America's 5 Faith Groups Becoming More Divided on Political, Social Beliefs: Barna

A U.S. flag is seen waving outside a church in the Queens borough of New York August 10, 2011.
A U.S. flag is seen waving outside a church in the Queens borough of New York August 10, 2011. | (Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Americans fall into five dominant faith segments, according to Barna, which set out to find what people in these categories believe about some of the most contentious political and spiritual issues of the day.

The five "faith tribes" are evangelical Christians, non-evangelical born again Christians, notional Christians, adherents of non-Christian faiths and religious skeptics.

Barna says the cultural gridlock and angst that have characterized the past few years, and particularly the 2016 presidential election, may well be the result of the nation's tribes becoming even more divided and incapable of conversing across those differences.

1. Evangelical Christians, who form about 6 percent of the adult population according to Barna's definition, are distinct in their political habits, but "there are multiple nuanced interpretations of what it means to be evangelical," says the study, noting that nearly 70 percent of evangelicals describe themselves as fiscally conservative, and about 80 percent as socially conservative.

"Given those views, it is not surprising that more than eight out of 10 (84 percent) say they are pro-life advocates. Seven out of 10 (69 percent) admit they are angry about the current state of America. Half (50 percent) support the Tea Party movement—at least double the proportion of supporters found in any of the other faith tribes," the Barna study says.

There are only few evangelical who say they could be described as an environmentalist, or are supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement or advocates of LGBT rights.

"All of these stances are perhaps to be expected, but evangelicals do refute one stereotype: that of being part of a heavily armed 'radical right.' In fact, seven out of 10 (69 percent) do not own a gun," the study says. "An obvious lean to the right is consistent with their spiritual moorings.

"Evangelicals are the only faith segment for which a majority (70 percent) consider themselves to be theologically conservative. Nearly nine out of 10 (86 percent) believe in the existence of absolute moral truth, and almost all (98 percent) support traditional moral values."

2. Non-evangelical born again Christians currently represent about one-quarter of the U.S. adult population, but their numbers have been declining rapidly over the past decade, Barna says. "Two-thirds (66 percent) of this segment is white, while black (15 percent) or Hispanic (14 percent) individuals comprise about one-seventh each. Four percent of this segment is Asian."

This "tribe," is less conservative and less traditional than evangelicals, the study found. Fifty-six percent describe themselves as conservative on fiscal issues and 59 percent on social issues. Only 41 percent of them hold a conservative point-of-view on governance issues, it says.

Thirty-seven percent in this segment call themselves environmentalists, 36 percent say they support the Black Lives Matter community, and 27 percent claim to be advocates for LGBT rights, the study adds, noting, however, that evangelical and non-evangelical born again Christians have one thing in common: the confession of their sins and asking Christ to forgive and save them.

Moreover, 63 percent of non-evangelical born again Christians identify as pro-life advocates.

3. The largest portion of Christians in America falls into the notional segment (42 percent). These are adults who "have not made a commitment to Christ that they believe will guarantee their eternal salvation." Seven out of 10 notional Christians are white.

This is the only Christian-oriented faith segment from which a plurality aligns with the Democratic Party, according to the study. This is also the only Christian-oriented faith segment that does not have a majority who claim to be conservative on fiscal and social issues or claim to be pro-life advocates. They also have the highest percentage of any faith segment of people who have served in the military.

Thirty-eight percent in this segment support the Black Lives Matter movement, 39 percent claim to be an environmentalist and 39 percent advocate for LGBT rights.

4. The spiritually diverse faith segment of non-Christians includes all faith groups not associated with Christianity, representing 6 percent of the adult population. The largest faith groups in this segment are Jews, Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims, constituting about 80 percent of Americans belonging to faiths outside biblical Christianity, Barna notes.

Fifty-seven percent in this segment say they support traditional moral values and half say they believe in the existence of absolute moral truth. Just one-third of them are pro-life advocates.

About half of them (51 percent) say they support the Black Lives Matter coalition and (47 percent) are advocates of LGBT rights, Barna says. "More than four out of 10 (43 percent) accept the label 'environmentalist.' They are the segment most prone to engage in civil disobedience (31 percent)."

5. The religious skeptics make up nearly a quarter of the population. Fifty-six percent of them are white, and of the five faith segments, skeptics have the smallest percentage of black adults, at 8 percent.

Sixty-two percent in this segment claim to be liberal on social issues, the study found. "Accordingly, few of these adults support causes generally associated with the conservative universe. For instance, only 9 percent of skeptics back the Tea Party, just 13 percent are pro-life advocates, and less than four out of 10 (38 percent) say they support traditional moral values."

Forty-eight percent of them claim to be environmentalists, 53 percent are advocates of Black Lives Matter and 66 percent support the LGBT rights movements. And 58 percent describe themselves as angry about the current state of America, though not for the same reason as evangelical.

In the 2016 election, the votes were consistent with these faith profiles, says special analyst George Barna.

"Evangelicals were overwhelmingly behind Trump, giving him a 79 percent to 18 percent margin over Clinton," Barna says. "Given their political views, that makes sense. The non-evangelical born agains were solidly behind Trump, 56 percent to 35 percent, which also aligns with their views. The notionals, who tend to be more middle-of-the-road, basically split their vote between Trump and Clinton. The two non-Christian segments overwhelmingly favored Clinton."

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