Study: Few Americans Say Faith is Top Priority

Although the United States is known worldwide to be a religious nation, few Americans say that faith is a top priority in their life.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans, according to the CIA World Factbook, identify themselves with a religion. But only 12 percent of American adults say faith is a top priority in their life, according to a new study released Monday by the Barna Group.

About three-quarters of the U.S. population is Christian.

"The gap is vast between self-described affiliation with Christianity and ascribing highest priority to that faith," commented David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, in a statement. "When it comes to why so much of American religion seems merely skin-deep, this gap between what people call themselves and what they prioritize is perhaps most telling."

The 12 percent who say faith is the highest priority in their life is up from nine percent in 2008, but down from 16 percent in 2006.

Looking at the Christian faith demographic, evangelicals are the most likely to say faith is the highest priority in life (39 percent), while Catholics are the least likely (4 percent), according to the Barna study.

Notably, the study highlights that the percentage of Catholics who say faith is the top priority in their life is only slightly above that of unchurched adults (2 percent).

About one in five Protestants (18 percent) and churchgoers (18 percent) – whose frequency of church attendance was not defined – say faith is the highest priority in their life.

The Barna study, conducted Jan. 27-Feb. 2 using a random sample of 1,006 American adults, sought to identify how the troubled economy has impacted the priorities of Americans.

By far, the highest priority for Americans is family. Forty-five percent of Americans say their family is the most important aspect in their life.

The second most important priority is health/leisure/balanced lifestyle (20 percent), followed by wealth/profession/making money/success/finances (17 percent), and faith (12 percent).

In terms of priority change – a possible effect of the economy – the Barna study found that over the past two years the percentage of Americans who say finance is their top priority increased from 12 percent in 2008 to 17 percent in 2010.

Also, more Americans now say health and a balanced lifestyle (20 percent versus 15 percent) or faith (12 percent versus 9 percent) is their top priority compared to two years ago.

Interestingly, there is a drop in the number of Americans who say family is their top priority (45 percent versus 52 percent). However, family continues to be the most important priority overall to Americans.

"The conventional wisdom says that when the economy turns bad people focus on 'basics,' like family and faith," commented Kinnaman, who directed the study. "This research either calls that thinking into question or it tells us that the economy has not been bad enough to cause a significant reprioritization of family and faith."

He also noted that faith is "the most volatile" of the top priorities in the Barna study. Faith is the only priority that went down from 2006, then up, "suggesting uncertainty about the interaction between faith and finances."

"People are not turning to others – like family members or God – in the face of economic trials," Kinnaman said. "Instead, they are focusing increasingly on themselves, trying to solve their problems by being more 'balanced' or by simply working harder."

"[T]he economy has revealed Americans' fixation with individualism and their illusions of being self-made," he added.

The Barna group, a polling and research group that focuses on cultural trends and religion, plans to release a more in-depth report on the economy's impact on religious belief and behavior.