Pastors consider them to be the backbone of the Church. The secular media treats them as the standard bearers of American Christianity. Political candidates think of them as a group to be reckoned with and won over, if possible. Advertisers try to avoid offending them.
It is safe to say that born again Christians have secured a unique position in American society.
However, the results of a new national survey by the American Culture & Faith Institute suggest that born again adults do not fit many of the stereotypes associated with the group. The ACFI study is not based on people who call themselves born again. Instead, the survey identified born again adults as those who believe they will experience an afterlife in the presence of God only because they have confessed their sins against Him and accepted Jesus Christ as the redeemer who saves them from eternal punishment.
The research found that only three out of every ten adults in the US (30%) currently qualify as born again Christians based on these criteria. That represents a significant drop from nearly half of the adult population meeting the same criteria just two decades ago.
But perhaps the most surprising outcome in the survey analysis is the profile of born again adults. In many ways these people may not be who you expect.
While many Americans assume that born again Christians are biblically literate, Bible-believing people, the reality is different. Indeed, three out of every four born again adults (76%) believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and seven out of ten (70%) contend that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the life principles it teaches. However, less than half (46%) read the Bible at least once a week. Most shocking – and puzzling – is the fact that slightly less than half of them submit that the Bible contains and conveys absolute moral truths.
These statistics help to explain why only 30% of born again adults have a biblical worldview – in spite of the fact that eight out of ten (79%) think they do!
How do most of them stray from biblical teaching? For starters, more than three-quarters of them (77%) believe that all people are basically good. Similarly, two out of three (67%) argue that having faith is more important than which faith you embrace. Although nearly nine out of ten have a biblically solid concept of the nature of God, and four out of five agree that He is actively involved in peoples’ lives today, just one-third of them spurn the notion that the Holy Spirit is not a living being but is simply a symbol of God’s presence or purity.
Only half of them reject the idea that because Jesus Christ was human, He sinned. And even though they claim their eternal salvation is due to their repentance and their reliance upon Jesus as their savior, less than four out of ten of them dismiss the belief that a good person or someone who does enough good deeds can earn their way into Heaven.
Strangely, barely half of the born again population (54%) describe themselves as theologically conservative. One-third (35%) claims to be theologically moderate, and the remaining one out of ten (11%) embraces the “theologically liberal” label.
Although it is logical to expect most born again Christians to consistently share their faith in Christ with non-believers, less than four out of every ten (38%) do so at least once a month.
Born Again Politics
The mainstream media would have us believe that every born again Christian is a stridently conservative Republican who voted for Donald Trump. Once again, the reality is quite different.
Based on their self-identification, just one-half of the nation’s born again adults describe themselves as fiscal conservatives and one-half also claim to be social conservatives. Combined, only four out of ten born again individuals (41%) are conservative on both fiscal and social matters.
Further, only a slight majority of born again people (54%) have conservative views about the ideal size, reach, and power of government.
For a group that it reputedly politically conservative and traditional, it is hard to explain why one-third of them (34%) say they prefer socialism to capitalism – unless, of course, the existing assumptions about born again Americans are simply wrong.
Interestingly, only one out of every five born again adults is a SAGE Con – that is, a Spiritually Active, Governance Engaged Conservative Christian. SAGE Cons are much closer to the stereotype of far-right Christian zealots that the mainstream media frequently caricature and demonize. In the recent presidential election, 84% of SAGE Cons were registered Republicans and 93% of all SAGE Cons voted for Donald Trump. In contrast, just 44% of born again adults are registered Republicans. In the November election, 60% of the nation’s born again Christians sided with Donald Trump.
“Sadly, it may be that many born again Christians – the ones who have asked Christ to forgive them and who trust Him alone for their salvation – have a real mixed bag of theological beliefs,” commented George Barna, who directed the survey for ACFI. “Those beliefs have had an unfortunate impact on their political views and lifestyle choices. Granted, we are all sinners and fall way short of the perfection of God, but maybe we are so seduced by the secular culture in which we live that we have lost touch with biblical truth. The theological and behavioral profile of born again Christians painted by the survey is very disturbing and has some severe, long-term negative consequences for American culture.”
Barna also described the common media portrayal of born again Christians as another example of distortions that amount to nothing less than fake news.
“If mainstream journalists did their homework and went by the facts, we would realize that the born again population is not what we’ve been led to believe,” said the Executive Director of ACFI. “The first problem the media have to address is their reliance on surveys in which people self-identify as born again. There are only a couple of research organizations, including ACFI, that measure ‘born again’ by examining a person’s beliefs rather than relying on their self-identification. The difference that simple choice makes is huge.”
Pressed to support that claim, Barna provided data that show a large discrepancy. “Among the adults who call themselves born again, 28% do not qualify as such, based on the theological measure. Among the adults who qualify according to the theological measure, we found that 37% do not call themselves ‘born again.’ So the bottom line is that in surveys that rely on the self-report approach, more than one of out every five individuals is miscategorized. That, in turn, produces substantially distorted information about the born again population.”
Barna went on to share data indicating that the same kinds of distortions are passed along in relation to how the media use the term “evangelical,” a description that many journalists and media outlets use interchangeably with “born again.”
The ACFI survey described was part of the Worldview Measurement Project conducted to assess the state of America’s worldview.
About the Research
The research described in this report is part of the FullView™ surveys, a monthly national public opinion study conducted by the American Culture and Faith Institute (ACFI) among a nationwide random sample of adults. This FullView™ online survey was conducted February 1-5, 2017, with 1,000 respondents age 18 or older whose demographic profile reflects that of the United States. The current study is the first to be completed as part of the Worldview Measurement Project; the February 2017 survey is scheduled to be replicated annually, using the current survey as the benchmark for future comparisons.
The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians to engage in cultural transformation in ways that are consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The organization does not support or promote individual political candidates or parties.
Additional information about this study and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com. To receive a free copy of the weekly research reports produced by ACFI, visit the website and register for the American Culture Review newsletter.