The Religious World According to Barna

Barna just came out with a new “spiritual and political profile of America” (here). Barna specializes in religious surveys for “conservative” Protestant groups. They also repackage old data to create new products. The present study was based on their political polls for the last presidential election. Not only the religious media, but mainstream media consider Barna a “go-to group” for their expertise. That is a problem.

Barna divides the world into five religious-political segments. Some of the segments have familiar names, but Barna defines them differently than usual. For example, they use a very narrow, fundamentalist definition of “evangelical.” They also use the term “notional Christian” in a bizarre way. Most people who use their results are being misled.

Technically, Barna’s definitions are not incorrect, since they define their terms. But they are confusing. It is as if Barna redefined the visible spectrum, calling what is normally part of the red-orange spectrum “yellow,” and limiting “red” to what is normally called “fire-engine red.” Given their definitions you can figure things out, but chances are that there will be communication errors.

Barna even seems to confuse itself. For example, in discussing “evangelicals,” Barna says, “Despite the prolific media coverage they receive, evangelicals are merely 6 percent of the adult population, according to Barna’s definition.” Of course, the media does not use Barna’s definition, nor does virtually anyone else. Standard definitions of “evangelical” define a group comprising over 30% of the population, more than any single religious denomination. Barna’s idiosyncratic definition is deceptive and leads to misinformation.

Barna’s evangelicals are surprising: “Ethnically, a little over half of evangelicals (52%) are white, with 16 percent being black, 11 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian.” This is a dubious segment. Black evangelicals have very different beliefs and practices than white. Hispanics probably differ as well, especially in areas like the Prosperity Gospel. Traditionally defined evangelicals are more homogeneous, and far whiter. Barna says: “Most evangelicals describe themselves as conservative, fiscally (69%) and socially (79%). Seven out of 10 (71%) take a conservative view of the optimal size and reach of government.” These numbers would be considerably higher for “standard” evangelicals, which contain few or no blacks. 18% of Barna’s evangelicals support the “black lives matter” movement. I think it is a safe bet that his white evangelicals, and evangelicals in general, do not show the same level of support.

Barna’s second category is “Non-Evangelical Born Again Christians.” Basically, these are the usual “evangelicals.” Barna says they comprise almost 25% of Americans (don’t forget the other 6% of Barna’s evangelicals), and that their numbers have been “declining rapidly.”

Barna’s third category is “notional Christians.” This is a strange category, seemingly the product of religious zealotry. This is the largest segment, comprising over 40% of the population. Barna says “these adults have not made a commitment to Christ that they believe will guarantee their eternal salvation.” This is probably wrong. It is probably based on Barna’s doubts about their salvation. I would like to see the denominational makeup of this group. I suspect even devout Catholics fall into this category. From Barna’s standpoint, these are not “real” Christians. Barna notes that these pseudo-Christians “are the only Christian-oriented faith segment from which a plurality aligns with the Democratic Party.” (Real Christians vote Republican and demand tax cuts for the rich.)

The fourth category is “Non-Christian Faiths,” comprising 6% of Americans. Barna notes: “They are the group least likely to own a gun (10%), and few support the Tea Party movement (13%)…. they are the only faith tribe primarily aligned with the Democratic Party (58%).” [Note the misuse of the term “tribe.”]

The fifth category is “religious skeptics,” comprising nearly 25% of Americans. This is a misnomer. It not only includes skeptics – agnostics and atheists – but people who are indifferent, but still believers. For example, 18% claim to have “an orthodox view of God,” and 16% think Satan is real. I suspect many more have a non-orthodox belief in God. This is a poorly defined category. I suspect Barna views skeptics as the enemy, and wants to inflate their numbers for purposes of propaganda.

All told, the world according to Barna is one where true Christians are a small and persecuted minority, trying to hold out against the wicked, pro-choice masses who don’t accept that the Bible is the literal word of God.