Peoples’ lives are affected by many external influences. It’s not something that most people think about, yet our thoughts and behaviors are often inspired, guided, created, or limited by the impact of people, organizations, movements, and other cultural shapers. American society today is a reflection of the cumulative effect of thousands of influences on our 324 million citizens.
But which ones influence us the most? And which ones do we want to have the most – and least – influence on the nature and direction of the country? Those two questions were posed to a national sample of conservative Christians surveyed by the American Culture and Faith Institute. Some of their answers are exactly what you might expect them to say – but others may surprise you.
Personal Influence: Expected Responses
Given the strong Christian commitment of this group of respondents, it is not surprising to find that the top three personal influences cited by SAGE Cons are the Bible (estimated to have “a lot of influence” on their decisions and perspectives by 98%), religious teaching (92%), and the values taught to them by their parents (77%).
A second series of entities were said to have “a lot of influence” by about one-third of the segment. Those influences included family members (listed by 33%); courts and judges (33%); and government laws and regulations (30%).
Somewhere between one out of 10 and two out of ten respondents identified significant influences such as books (18%); the policies implemented by businesses (18%); conversations with friends (17%); schools (12%); and the behavior and choices of their friends (10%).
Several entities were designated as having “a lot of influence” by very few of the Christian conservatives. Those included the news media (7%); the Pope (4%); current music (3%); entertainment media (2%); art (1%); advertising (1%); and sports stars (listed by less than one-half of one percent).
The survey asked people to rate each of those 18 sources of influence on a four-point scale. The proportion of people who selected the bottom point on that scale – “no influence” – for some of those sources was surprisingly high. Specifically, the ACFI survey reported that three-quarters of the SAGE Cons (74%) claimed that the content of entertainment media had no influence on them. Nearly two-thirds (64%) believed that current music has no influence upon them.
Desirable Cultural Influencers
When the sample of Christian conservatives was asked to indicate how active they would like each of a dozen entities to be in determining the nature and future direction of the United States a rather clear portrait emerged. A majority of respondents identified just two of the twelve sources of influence that they wanted to be very active in defining the nature and future of America: Christian churches (82%) and Christian ministries other than churches (69%). One-third of the respondents (35%) named small businesses as an entity that should be very active in shaping the country.
There were very low levels of confidence assigned to several government-related sources of influence. Those included the public education system (only 15% want it to be very active in defining America); state government officials (13%); and federal government officials (8%).
The remaining half of the entities evaluated rated even lower. Only 6% want judges and lawyers to be very active in determining the nature and future direction of the US; 6% want political non-profit organizations to have such influence; 4% support the creative community (artists, musicians, actors, authors, etc.); 4% gave a vote of confidence to large corporations; 4% believe college and university professors should be very active in shaping the nation; and a mere 3% would give such authority to the mainstream media.
Undesirable Cultural Influencers
The combined percentages of those who gave either of the bottom two points on the scale as their answer – that is, saying an entity should be “not too active” or “not at all active” in shaping the country’s future – shows a clear ranking of the limited desirability of giving such power to various entities. Nine out of ten Christian conservatives (90%) do not want the mainstream media to be active in determining who America is and where it is heading. Eight out of ten Christian conservatives want to isolate college and university professors (85%) and the creative community (81%) from such opportunities. Seven out of ten said they do not want large corporations (71%) or judges and lawyers (69%) to be actively involved. Two out of three withheld their blessing from political non-profit organizations (64%) and federal government officials (64%). Six out of ten (60%) do not want the public education system to be actively influencing the nation.
The research identified certain patterns in the views and preferences of the various segments of the Christian conservatives who were interviewed.
Men and women generally reflected the same views regarding the influence that different entities have upon their thinking and behavior. However, younger SAGE Cons were more likely than those over 50 years of age to attribute a lot of influence to their family members. Similarly, those under 50 were less likely to see the influence of the government in their lives, whether through government laws and regulations or through the decisions of the courts.
When it came to who they want to be most actively involved in shaping the United States, there were again no significant differences based on the sex of respondents. However, younger SAGE Cons were less likely to want the public schools and churches to be very active in determining the nature and direction of America. Catholics were more likely than Protestants to want small businesses and state government to play a very active role in defining the nation.
The biggest gap in preferences for future influence related to household income. When compared to the wealthier SAGE Cons, those from households with annual incomes under $60,000 were more likely to want government authorities – federal officials, judges, state government officials, and public schools – to be very active in determining the nation’s future. They were also less interested in seeing churches play a very active role.
Lack of Trust
The research results display the lack of trust that most SAGE Cons have in government entities, in particular, and in institutions overall. “Christian conservatives do not believe that the government has their best interests in mind, that it operates efficiently, or that it can be trusted to take the country in the right direction,” commented author George Barna, who directed the research for ACFI. “Most of them would like to see Christian principles at the heart of any shift in American culture. Toward that end most of them would like churches and parachurch ministries to step up and help guide such transitions. It is a time of tremendous opportunity for Christian ministries.”
Barna also noted that the study confirmed a long-known reality in social science research: Americans, regardless of their ideological bent, resist the notion that they are influenced by institutions and marketing information. “There remains a substantial degree of either denial or ignorance – or, perhaps, both – regarding the fact that we are dramatically influenced by the ideas and activities of the people and organizations around us. Until people recognize the existence and impact of those sources of influence it will be difficult to help them resist the impact of those entities. In fact, the dismissal of that influence is what enables the so-called ‘culture war’ to continue with intensity. That clash of values will continue to trouble conservative Christians until they are able to admit that they are influenced by entities that are the enemy of the conservative agenda. After all, you cannot defeat an enemy that you do not believe exists.”
Pressed to give an example of how that blind spot works in practice, Barna focused on perceptions about the media. “SAGE Cons believe that the mainstream media is biased and does not report truth to the public,” he noted, citing statistics from several recent surveys ACFI has conducted. “However, they also maintain that because they are aware of the existence of such bias, the mainstream media has virtually no influence on their thinking.
“Our series of research studies indicate, however, that the consistent and incessant claims and narratives provided by the mainstream media have impacted the thinking of conservatives – not so much in terms of their ideology as their perceptions of reality,” Barna explained. “So even though SAGE Cons know the mainstream media consistently distort the facts, conservatives tend to absorb the perspective of conditions proffered by those media because they lack a credible alternative rendering of the situation. They also have a porous defense mechanism against those distortions because they believe they are aware of the mainstream agenda. All of that causes SAGE Cons to deny that the mainstream media affects their thinking when in fact many conservatives are often likely to accept the mainstream media’s descriptions of reality.”
Barna ended his comments by saying that his research team, the American Culture and Faith Institute, plans to devote most of their resources this year to studying matters related to cultural conditions and transformation more extensively.
About the Research
The research described in this report is part of the RightView™ longitudinal survey, a national study undertaken among spiritually active, governance engaged conservatives who are registered voters – a segment known as SAGE Cons. The new national survey conducted for this report had a sample size of 600 qualified adults and was conducted online by the American Culture & Faith Institute from December 5 through 19, 2016.
In RightView™ studies SAGE Cons are identified as adults who are registered voters; conservative on political matters; have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; are active in pursuing their Christian faith; and are actively engaged in politics and government. They represent about 12% of the national adult population, which constitutes a segment of approximately 30 million individuals.
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 related to the political process, in ways that are consistent with the gospel of Christ. The organization does not support or promote individual candidates or political 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 these weekly research reports, visit the website and register for the American Culture Review newsletter.