Barna Study Suggests ‘Christians in Name Only’ Skew Political Polls of US Believers

Directed by well-known Christian pollster, the survey found that pollsters’ failure to distinguish practicing Christians from nominal adherents contributes to confusion about Church teachings.

What does recent research reveal?
What does recent research reveal? (photo: Cultural Research Center at ACU Twitter; last visited 3/18/22)

A study directed by a leading Christian pollster suggests that “Christians in name only” may be skewing political polling data on the nation’s 176 million self-identified Christians.

Pollster George Barna, director of the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, said the results from his institute’s study indicate that secular pollsters will better describe U.S. Christians’ political views if they better differentiate the sort of believers they survey.

“Our survey results clearly demonstrate how careful you have to be when interpreting data associated with a particular segment of people who are labeled as Christians,” said Barna, is also the founder of the Barna Group, in a statement accompanying the study’s findings. “Political polling, in particular, may mislead people regarding the views and preferences of genuine Christ-followers simply based on how those surveys measure the Christian population.”

According to the Arizona Christian University study, while 69% of U.S. adults self-identify as “Christian” and embrace many basic Christian tenets, many of them hold views that conflict with traditional teachings, and only 9% possess a “biblical worldview.”


Skewed Data, Inaccurate Conclusions

While pollsters tend to ask people if they embrace a particular religious label, Barna said they do not often distinguish Christians’ specific beliefs about God and about how their faith frames their viewpoints on various cultural issues and behaviors. 

Because of this failure to distinguish practicing believers from those who simply claim the label, the ACU study, first released in September 2021, finds that secular pollsters often receive skewed data that leads to inaccurate conclusions about Christian cultural beliefs.

Father Jeff Kirby, a theologian and pastor in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, said the Barna-led study highlights how polls can misleadingly use nominal Christians to represent the views of Christianity.
“The purpose of polling is to get a sense of where things are,” Father Kirby said. “It’s unhelpful to give data that’s supposedly held by Christians when those polled aren’t really trying to live the Christian way of life. For the sake of a true assessment, more questions have to be asked of those polled.” 

Mark Brumley, a Catholic lay apologist who serves as chief executive officer of Ignatius Press, said ACU’s study also affirms the reality that polling skewed by nominal Christians feeds confusion and dissent among believers about the key teachings of their traditions. 

“It seems to confirm the existence of widespread, increasing confusion about, if not outright rejection of, certain key tenets of Christianity traditionally shared by Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, as well as certain doctrinal expressions associated with more conservative forms of Protestantism,” Brumley said.


‘Christian’ Losing Its Meaning?

Brumley added that “many people seem eager to retain a nominal identity with Christianity,” while rejecting many core aspects of the Christian tradition.

“By traditional theological standards, such 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 firms to create a false impression about the number of genuine adherents who reject the basic tenets of their faith. 

“Studies about Christians are plagued with misunderstandings and difficulties,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Protestant watchdog group. “Most Christians don’t have completely consistent beliefs or robust orthodox theology.”

Tooley, a United Methodist layman, agreed with the Barna study’s conclusion that simplistic polls of Christians often give the wrong impression of how genuine believers vote. 

However, others cautioned against having an overly reductionistic account of “genuine 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 concerned less with an overly narrow understanding of Christianity than they are with a version that’s so broad it loses any meaning.

“Too often, it seems, people who are simply religious, or regular churchgoers, or perhaps people who want a certain reputation or image embrace the label ‘Christian,’ regardless of their spiritual life and intentions,” Barna added in his statement. “‘Christian’ has become somewhat of a generic term, rather than a name that reflects a deep commitment to passionately pursuing and being like Jesus Christ.”


Better Polling

The Barna-led study identified the following questions as useful in obtaining more accurate political and cultural information about U.S. Christians: What does each group within the ‘Christian’ classification believe, and how does it affect their lifestyle behaviors? How do the beliefs of each group within the ‘Christian’ classification affect their political affiliations and choices? What are the theological weak spots of each group, and why does this matter? What does each group believe about media coverage of the issues today?

If pollsters address these questions more precisely, Barna suggests a more accurate picture of the political landscape of U.S. Christians will emerge.

Not all polling of Christians fails to take these factors into account. For instance, election-year polling conducted by RealClear Opinion Research on behalf of EWTN News made a point of making distinctions — and the results were telling.

“We found that the degree to which Catholics lived out their faith — frequency of Mass attendance and the sacrament of penance, daily prayer (especially the Rosary) and belief in the Real Presence — had a very direct impact on how they view the world and politics, especially when it comes to voting,” said Matthew Bunson, executive editor of EWTN News. “Our polling was deliberately crafted 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 law professor at the University of Mississippi 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 get no more granular than that, they don’t tell us much.”  

Sean Salai, D. Min., is the culture reporter for The Washington Times.

Register staff contributed to this report.

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