to have a positive impression of born again Christians (35%) as they were to hold a favorable view of evangelicals (18%).

White non-Christians were twice as likely as non-white non-Christians to have a favorable opinion of Republicans (28% vs. 15%).

Non-Christian college graduates give their approval more sparingly than do less highly educated non-Christians. College graduates gave comparatively lower favorability ratings to born again Christians, ministers, evangelicals, lawyers and media stars.

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Language and Sources Considered

The survey data suggest that people form impressions of others on the basis of one-dimensional images created and communicated by the mass media. “Our studies show that many of the people who have negative impressions of evangelicals do not know what or who an evangelical is,” commented George Barna, whose firm conducted the research. “People’s impressions of others are often driven by incomplete, inaccurate or out-of-context information conveyed under the guise of objectivity when, in fact, there is a point-of-view being advanced by the information source. Too often, we develop mental images of others without knowing those people.”

Barna said he hopes people will reflect on these findings and examine their own perceptions of people who may be different from themselves. “During the holiday season millions of people slip into churches they do not usually attend, or give money to charities, or talk and sing about peace and goodwill. While we are in a more ponderous, generous and forgiving mood we may also consider people groups about whom we have developed a negative or unflattering impression, and examine the basis of those attitudes. We find that when people examine the foundation of their impressions and then talk to a few people from the groups of which they have a low opinion, they discover that those people are not so bad after all. There may be some differences of opinion, but the negative impressions that result in animosity and division often dissipate if we dig beneath the surface of our attitudes.”

The research also reveals the power of language. “Somehow, ‘born again Christians’ have a more favorable image than do ‘evangelicals,’ although few adults are able to identify any substantive differences between those two groups,” noted Barna. “This is most likely a result of the thrashing that evangelicals receive in the media. It seems that millions of non-Christians have negative impressions of evangelicals, even though they cannot define what an evangelical is, accurately identify the perspectives of the group, or identify even a handful of people they know personally who are evangelicals. There appears to be a lot of religious divisiveness in America based on caricatures and myths rather than on the basis of true ideological or theological differences.”

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Research Methodology

The data described in this report are based on a national telephone survey among a random sample of 1002 adults (age 18 or older) living within the 48 continental states conducted in May of 2002. Among that sample were 270 adults who indicated that they do not consider themselves to be Christian. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sub-sample of non-Christians is ±6.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. (There are other types of error besides sampling error that may also be present in surveys.) All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The distribution of the survey respondents coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population according to Census Bureau estimates. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable sample of adults.

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation and its churches.

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Question: Is your impression of people in this group generally favorable, generally unfavorable, or somewhere in-between?
Don’t Know
Military officers
Born again Christians
Real estate agents
Movie and TV performers



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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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