04 Perspectives



A Closer Look at the Viewpoints that are Shaping Our Culture


People of Faith Feel Sidelined in Society

Cultural tensions are rising, whether in politics, race relations, or even everyday conversations with people who disagree with each other. But on top of the tensions felt by every American, people of faith feel added pressure. More than half of all practicing Christians report feeling misunderstood (54%) or even persecuted (52%) in society today. Millions of others use terms like “marginalized” (44%), “sidelined” (40%), and “silenced” (38%).

Among practicing Christian Millennials the negative perceptions are more pervasive: They are more likely than other groups to say they feel not only misunderstood (65%) and persecuted (60%), but also marginalized (48%), sidelined (59%), and silenced (46%). And nearly half of practicing Christian Millennials admit to being afraid to speak up (47%).

Part of the difficulty for these young adults is the negative perceptions of their non-Christian Millennial peers when it comes to Christians and Christianity (documented by Barna president David Kinnaman and Q founder Gabe Lyons in unChristian [Baker, 2009]). There is also growing doubt among Millennials about the Bible’s authenticity and authority, revealed by Barna’s research with the American Bible Society, which adds even more pressure to young believers’ interactions with non-Christians.

The Conflicts of Faithfulness

But Christians are not the only people of faith feeling alienated from the cultural mainstream. Adherents to religions other than Christianity report similar perceptions. Nearly six in 10 feel misunderstood (57%), and millions more admit to feeling persecuted (45%), sidelined (36%), and silenced (34%)—probably for the same reason many Christians feel alienated: the growing cultural power of nonreligious people.

According to research from David Kinnaman’s book Good Faith, more than two out of five adults believe that “people of faith” (42%) and “religion” (46%) are part of the problem facing our nation. If this opinion continues to gain popularity, more people of faith are likely to report feeling excluded from the cultural center.



Disenfranchised Youth

Disenfranchised Youth


In our research on younger generations, particularly Millennials, we continue to see a theme of disconnection. Young adults are waiting longer to get married, having children later, and switching jobs frequently (often also changing where they live). They are less trusting of government, of church, and even of colleges and universities than their older counterparts. In other words, there are very few institutions—either social or economic—binding Millennials.

Another aspect of this disconnection is their relative reluctance to claim any external factor as part of their identity. When it comes to identifying as an American, for example, there is nearly a 50-point drop between the oldest generation, Elders, and the youngest. Four out of five Elders say that being an American makes up a lot of their personal identity, but only onethird of Millennials (34%) say the same. But Millennials aren’t only distancing themselves from country, they are less likely than older generations to claim any of the surveyed factors make up a lot of their personal identity. From family to faith to ethnicity, Millennials see themselves as separated. The one exception is career, which Elders are less likely to identify with, undoubtedly a result of being primarily retired from the workforce.

In a similar survey in 2013, the only factor a majority of Millennials claimed to be central to their identity was family (62%). Less than half of Millennials pointed to any other factor as a central part of who they are: career (31%), friends (37%), faith (37%), personal interests (48%). It is perhaps significant that such a high number did indicate personal interests as a defining part of their identity—again, revealing a stronger attraction toward individual pursuits than collective ones.

Younger generations historically have a tendency to want to break away from traditional cultural narratives and to resist being “boxed in” by what they perceive as limiting expectations. It will be interesting to see if Millennials, like generations before them, begin to gravitate toward their own institutions and grounding narratives as they age.

The present opportunity for those who hope to reach the Millennial generation is to ask where they are finding their sense of identity. If traditional institutions and relationships are not as defining for them, what most impacts their identity? Their friendships? Their lifestyle? Technology or entertainment? The media they consume?

While Gen-Xers and Millennials might resist being defined by anything, their identities are certainly affected and shaped by external forces. Recognizing those forces and the impact they have—for better and worse—on their identity will help young adults make intentional decisions about where and how they give their allegiance.


Black Lives Matter and Racial Tension in America

Public outrage over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and others has shed light on the often unheeded reality of racial tension in the United States. The nation witnessed the pain, grief, and indignation among black Americans as protests began in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore and spread across the country, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement.

But this movement has been met with a mixed response, reflecting deep division in how Americans view the problem of race in this country. What are the shades of this divide? And what do Americans really believe about the Black Lives Matter movement?

To explore the issue in more detail, Barna asked American adults about their experience with race. Is there anger and hostility between different ethnic and racial groups? Is racism a problem of the past, or the present? Do people feel disadvantaged because of their race or ethnicity? And perhaps most important to people of faith, can the Church play a role in racial reconciliation—or is the Church part of the problem?

Racial Tension Today

Even more than 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, the wounds of hundreds of years of racial injustice are still unhealed. When American adults are asked whether they believe racial tension exists, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” The vast majority of adults agree there is a lot of anger and hostility between ethnic and racial groups in America (84%). This was true—and remarkably so— across the board. No matter the age group, region, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or faith segment, the vast majority among each group believe there is tension among racial and ethnic groups in this country.

But when asked more specifically about racism, that is, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior,” the results were slightly different. There were two big standouts here, the first being evangelicals, who were almost twice as likely than the general population to agree strongly that “racism is mostly a problem of the past, not the present” (13% compared to all adults at 7%, or “no faith” at 3%). A high proportion of conservative respondents (12%) also see racism as mostly a problem of the past (compared to liberals at 4%).

Looking at this question from a different angle—for those who strongly disagree that “racism is mostly a problem of the past, not the present”—Barna identifies some differences between black and white Americans. Forty-two percent of the general population strongly disagree that racism is a problem of the past, and although both black and white Americans share that sentiment, black Americans (59%) are 20 percentage points more likely than white Americans (39%) to disagree that racism is history.

Differing Opinions About the Impact of Racism

When it comes to the lived experience of people of color in this country, seven in 10 Americans agree they “are often put at a social disadvantage because of their race” (67%). However, once again, evangelicals and Republicans are less likely than the general population to believe this is true. Evangelicals are 11 percentage points less likely than the adult average to believe people of color are at a social disadvantage (56% compared to 67%).

Evangelicals are more than twice as likely as the general population to “strongly disagree” that people of color are socially disadvantaged because of race (28% compared to 12%). This is also the case for Republicans, who are 10 percentage points less likely than the adult average (57% compared to 67%) and 21 percentage points less likely than Democrats (57% compared to 78%) to believe people of color are at a social disadvantage, and more than twice as likely as Democrats to “strongly disagree” that people of color are socially disadvantaged because of race (17% compared to 8%).

Racial Tension Today

This question also splits black Americans and white Americans. Eighty-four percent of black Americans agree that people of color are often put at a social disadvantage because of their race, while only 62 percent of white Americans agree—lower than the national average, though still higher than either evangelicals or Republicans.

These groups are similarly opposed when it comes to how they feel about “reverse racism.” Seven in 10 white people strongly and somewhat agree that prejudicial treatment of them is a problem in our society today (71%). But, the black population isn’t as convinced— less than half agree that prejudicial treatment of white people is a problem (46%). There is an equally deep divide between Republicans and Democrats, the former being one third more likely than the latter to believe reverse racism is a problem (77% of Republicans compared to 53% of Democrats). This makes sense in light of the fact that white people make up 85 percent of the Republican Party, while making up only half in the Democratic Party (54%).

Black Lives Matter

Following the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged with the use of the social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The cause continued to gain notoriety online, particularly following street demonstrations across the country in response to the death of Michael Brown.

Yet not all Americans embrace its message.

Millennials (45%) are most likely to support Black Lives Matter, but this support decreases with age (24% among Gen-Xers, 20% among Boomers, and 15% among Elders). Again, the outliers here are evangelicals and Republicans (especially compared to Democrats), both of whom are significantly less likely than the general population to support the movement (13% of evangelicals and 7% of Republicans compared to 27% of all adults).

The answer that consistently receives the largest response among all groups when asked how they feel about the Black Lives Matter movement is “I believe all lives matter.” This is the response of about half the general population (52%), and the most common response across the board. This reflects a disconnect between the movement’s broader goals and the message as interpreted by the general population.

The phrase emerged in direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement, but as President Obama observed in a press conference last year, “saying ‘black lives matter’ is not about reducing the importance of other groups, or suggesting nobody else’s lives matter, but that there is a specific problem happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

Despite this, the majority of American adults respond using the reactive phrase “all lives matter.” Yet again, the standouts here are evangelicals, Republicans, and, this time, born again Christians. Evangelicals were by far the group most likely to say “I believe all lives matter” (76%), followed by Republicans (66%), and those who say they are born again (61%). As in previous responses, there are stark differences between Republicans (who were among the highest at 66%) and Democrats (who were among the lowest at 41%).

Race and Faith

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” He, like many others, believed the Christian Church could lead the charge when it came to racial reconciliation, but that it still had a long way to go. When asked whether Christian churches are part of the problem when it comes to racism, over six in 10 adults somewhat or strongly disagreed (62%). This is good news, although twice as many black people than white people strongly agreed it was a problem (17% black compared to 9% white).

Social Disadvantages for People of Color

Despite these differences, three-quarters of Americans agree “Christian churches play an important role in racial reconciliation” (73%). This is extraordinarily hopeful news for the Christian Church at large. When broken down by generation, the older you are, the more hopeful you are likely to be about the Christian Church’s role in reconciliation. There is a gradual increase with age beginning with Millennials at 66 percent, Gen-Xers at 69 percent, Boomers at 79 percent, and Elders at 84 percent. Not surprisingly, evangelicals are the most hopeful with a staggering 94 percent who believe Christian churches play an important role in racial reconciliation in America.

Those who do not identify with any faith tradition (53%) are less likely to believe churches play any role in racial reconciliation; still, more than half of this group actually agrees the Church is a vital part of reconciliation, indicating a significant amount of hope for the Church, even among those outside it.

The Dilemma of the Church

“This research confirms the fear that the Church (or the people in it) may be part of the problem in the hard work of racial reconciliation,” Brooke Hempell, vice president of research for Barna, says.

“If you’re a white evangelical Republican, you are less likely to think race is a problem, but more likely to think you are a victim of reverse racism. You are also less convinced that people of color are socially disadvantaged. Yet, these same groups believe the Church plays an important role in reconciliation. This dilemma demonstrates that those supposedly most equipped for reconciliation do not see the need for it.

“More than any other segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African American brothers and sisters,” Hempell adds. “This is a dangerous reality for the modern church. Jesus and his disciples actively sought to affirm and restore the marginalized and obliterate divisions between groups of people. Yet, our churches and ministries are still some of the most ethnically segregated institutions in the country.

“By failing to recognize the disadvantages that people of color face and the inherent privileges that come from growing up in a ‘majority culture,’ white Christians perpetuate the divisions, inequalities, and injustices that prevent African American communities from thriving. Research has shown that being cognizant of our biases leads to change in biased behavior. If white evangelical Christians genuinely care for the well-being of their African American brothers and sisters, they must first be honest about their own biases.

“History, and Jesus’ example, have shown that reconciliation comes from stepping out of our place of comfort and actively pursuing healing for those in need. We must do the same if we really believe all lives matter.”
n=1,026 | February 20–24, 2014; n=1,000 | August 24–26, 2015

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