Mar 29, 2009

From the Archives

Survey Shows How Liberals and Conservatives Differ on Matters of Faith

People’s interest in – and reactions to – the social and political actions being made by President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress have heightened awareness of the different perspectives held by liberals and conservatives. A new study conducted by The Barna Group indicates that those differences are related to substantially different spiritual beliefs, behaviors and alignments.

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Overall, the research shows that nearly one-third of all adults (32%) consider themselves to be “mostly conservative” on social and political matters, and about half as many (17%) claimed to be “mostly liberal” on such matters. The other half of the adult population generally takes a position somewhere in between those opposing viewpoints.

The Religious Beliefs of Liberals and Conservatives

Based upon an evaluation of more than a dozen religious beliefs of liberals and conservatives, consistent and significant differences are evident. Liberals are less than half as likely as conservatives to firmly believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches (27% versus 63%, respectively); to strongly believe that Satan is real (17% versus 36%); and to firmly contend that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others (23% versus 48%).

Liberals are also far less likely than conservatives to strongly believe each of the following:

  • their religious faith is very important in their life (54% of liberals vs. 82% of conservatives);
  • a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by doing good deeds or being a good person (23% vs. 37%);
  • their faith is becoming an increasingly important moral guide in their life (38% vs. 70%);
  • the church they currently attend is very important in helping them find direction and fulfillment in life (37% vs. 62%);
  • their primary purpose in life is to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul (43% vs. 76%);
  • Jesus Christ did not commit sins during His time on earth (33% vs. 55%).

Liberals are also much less likely than conservatives to believe that “God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.” Only about half of liberals (55%) adopt that view of God compared to more than four out of five conservatives (82%).

The research also discovered that liberals are more likely than conservatives to develop their own set of religious beliefs rather than adopt those proposed by a church or other entity. A greater percentage of liberals also indicated they are very open to accepting different moral views than those they presently possess.

The Religious Practices of Liberals and Conservatives

The Barna study examined five specific religious practices and found that conservatives were more likely than liberals to engage in all five. In a typical week, the survey showed that conservatives were more likely than liberals to:

  • read the Bible, other than at church events, during the past week (57% vs. 33%, respectively)
  • attend a religious service during the past week (62% vs. 35%)
  • pray to God, other than at a religious service, during the past week (91% vs. 76%)
  • share their religious beliefs with others, during the past year (56% vs. 39%, among the born again Christians interviewed from each segment)
  • have ever participated in a short-term missions trip, either within the U.S. or in another country (12% vs. 6%)

The research also revealed that liberals are twice as likely as conservatives to be categorized as “unchurched” (40% vs. 19%, respectively), while conservatives were twice as likely as liberals to be categorized as having an “active faith” (45% vs. 21%, respectively, defined as having read the Bible, attended a religious service and prayed to God during the past week).

The Faith Alignments of Liberals and Conservatives

Most liberals, as well as conservatives, consider themselves to be Christian. However, the proportion of adults in each group who embrace that identity differs significantly: 94% of conservatives call themselves Christians, while just 74% of liberals do so.

There were other distinctions regarding the faith groups with which these ideological opposites were aligned. For instance:

  • 2% of conservatives and 11% of liberals were atheist or agnostic
  • 15% of conservatives and 2% of liberals were Christian evangelicals
  • conservatives were twice as likely as liberals to be categorized as born again, based on their theological views about salvation (63% vs. 32%)
  • 21% of conservatives were associated with the Catholic church, compared to 30% among the liberals.

The Political Impact of Faith Choices

In reviewing the findings, lead researcher George Barna noted the different tendencies of each ideological segment.

“Liberals appear to place a greater emphasis upon self-reliance and what they personally accomplish than upon faith alone or intense participation in a community of faith,” Barna explained. “They also seem less inclined to trust the Bible as a moral authority or source of truth, and have less involvement in some type of personal relationship with their god.”

“Conservatives are more active in a wide range of religious behaviors, both individual and corporate,” the researcher continued. “They are also more connected to their deity, seeing God as more personal, interactive and involved in their lives than do liberals.”

The author of more than 40 research-based books on matters of religion and culture further discussed the importance of these distinctions. “Every person’s central choices in life are driven by their worldview, and everyone’s worldview is greatly influenced by their spiritual inclinations. The social and political preferences of people are closely tied to their spiritual beliefs and practices. One of the great challenges to our nation’s leaders is to help people of different spiritual and ideological perspectives maintain dialogue and an appreciation of each other’s innate value despite those divergent points of view.”

In a forthcoming book entitled The Seven Faith Tribes, Barna explored people’s beliefs, behaviors, lifestyles, attitudes and values from more than 30,000 interviews his firm conducted with people across America. His analysis of the relationship between people’s faith choices resulted in categorizing people into one of seven “faith tribes” and encouraging people associated with the different tribes to better understand each other. The research related to liberals and conservatives was conducted subsequent to his research for the book, but supports the thesis that people’s spiritual lives are critical determinants of how they experience and respond to the world.

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About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group from August through early November 2008 among 3,012 adults. The aggregate sample included 992 adults who described themselves as “mostly conservative” on social and political matters, and 511 adults who described themselves as “mostly liberal” on social and political matters. The range of sampling error associated with the sub-sample of self-identified conservatives is between ±1.4 and ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The range of sampling error associated with the sub-sample of self-defined liberals is between ±2.0 and ±4.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Born again Christians” were defined as people who said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that was still important in their life today and who also indicated they believed that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“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.”

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 ( Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.


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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