Though it remains the nation’s most dominant religion, Christianity faces significant headwind in the court of public opinion. The decades-old trend that Christianity is irrelevant is increasingly giving way to the notion that Christianity is bad for society.
That is the how the Barna Group introduced a summary of a survey released on February 23, “Five Ways Christianity is Increasingly Viewed as Extremist.”
While seventy percent of American adults still identify as Christian, the number of “non-religious” has grown in recent years. Barna puts that group—which includes atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated—at 12% of adults. Gallup put 17% of adults in that category in 2015. Pew put the “None” or “Unaffiliated” at 23% in 2014, but 7% of those are considered “religious unaffiliated” (those who claim no affiliation but still consider religion important in their lives), which leaves 16% as “non-religious.” (See my update on Religion in America for the latest summary of trends.
While Gallup, Pew and others allow self-identification of “born-again” or “evangelical,” which has hovered around 40% of U.S. adults since Gallup started asking the question in 1992, Barna uses stricter criteria based on beliefs and behavior that narrows evangelicals down around 7 or 8 percent of adults.
In this Barna study, nearly half (45%) of the non-religious strongly agree with the statement “Christianity is extremist.” Only 14% of atheists and agnostics strongly disagree. Caution is due for the way the numbers are handled, however—45% of 12% is just over 5% of the total adult population. More important is the overall picture emerging from the study.
Barna asked a sample of people representing all American adults the degree to which 20 different activities and beliefs appeared extreme. A sampling of the results, divided into four groups by strength of agreement that the activity or belief is “very” or “somewhat” extreme:
WIDELY considered extreme — 80% or more of U.S. adults
- Use religion to justify violence
- Refuse standard medical care for their children
- Refuse to serve someone because the customer’s lifestyle conflicts with their beliefs
For the most part, these three elements were viewed to be extreme by a majority of all demographic segments as well, including evangelicals (as narrowly defined by Barna). From this point on the results get more mixed.
USUALLY considered extreme — 50% to 79% (4 of 8 shown here)
- Demonstrate outside an organization they consider immoral
- Preach a religious message in a public place
- Attempt to convert others to their faith
- Teaching their children that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are morally wrong
OFTEN considered extreme — 20% to 29% (3 of 6 shown here)
- Pray in a special language, often called speaking in tongues
- Quit a good-paying job to pursue mission work in another country
- Wear special clothes or a head covering for religious observance
SOMETIMES considered extreme — 6% to 19% (3 of 6 shown here)
- Read to Koran (or Qu’ran) silently in a public place (similar question for Bible was #4)
- Regularly donate money to a religious community (tithing)
- Abstain from alcohol or tobacco for religious reasons
The report suggests that “Evangelicals stand out from the norm in terms of their attitudes on religious extremism—and they exhibit major differences from the skeptics.” Here are the top five of ten items that show the starkest distinction, based on those who see the item as “very” or “somewhat extreme.”
The items are presented in descending order of perception of extreme activity by skeptics (gray dot on right), with a 23-point variance among the five items shown here (the Barna report shows five additional items). Notice that the general public (orange dot in middle) ranks the five items in the same order, but with less variation (9 points). Far fewer evangelicals (blue dot on left) view the items as extreme and rank them in a different order, with more variance than the general public (14 points). In general, the separation between evangelicals and skeptics who see a practice as extreme descends from more than 70 percent for the first two items to 45 percent for the fifth.
Obviously, the general public is closer in perception to skeptics than it is to evangelicals (the narrower 7% defined by Barna, not the broader “born-again/evangelical” of Gallup and Pew). This fits with the notion that a majority of those who identify themselves as Christian are what George Barna identified as “casual Christians” who “rather than allowing the Christian faith to shape their minds and hearts have chosen to fit Christianity within the box they have created for it.“ (More on this below).
David Kinnaman, current president of the Barna Group , who directed the research study on religious extremism, commented that
These gaps show the challenges practicing Christians and especially evangelicals are facing. In a religiously plural and divisive society, various “tribes”—ranging from faithful to skeptic—are vying to decide how faith should work. The most contentious issues are the ways in which religious conviction gets expressed publicly, but the findings illustrate that a wide range of actions, even beliefs, are now viewed as extremist by large chunks of the population.
The research starkly demonstrates the ways in which evangelicals and many practicing Catholics are out of the cultural mainstream. In fact, skeptics and religiously unaffiliated are now much closer to the cultural “norm” than are religious conservatives. In other words, the secular point of view, which says faith should be kept out of the public domain, is much closer to the mainstream in U.S. life.
This fact explains why millions of devout Christians are experiencing such frustration and concern. They are feeling out of step with social norms and the cultural momentum. This is most significantly felt when it comes to social views, such as evangelicals’ convictions on same-sex relationships. However, the perception of “social extremism” also applies to many other beliefs and practices, including personal evangelism and missions work.
Is Kinnaman’s own view extreme or inflammatory? Perhaps a little, as would be the case of someone trying to raise an alarm. We do have to be careful with definitions and the use of numbers. But the trends are clear, and there is no doubt they are moving in the direction Kinnaman (and the research I cover in Religion in America) is pointing.
How did we get here?
For much of its history, most of Europe and North America were the home of Christendom—where the force of Judea-Christian heritage and Christian orthodoxy colored much of the culture and established a widely accepted worldview. In the U.S., it was never as homogenous or reighteous as many who call America a Christian nation would claim, but it had a powerful impact.
The language of the Bible—one of the first and most widely published works in the English language—had a tremendous influence on culture, from Shakespeare to Mark Twain, from fervent believers to skeptics. The Bible and Judeo-Christian values acted as the lodestone that set the moral compass and defined the fundamentals of law and much of daily life well into the 20th Century. The Bible and Christian precepts were well known, even if not followed by everyone.
As Philip Jenkins pointed out in the first edition of his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity in 2002 (it is now in its third, revised edition) Christendom had first lost its grip in Europe and Canada, with the United States not far behind. That did not mean, as some would have assumed, that Christendom itself was dead. It was just heading south, growing rapidly in areas of the Southern Hemisphere.
With that migration would come changes in its expression in new locations, and implications for faith communities where Christendom once dominated. Barna’s Kinnaman calls the U.S. “a religiously plural and divisive society” represented by various “tribes.” In many ways, of course, America has always been that—but now it no longer has the outer wrapper of Christendom—the social fabric has become increasingly secular over many years, accelerating in recent decades. With that movement comes the idea that religion, while protected by the First Amendment (though some question that), is a private matter that has no place in the public square.
In a 2009 work George Barna described seven “faith tribes” in the United States. The largest was called “casual Christians,” which constituted fully two-thirds (66%) of all American adults at that time. In a PowerPoint® presentation on Religion in America a few years ago, I provided this description:
Rather than allowing the Christian faith to shape their minds and hearts, Barna suggests, they have chosen to fit Christianity within the box they have created for it.
Their beliefs represent what he calls an odd amalgam of biblical and extra-biblical views, a combination of contrasting perspectives that foster a lukewarm relationship with the Christian faith.
These beliefs have also been described as cafeteria Christianity—from an assortment of beliefs a mile wide and an inch deep.
(See The Seven Faith Tribes: What They Are, What They Believe, and Why Matter)
The demise of Christendom is also illustrated by Charles Murray in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray describes a great sociological shift by depicting two towns that represent distinct classes of white Americans. In a guest review on Amazon.com, historian Neill Ferguson describes Murray’s analysis and conclusions (emphasis added):
Murray meticulously chronicles and measures the emergence of two wholly distinct classes: a new upper class, first identified in The Bell Curve [an earlier work co-authored with Richard J. Hernstein] as "the cognitive elite," and a new "lower class," which he is too polite to give a name. And he vividly localizes his argument by imagining two emblematic communities: Belmont, where everyone has at least one college degree, and Fishtown, where no one has any. (Read: Tonyville and Trashtown.)
The key point is that the four great social trends of the past half-century--the decline of marriage, of the work ethic, of respect for the law and of religious observance--have affected Fishtown much more than Belmont. As a consequence, the traditional bonds of civil society have atrophied in Fishtown. And that, Murray concludes, is why people there are so very unhappy--and dysfunctional.
Are we witnessing the fruits of Fishtown in the current presidential campaign?
When I read Murray’s book several years ago I was struck by his observation that while Belmont represented long-standing civic and religious values, its residents demonstrated no passion to speak for the importance of those values or pass them on through their children, peers or subordinates.
Even tech firms have their evangelists. Belmont has none.
Christians, whether living in Belmont, Fishtown, or their non-white counterparts, need to reassess how to live out their faith in a changing world, one where the relationship between religion and the public square continues to shift, and where beliefs and activities once thought normal have already begun to appear extreme.
More casual Christians will certainly fall by the wayside to join the non-religious, unless they find a more authentic faith. The real question will be what happens to the “true believers,” those who do allow the Christian faith to shape their minds and hearts? That is a question that should resonate this month as Christians ponder the significance of Easter.
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