A study by a leading research firm suggests that “Christians in name only” can skew political poll data on the country’s 176 million self-identified Christians.
Pollster George Barna, founder of the Barna Group, said the study results indicate that secular pollsters will better describe the political views of American Christians if they better differentiate the type of believers they poll.
“Our survey results clearly demonstrate how careful you need to be when interpreting data associated with a particular segment of people labeled as Christians,” said Barna, who also directs the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian. University, in a statement accompanying the study. results. “Political polls, in particular, can mislead people about the opinions and preferences of true followers of Christ simply based on how those polls measure the Christian population.”
According to the study, while 69% of American adults identify as “Christians” and espouse many basic Christian principles, many hold views that conflict with traditional teachings, and only 9% hold a “biblical worldview”.
Biased data, inaccurate conclusions
While pollsters tend to ask people if they adopt a particular religious label, Barna said they don’t often single out Christians’ specific beliefs about God and how their faith frames their views on various cultural issues and behaviors.
Because of this inability to distinguish practicing believers from those simply claiming the label, the Barna study, first published in September 2021, finds that secular pollsters often receive biased data that leads to inaccurate conclusions about Christian cultural beliefs.
Father Jeff Kirby, theologian and pastor of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, said Barna’s study highlights how polls can misleadingly use nominal Christians to represent views of Christianity.
“The purpose of the polls is to get a sense of the situation,” Father Kirby said. “It is not useful to give data that is supposed to be held by Christians when the respondents are not really trying to live the Christian way of life. For a true evaluation, you need to ask more questions of the respondents.
Mark Brumley, a lay Catholic apologist who is managing director of Ignatius Press, said Barna’s study also affirms the reality that polls biased by nominal Christians are fueling confusion and dissent among believers over key teachings. of their traditions.
“This seems to confirm the existence of a widespread and growing confusion, even an outright rejection, of certain key principles of Christianity traditionally shared by Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, as well as certain associated doctrinal expressions to more conservative forms of Protestantism,” Brumley mentioned.
Does “Christian” lose its meaning?
Brumley added that “many people seem eager to maintain a nominal identity with Christianity”, while rejecting many fundamental aspects of the Christian tradition.
“By traditional theological standards, these people are Christians in name only,” he said.
Other Christian leaders told the Register that Barna’s findings reflect the messy reality of ordinary believers, allowing big polling companies to create a false impression about how many true adherents reject the fundamental tenets of their faith.
“Studies of Christians are plagued with misunderstandings and difficulties,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Protestant watchdog group. “Most Christians do not have completely consistent beliefs or a robust Orthodox theology.”
Tooley, a United Methodist layman, agreed with Barna’s study’s conclusion that simplistic polls of Christians often give a false impression of how true believers vote.
However, others cautioned against taking too narrow a view of “true adherents”.
“There is more than one ‘Christian worldview,'” said Bishop John Kudrik, retired head of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio, alluding to the complexity of his own church, which is in communion with Rome while following Eastern Orthodox theology and ritual.
Others, however, are less concerned with too narrow an understanding of Christianity than they are with a version so broad that it becomes meaningless.
“Too often, it seems, people who are merely religious or go to church regularly, or perhaps people who want a certain reputation or image, adopt the ‘Christian’ label, whatever their spiritual life and intentions,” Barna added in his statement. “‘Christian’ has become something of a generic term, rather than a name that reflects a deep commitment to passionately pursuing and being like Jesus Christ.”
Barna’s study identified the following questions as helpful in obtaining more accurate political and cultural information about American Christians: What does each group believe within the “Christian” classification, and how does this affect their mode of life ? How do each group’s beliefs within the “Christian” classification affect their political affiliations and choices? What are the theological weaknesses of each group, and why is this important? What does each group think of the media coverage of the issues today?
If pollsters address these questions more specifically, Barna suggests a more accurate picture of the political landscape for American Christians will emerge.
Not all polls of Christians take these factors into account. For example, election-year polls conducted by RealClear Opinion Research on behalf of EWTN News were keen to draw distinctions — and the results were telling.
“We found that the degree to which Catholics lived out their faith – frequency of attendance at Mass and the Sacrament of Penance, daily prayer (especially the Rosary), and belief in the Real Presence – had a very direct impact about how they perceived the world and politics, especially when it came to voting,” said EWTN News editor Matthew Bunson. “Our poll was deliberately designed to avoid the broad and inaccurate results that have traditionally been so problematic.”
But until all pollsters take these considerations into account, Catholic author and University of Mississippi law professor Ron Rychlak agreed that it’s important to read polls about Christianity with a critical eye.
“Christianity is a big tent,” Rychlak said. “When pollsters aren’t more accurate than that, they don’t tell us much.”
Sean Salai, D.Min., is the cultural journalist of The Washington Times.
Registry staff contributed to this report.