There's been a lot of talk of born again and evangelical Christian voters being up for grabs in 2008. All bets are off if Barack Obama (with his own conversion story as well as moral stands on poverty that connect with born agains) goes up against John McCain. But before jumping to any conclusions, one must understand some basic facts and definitions about this massive chunk of the U.S. population. For that, George Barna is the man to go to. He is the founder of the research and polling firm The Barna Group and an author of many books, including "Revolution," in which he argues that 20,000,000 American Christians are in the midst of radically redefining their their faith to bring it back to the original radicalism of Jesus and the earliest Christian communities.
In your latest research project, you report that 2/5th of registered Democrats are Born Again Christians. I think this will surprise a lot of people. Before we get into that, can you explain how that category is defined? Who are born again Christians? And what's the difference between Evangelical and Born Again Christians?
The Barna Group is the only survey research organization I know of that does not rely upon self-report to be classified as "born again" or "evangelical." We classify people as "born again" based on their answers to two questions about what they believe, rather than the label they choose for themselves. The questions are whether they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and if so, we ask what they think will happen to them after they die. We offer seven possibilities to choose from, one of which is that they believe they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
We do not rely upon people calling themselves born again because we did some research on the people who choose such a label and found two interesting results. First, about one-third of those who call themselves born again also admit that they have no kind of relationship with Jesus Christ, which the Bible describes as being a central facet of becoming a person who is born anew - transformed by the grace of God into a new being. Second, we also learned that roughly one-quarter of the people who meet the two theological criteria we pose - regarding the personal commitment as well as the confession of sins and reliance upon Christ for forgiveness - appear to be born again but refuse to adopt that label for themselves. The major reason is that it carries such negative cultural connotations.
Evangelicals, in our way of measuring things, are a subset of born again Christians. The term "evangelical" is not in the Bible, so to figure out what this man-made category meant, we studied the belief statement of the National Association of Evangelicals and drew out seven particular elements that seemed most central to their perspective. Those include the accuracy and reliability of the Bible, the sinless life of Christ, the existence of Satan as an influential spiritual being, the importance of sharing one's faith in Christ with others, that a person cannot earn their way into Heaven, religious faith is very important in the person's life, and that God is the omnipotent and omniscient creator and ruler of the universe. The NAE has more components in their statement, but these seemed pivotal, and would give us a good grip on where a person was coming from, theologically.
So, using this approach, it is possible to be evangelical and born again, possible to be born again without being evangelical, but impossible to be evangelical without being born again. But I have to note that only God knows who is or is not truly born again. Surveys simply provide an estimate of what's happening in people's lives.
So - what percent of America is Born Again or Evangelical?
About 44% are born again, and about 7% are evangelical.
Has the number of Born Again + Evangelical Christians grown dramatically over recent decades or has it always been this way?
The proportion of evangelicals has remained constant for the past 20 years that we've been measuring it. The percentage of born again Christians has risen and fallen to some extent, but it generally hovers within a few percentage points of the 40% mark.
OK - so born again Christians believe that Jesus walked on water, healed the sick and rose from the dead; they mostly believe Adam, Eve, Noah and Satan are real. They believe prayer works. In the current DC conventional wisdom, those kinds of beliefs are associated with right wing stands on economics, law & order, foreign policy, social welfare and other policy areas. Is the DC conventional wisdom wrong?
In this case, it is wrong. There is a wide spectrum of beliefs within the born again constituency. There are segments on both sides of the arguments related to immigration reform, responses to poverty, the Iraq war, and so forth. Much of this relates to the worldview of factions within the born again community. Some, especially younger born agains, tend to have a postmodern view of the world, which leads them to conclude that there are no absolute moral truths, that relationships and dialogue are of the ultimate importance, and that tolerance of diverse opinions and lifestyles is appropriate.
As you alluded to earlier, our research shows that a plurality of born again adults who are registered to vote are Democrats. Among the born agains, more than four out of 10 are registered Democrats, three out of ten are registered Republicans, and the remaining two out of 10 are independent. Things look very different among the evangelicals, though, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost three-to-one. Maybe the insight to draw from all of this is that the mainstream media constantly try to simplify complex realities so that people can quickly understand the world. The problem is that some things get oversimplified, and understanding the faith community is one of those dimensions that gets misunderstood.
Given the drum beat by so many high profile Christian leaders around anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion campaigns, what does it say that those issues are so far down the list for most born again Christians? Aren't they listening to their leaders? Or is it that those people we see on TV are not actually regarded as leaders by most born agains?
There are several dimensions to consider in this. First, there is an important distinction to be made between someone being a leader and a teacher. Some of the people who have the media platforms have their greatest influence as teachers of biblical principles rather than as sociopolitical leaders. Second, every issue I have ever studied - and I've been involved in political research for more than 30 years - suffers from constituency burnout at some point. Remember, Americans live in a fast-paced, immediate gratification culture, anchored by the postmodern view that moral values are situational rather absolute. Consequently, while many born again Christians are personally pro-life, they have lost some of the energy to fight that battle, and now say they are personally pro-life but are more galvanized by other issues and concerns. Third, the fact that many born again voters rank abortion and gay rights lower on their agenda does not so much indicate that those issues are unimportant to them as it reflects the increasing sophistication of many born again voters. They have morphed from single-issue voters to being more educated about a wider variety of national and global concerns. In that context, they may see other matters as possessing more immediate significance for our nation. Finally, realize that the younger generation of born again Christians tends to be less drawn to the "culture wars" and more drawn toward conversation and reconciliation. For better or worse, many of them express an interest in influencing the culture through their relationships and lifestyle choices rather than through political engagement.
Perhaps that biggest, last point of division between born again progressives and...er...born once progressives is homosexuality. I have met a number of born again Christians who believe in "gay rights" -- i.e. that gays should have the same rights as everyone else -- even while they believe that homosexuality is un-biblical and a sin. To most people reading this, that will seem a huge contradiction -- can you shed any light on what Christians like that are thinking.
This is a great example of the "new" thinking that is gaining ground among Christians. While it is true that you can legislate morality - after all, what laws do is define what is right and wrong, which is the essence of morality - a growing number of born again people are not staking their entire realm of influence on the legal and political systems. Instead, they desire to offer a theologically honest but emotionally compassionate reaction to proponents of homosexuality. In other words, they cannot ignore the fact that homosexuality is a sin from a biblical perspective, but also realize that Jesus' primary exhortation was to love other people into a different way of understanding and living their lives. So, on the one hand, you'll find some born again adults who strongly reject homosexuality as a valid lifestyle, who at the same time have a number of homosexual friends and are comfortable discussing that lifestyle with those friends in a non-hysterical, non-hostile manner. Their view is that God, alone, is called to judge people. We're simply called to love them.