Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture

Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture

The Religious Freedom Debates – and Why They Matter to All of Us


Several years ago, a well-known restaurant chain produced a video to use as part of new employee training. They wanted the video to remind their employees of a simple fact: Every person who came into one of their restaurants was a human being first and a customer second. Panning over the various people in the story, the camera would sometimes pause and linger over one person as words were superimposed next to them describing the circumstances of that person’s life—facing unemployment, depression, the loss of a loved one or, alternatively, the welcome news they had beaten cancer or had recently received a college scholarship. As this video reminded trainees, we encounter people in ignorance every day, having no idea what challenges they face or what blessings they have been given. These same people are, nonetheless, made in the divine image and do have a story, even if we do not know it. “You have never met a mere mortal,” C. S. Lewis once said.

Of course, when someone points this out to us, the hope is often that this fact would drive us toward our neighbors, that it would help us to see them with affection, that it would motivate us to treat them gently and, ultimately, that it would cause us to love them. Actually remembering that is difficult at times. Indeed, there may be few societies where it is more difficult than our own. Twitter feeds, Facebook timelines, hashtags, memes and the ease of disembodied arguments make it easier than ever to see our neighbors as Other—without ever meeting one another, we can shout #MAGA and #NeverTrump and #FakeNews. We don’t know the stories of the people at the other end of our social media political tirades. As many news reports, pundits and cultural commentators have noted, we are facing a crisis of neighborliness in the United States—namely, that we don’t know (or, often, trust) our neighbors. This makes it challenging to remember that every person we meet has a story, that they are significant, that they are beloved by God. Yet that is precisely what Christians are called to do. How can we fulfill this call in a world that makes loving one’s neighbor so difficult?

In this report we talk about the tribal nature of the US today, the ways in which we have grown apart from one another and separated ourselves into ever smaller subgroups. In a tribalized context, we do not see our fellow man or woman as an image-bearer of God facing great challenges, but only as a person so identified with the label we have assigned to them that they may as well be wearing it on their T-shirt. “Black.” “White.” “Liberal.” “Conservative.” “Gay.” “Straight.” In such a world, the response Christianity can offer is that of Holy Spirit-empowered neighborliness and love. But unfortunately, the nature of our polarization is that even claims of love are not self-evident to us. What one person regards as demonstrating love looks to another like something quite different.

As a result, two issues we often see as separate actually appear to be quite closely related. The first, how Christians can show love to their neighbors in a fragmenting world, is tied to the second: how we should understand issues of religious liberty and the freedom of individual people to practice their religion as they see fit. In other words, how can we hold firm to our convictions and beliefs, both in deed and word, and still hold space for relationships and civility with those who believe differently than us? Can religious freedom and religious plurality peacefully coexist?

We can break these questions down even further. Here are five lenses through which we can look at these issues, as described by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in their 2017 book Good Faith:

Introducing these five different themes can help us make the distinctions we need to make when facing a hard social or political problem. By making these distinctions we can recognize that there are different perspectives from which politicians, business owners, pastors and lay Christians might validly answer questions about religious liberty. Moreover, because each of these five lenses is rooted in a Christian concern related to the love of God and love of neighbor, they provide us with a guide for answering questions about religious liberty in ways that help us to love our neighbors well without violating conscience or disobeying the commands given in scripture. Through the rest of this book, you’ll notice these icons in the margins, indicating when we’re looking at the issues through one of these lenses.

In 2014, Barna surveyed faith leaders, Christian and otherwise, to learn how they viewed the present state and the future prospects of religious freedom in America. This two-year national study among US clergy comprised of random, representative interviews with 1,963 evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant and Catholic pastors, as well as clergy outside of the Christian tradition, including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon and other faith leaders, is the backbone of this report. We also interviewed an over-representative sample of African American Protestant pastors. (Throughout this report, “faith leaders” and “US clergy” refer to religious leaders of all faith traditions while “pastors” refers to Christian leaders alone. You can find a complete methodology of the research and a glossary of terms in the Appendix). The following year, 2015, was notable for a number of events that had potential consequences for religious freedom, so Barna repeated the 2014 survey in 2015, 2016 and 2017 to discern whether the controversy surrounding these events, as well as various political shifts that occurred in those years, affected faith leaders’ views about religious freedom in the US.

This report is the culmination of Barna’s four years of research examining faith leaders’ views on matters of religious liberty. It includes research primarily from Barna, supplemented by data from additional studies to frame current issues and events. Its primary focus is on how Christian pastors and other faith leaders perceive challenges and opportunities related to cultural trends and their impact on religious freedom, but also included are findings from research among the general US population for comparison and context. Taken together, the data represent the broadest study Barna has yet undertaken on the ways faith in general and Christianity, in particular, are perceived, expressed and limited in the public square.

The goal for this report is threefold: 1) to offer accurate insights about the views of US faith leaders and adults on current issues, 2) to frame the context into which these findings fit and 3) to generate a range of questions and ideas that can inform the faith community’s response.

Whether you are a clergy member or lead in another sphere of American life, we invite you to listen to the concerns of a critical segment of cultural leaders on the state of religious liberty and to evaluate their ideas about leading people of faith into an uncertain future.

Faith Leadership in a Divided Culture tours a range of Barna’s findings, but several key themes emerge from the research:

  • Faith leaders, especially pastors, are concerned that religious freedom is under threat, or at least undergoing significant redefinition. These perceptions are especially intense among non-mainline Protestant, black Protestant and Catholic leaders, but are less so among mainline Protestant and non-Christian clergy (though a majority in every segment expresses at least some level of concern).
  • The LGBT community and same-sex rights are at the heart of today’s religious freedom debates and the primary concern for clergy. Though most clergy feel as though legal same-sex marriage was inevitable, they are committed to actively resisting
    and reversing it while defending their right to refuse performing same-sex weddings. Overall, they feel somewhat prepared to address a number of LGBT-related issues, but are skeptical of the possibility of advancing LGBT rights while protecting religious freedom, viewing them as mostly incompatible objectives.
  • In the debates over religious freedom, both sides seem to be entrenching. Pastors and the general public are moving increasingly toward group solidarity in response to mounting uncertainty about religious freedom. Most Americans believe that no one set of values should dominate the country but, paradoxically, a growing number want preference for their own set of values—leading to tribalistic tendencies and potentially deeper divisions.
  • While the outcomes of Americans’ religious freedom debates will certainly affect every church, the issue isn’t a top concern for most pastors. Pastors admit they are more concerned with the morality of America and declining church attendance. They also identify a diminishment of their own influence. This points to a concern for the broader secularizing trends of which religious freedom is but a subset.
  • Faith leaders want to be part of the solution to the problems facing a religiously plural and increasingly secular society. They believe people in their congregations are looking for wisdom and direction when it comes to complicated social issues, and most say clergy have a special calling to guide people across tricky cultural terrain.
  • Faith leaders are under pressure and are often unclear about how best to lead. They feel pressured both to speak and not to speak on the issues and, while they want to help, many seem either overconfident in their readiness or hyper-concerned about negative reactions they might garner both inside and outside their fellowship.

Overall, as we will see, there is a sense among faith leaders that society is drawing heavier lines around free religious expression in the public square. As leaders they want to help define where those lines are drawn, but many, despite their best efforts at fruitful cultural engagement, see the lines becoming less porous and hemming in people of faith further from public life. Yet most also feel hopeful that they are uniquely positioned to help their community of faith find sure footing in the days ahead, no matter where the lines are drawn—if only they knew how. Barna hopes the insights in this report will help leaders renew their confidence to lead well in these divided times.


US adults are US residents 18 and older. (Find an extended glossary of Barna terms referring to segments of US adults in the Appendix.)

US clergy members are leaders in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other religious traditions. They are also referred to as “faith leaders” or just “clergy.”

Non-Christian clergy are leaders in religious traditions other than mainstream Christianity.

Christian clergy are pastors of a congregation in a mainstream tradition of Christianity.

Protestant clergy are pastors of a congregation in a Protestant tradition of Christianity.

Mainline clergy pastor in denominations such as American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church USA. Non-mainline clergy pastor in denominations such as charismatic / Pentecostal churches, the Southern Baptist Convention, churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and nondenominational churches.

Catholic clergy pastor a Catholic parish.

African American Protestant pastors are Protestant clergy who lead congregations that are majority black. Barna recruited a robust oversample of these leaders in order to analyze how their views and experiences may be different from the national average.

Key Findings

  • Three-quarters of US clergy members believe religious freedom is becoming less valued. Two out of five US 3/4 adults say religious freedom is worse than 10 years ago (43%).
  • Nearly half of US faith leaders predict that other freedoms, in addition to religious liberty, will be at risk in <1/2 the coming decade (44%).
  • More than two-thirds of Christian pastors (69%) would like Judeo-Christian values to be given preference in 2/3 the US. The same proportion of non-Christian clergy wants no single set of values to be given preference.
  • Most clergy members feel at least somewhat prepared to teach their congregants how to engage constructively on sensitive social issues (93%). However, only 7% of seven percent would say their congregants are very well equipped to do so right now.
  • Potential limitations on religious freedom are a concern for faith leaders (54%), but concerns about young people dropping out of church (72%) and the decline of >1/2 the traditional family (65%) are even more widespread.
  • Now that same-sex marriage is legal across the country, more than nine out of 10 clergy insist religious groups must remain free to teach and practice a traditional 9/10 definition of marriage (92%). Eight out of 10 US adults agree (79%).

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