(Ventura, CA) - Although there has been a closing of the gap between the behaviors and
attitudes of born again Christians and non-born again adults in the past quarter century,
a new report from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California shows that there are at
least two issues related to which their differences remain substantial. The national
survey of born again and non-born again adults shows that the former are much more likely
to reject both abortion and homosexuality as defensible activities.
When a national, representative sample of 1003 adults were asked to select one of four
positions related to abortion, 18% said abortion should be legal in all circumstances, 24% said it should be legal in most cases, with a few exceptions, 32% said
it should be illegal except in a few, special circumstances, and 23% said it should be
illegal under all conditions. Four percent did not have a position on the matter - an
unusually small proportion of people who refuse to take a position on a controversial
However, people's answers differed markedly according to their religious inclinations.
For instance, just 1% of evangelicals said abortion should be legal in all situations,
compared to 9% of all born again Christians (i.e., both evangelicals and non-evangelical
born again adults), 23% of all non-born again adults, 36% of adults aligned with a
non-Christian church, and 40% of atheists.
When examining the proportion of individuals from those segments who said that abortion
should either be illegal in all instances or illegal in all but a few special
circumstances, 94% of evangelicals and 73% of all born again adults took that position. In
contrast, just 43% of all non-born again adults concurred, including 24% of adults
connected to non-Christian faiths and 30% of atheists.
The study showed that there is even a huge gap within the Christian community. Half of
all adults (50%) who attend a mainline Protestant church said abortion should be legal in
all or most circumstances, which was nearly double the proportion (29%) among Protestants
attending non-mainline congregations. Similarly, only 11% of mainliners said abortion
should be illegal under all circumstances, while three times as many other Protestants
(33%) took that position. Not quite two out of every three Catholics (63%) said abortion
should be illegal in all or most cases, including 26% who said it should be illegal in all
Labels associated with one's position on abortion can be confusing, or even deceptive.
The nation is evenly split between those who describe themselves as "pro-life"
(45%) and "pro-choice" (45%), with 10% not embracing either label. Even though
73% of the born again population said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases,
only 65% chose to describe themselves as "pro-life." Similarly, among adults who
are not born again, 43% held that abortion should be illegal in all or most situations,
yet just 32% embraced the label "pro-life."
Homosexuality Somewhat Less Divisive
When asked if homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal or not
legal, a slight plurality of adults (48%) said such relationships should be legal, while
42% said they should not be legal. One out of every ten adults did not have an opinion on
the matter. The gap between born again and non-born again adults was less pronounced on
this issue than was the gap related to abortion rights. While 57% of non-born again adults
opted for the "legal" response, they were joined by just 34% of the born again
constituency. The relative closeness of opinion on this issue is partially attributable to
a surprisingly large proportion of adults who attend non-mainline Protestant churches
preferring the legalization of homosexual relations.
Americans are evenly divided on the matter of whether homosexuality should be
considered an acceptable lifestyle. In total, 45% said it should be considered an
acceptable alternative while 46% said it should not, and the remaining 9% were not sure.
The religious gap was wider on this item with born again Christians twice as likely as
non-Christians (66% vs. 34%, respectively) to portray homosexuality as an unacceptable
lifestyle. The distinction between mainline and non-mainline churches was larger on this
issue than was true regarding the legality of homosexual relations: only 44% of the adults
who attend mainline churches said homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle, compared
to 64% among those attending non-mainline Protestant churches.
While there is evidence that a growing number of people believe that homosexuality is
genetic, about half of all adults (49%) contend that homosexuality is due to non-genetic
factors such as upbringing and environment, one-third say people are born gay (34%), and
the remaining 17% are not sure. Eighty-five percent of evangelicals, 61% of born again
adults, and 65% of those who attend non-mainline Protestant churches believe that a person
chooses to be a homosexual. On the other hand, 45% of adults affiliated with non-Christian
churches, 44% of atheists and 40% of Catholics contend that a person is born into
The biggest gap observed relates to clergy marrying gay couples. By a 2-to-1 margin
(62% - 30%) adults disapprove of clergy marrying gay couples or blessing their marriage
unions. Disapproval was virtually universal among evangelicals (97%) and widespread among
born again adults (79%) and Catholics (61%). In sharp contrast, just one-third of atheists
(33%) and those who associate with non-Christian faith groups (36%) disapproved of such
Younger Adults Leaning Liberal
One of the trends that emerged from the research concerns the divergent perspectives of
young adults. People 35 and younger are substantially more likely to approve of abortion
in all or most circumstances than are people over 35; are much more likely to describe
themselves as "pro-choice" than are any other age segment; were much more likely
to argue that homosexual relations should be legal; substantially more likely to consider
homosexuality an acceptable lifestyle; and notably more likely to approve of clergy
conducting or blessing gay marriages.
George Barna, who directed the study, explained the significance of this finding.
"Over the long term, we expect to see a growing acceptance of abortion and
homosexuality as Baby Busters and Mosaics, the youngest generation, become more
influential in public policy and business policy. The comparatively liberal views of the
younger two generations will not have as significant an impact upon Christian churches
since churches often base their positions on these matters upon biblical views. However,
even the debate on these matters may become less divisive than might be expected since
Busters and Mosaics are less likely to participate in the life of such churches and,
consequently, will have relatively less impact on the positions taken by Protestant
Insights Into the Findings
The study shows that the traditional moral values upheld by Christians are continuing
to lose ground. Overall, about seven out of ten born again adults have consistently
pro-life positions and about six out of ten consistently oppose homosexuality. However,
because the born again population represents just four out of every ten adults, and
one-third of all teenagers, reaching a national consensus on such issues may be more
difficult in the years ahead. Traditional moral stands are held by a bare majority of
adults on abortion, while adults are about evenly split on matters related to
The data indicate that a significant minority of people who attends Christian churches
maintains that abortion and homosexuality should be legal activities. "Increasingly
we find that the positions on moral issues that are taught from the pulpit are not
necessarily views embraced by regular attenders of those churches," according to
Barna. "Most congregations exhibit a diversity of opinion on doctrinal and moral
matters that would shock the average pastor."
Barna noted that people who read the Bible have a more conservative view on these
issues. "Among people who read the Bible on their own, three-quarters oppose
abortion, two-thirds call themselves "pro-life," three-fifths say homosexuality
should be illegal, two-thirds call homosexuality an unacceptable lifestyle, and
three-quarters oppose clergy participation in gay marriages. Exposure to the Bible clearly
affects a person's views on these matters, compensating for other factors such as age,
education and church ideology. It seems that if conservative Christians have any chance of
restoring a more traditional moral perspective to America, it is most likely to be
accomplished by encouraging people to base their moral choices on the basis of God's Word
rather than on the basis of cultural leanings or political arguments."
The researcher also pointed out that millions of Americans have made a distinction in
their minds regarding legality and morality. "Americans are more likely to support
the legality of behaviors that they, personally, do not endorse than they are to shift
their personal moral views in relation to those matters. That's why we have millions of
individuals - including numerous born again adults - who say that homosexuality should be
legal but not church-sanctioned. Strategically, that's a wise decision if people believe
that the Church is influencing our culture sufficiently to enable Americans to make
informed moral choices. One must wonder, however, if the emerging generations of Americans
are being adequately and compellingly exposed to Christian perspectives to make such
The data clearly underscore the breadth of the gap in moral views between those
associated with Christian churches and those associated with non-Christian faith groups or
atheism. "In all six of the items tested in the research, evangelicals were at one
end of the ideological continuum while atheists and people from non-Christian faith groups
were at the other end. We seem to be on the precipice of a moral showdown in which the
Christian moral foundations are being challenged by the growing proportion of Americans
who have embraced non-Christian faith traditions."
The data described above are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample
of 1003 adults in May, 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the
aggregate sample is ï¿½3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the
interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in
Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the
distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population.
Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable
distribution of adults.
"Born again Christians" were defined in these surveys as people who said they
have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life
today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven
because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "born again" or if they
considered themselves to be "born again."
"Evangelicals" are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In
addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other
conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today;
believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about
Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation
is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless
life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who
created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical has no
relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they
attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "evangelical."
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in
southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values,
beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as
part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation.
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