Evangelicals are the least engaged with the presidential election compared to other major faith groups, even though they acknowledge the importance of the race, according to a new survey.
A national survey by Barna Group says that while less than one-third of registered voters are following the news about the election "very closely," only one out of five, or 20 percent, of evangelicals are doing so.
On the contrary, voters who associate with non-Christian faiths, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, reported the highest level of engagement, as 41 percent of them said they were following campaign news very closely, which is twice the proportion among evangelical Christians, notes the survey, in which 869 registered voters participated between Jan. 28 and Feb. 4.
This is despite the fact that evangelicals are the religious segment most likely to characterize the outcome of this year's presidential election as "extremely important to the future of the United States," according to the study, which found that 78 percent of evangelicals classified the election as extremely important, compared to about half of the other faith groups, such as non-evangelical born again Christians with 54 percent, notional Christians at 52 percent, people aligned with non-Christian faiths at 49 percent and religious skeptics at 57 percent.
Barna uses a set of nine theological beliefs to identify evangelicals, rather than denominational affiliation or the most commonly used self-identification. The margin of error for the full sample is 3.9 percentage points.
Even religious skeptics, which includes atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated, were substantially more engaged in the election, at 36 percent, the survey says. What's more, 38 percent of Catholic voters reported paying closer attention to the race, compared to 26 percent of Protestants.
"In the past four presidential elections, the reverse was true," the study points out.
The lack of engagement of evangelicals despite their realization about the importance of the election could be due to "people's primary source of information about election news and activities: the media," the survey suggests. "Evangelicals have had a long-running feud with the media, believing they consistently (and intentionally) provide inaccurate and inadequate reporting of what is really happening in the world, including election-related events and information."
According to Barna, just 5 percent of evangelicals believe the media is providing fair and objective coverage of the campaign. "However, that figure is similar to the mere 8 percent of non-evangelical voters who believe the media is providing completely fair and objective news and information about the race." More than half of evangelicals argue that the media's handling of the campaign is either completely or mostly unfair and subjective, the study says.
"Unexpected" is a word that could describe this election, analyst George Barna said in the survey.
"Nobody expected 17 candidates to seek the GOP nomination. Nobody expected Donald Trump to be taken seriously by Republican voters, much less to emerge as the man to beat," he said. "Nobody expected the last two credible Republican candidates to be those representing the Washington outsiders. Nobody expected a democratic socialist to give Hillary Clinton serious competition. Nobody expected so many evangelicals to back a Republican candidate whose lifestyle has consistently conflicted with their values. Nobody expected the televised debates to draw such record-breaking audiences. And the list goes on."
However, evangelicals — when we we look at a more accurately defined evangelical population, and not the self-defined evangelicals used by media outlets, "are conscious of what is happening but not yet fully focused. We expect to see their attentiveness climb substantially over the next few months," Barna added.