01 The Big Picture of the Bible in America

The Big Picture of the Bible in America



The Big Picture of the Bible in America

What do Americans believe about the Bible? How acquainted are they with its stories, principles and message? Do they see the Scriptures as authoritative for society, for their church and family, or personally for themselves? And if so, how often do they actually read the Bible—and how deeply do they consider what it means for their life?

To understand the landscape of Bible beliefs and engagement in the United States, Barna researchers aggregated more than 12,000 “State of the Bible” interviews with U.S. adults into a single database. Part I is the 30,000-foot view of the Bible in America, a survey of what role the Scriptures play in people’s lives. We’ll look at data for the general U.S. population, and at the Bible’s impact on various sectors of U.S. society.

The big picture? Americans hold the Bible in high regard.

But not every part of the picture is saturated with the same shade of belief.

Tracking the Influence of the Bible

For more than 30 years, Barna has been tracking Americans’ beliefs and behaviors related to the Bible. For the last six years, Barna has powered the American Bible Society’s State of the Bible research. Highlights of the research findings in each of those years.

tracking the influence of the bible

What Americans Believe About the Bible



A Holy Book

Americans overwhelmingly name the Bible as the book that comes to mind when they think of sacred literature or holy books (81%). This is particularly true among older generations and ethnic minorities— nine out of 10 older adults and black Americans cite the Bible as a holy book. Younger generations, however—especially Millennials (ages 18 to 31)—are less likely to point to the Bible as a holy book. And, as you would probably expect, those with no faith (including atheists, agnostics and “nones,” who claim no religious affiliation) are less likely than the general population to choose the Bible. In fact, most of them say that no books are sacred (54%).*

The proportion of Americans who chooses the Bible is eight times that of the next most-frequently mentioned holy book, which is the Koran (10%). Other books considered sacred or holy—the Torah (5%) and the Book of Mormon (4%)—are mentioned by relatively few.

Americans who identify with faiths other than Christianity are more likely to mention the Koran (28%) and the Torah (15%), and less likely than average to name the Bible (45%). Twelve percent of U.S. adults do not consider any of these books to be holy, but the percentage is higher among Millennials (18%) and Gen-Xers (13%) than among their older counterparts, the Boomers (8%) and Elders (7%).

Regionally, residents of the Northeast (16%) and West (17%) are also more likely to prefer “none” than those in the Midwest (12%) or South (10%)—in keeping with the higher percentages of atheists, agnostics and the unaffiliated in those regions.

*Definitions for all of Barna’s categories can be found in the Glossary

Americans Who Consider the Bible a Holy Book


All this is in line with overall national trend of rising skepticism with regard to the Bible in particular and religion more generally. If these trend lines hold steady, there will be continuing downward pressure on the number of people (especially young people) who see the Bible as sacred.


A Guide to Meaningful Living

More than just a “holy book,” a majority of people also sees the Bible as eminently practical for life. Two-thirds of U.S. adults agree with the statement, “The Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life” (48% strongly; 20% somewhat). Women (74%) are more convinced than men (64%) about the Bible’s reliability in this regard, while black adults, Americans over 50 and residents of the South also trust the Bible’s guidance more than other population segments.

Americans Who Consider the Bible a Comprehensive Guide to a Meaningful Life


It’s interesting to contrast this finding with the overwhelming cultural adoption of the “new moral code” examined in the Introduction. The tenets of the morality of self-fulfillment—pursue what you desire most in order to be fulfilled; the highest goal of life is to enjoy it—are not recommended by the Bible as guiding principles for life. In fact, three of the Gospels record Jesus saying, “If you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it” (Mark 8:35, cf. Matt. 16:25; Luke 9:24). And yet many Americans seem to experience little cognitive dissonance between their acceptance of the new moral code and their view of the Bible as a guide for life.

Not surprisingly, few adherents to a religion other than Christianity (38%) and those of no faith (14%) agree that the Bible contains everything you need to know to live a meaningful life. Less predictably, however, nearly half (47%) of the “unchurched”— people who have not attended a worship service within the past six months—agree with the statement. This finding fits with other Barna data that shows the majority of unchurched Americans are actually “dechurched,” meaning they were church attenders in the past but are no longer connected to a faith community. Most of these former churchgoers retain the contours of Christian belief, even if they are no longer practicing the faith.3 This may represent another “window of opportunity” for church leaders, since many of the dechurched are still interested in and open to finding out how the Bible is meaningful for their lives.


An Influence on Society

With so many Americans believing the Bible is an effective guide for life, it’s not surprising that a majority also believes U.S. society would be better off if the Bible were a greater influence (51%). Just over one-quarter, however, says the Scriptures’ current level of cultural influence is just about right (28%), while 16 percent feel as if the Bible already has too much influence. Women, older adults and practicing Christians, in particular, would like to see a greater cultural role for the Bible, while men, younger Americans and those of no faith are somewhat less enthusiastic about increasing the Bible’s influence on society. In fact, the most recent annual “State of the Bible” study found Millennials in 2016 slightly more likely to say the Bible has too much influence (34%) than that it has too little (30%).

The Bibles Influence on US Society

Bible Engagement in America

When Barna and the American Bible Society launched the first “State of the Bible” study in 2011, one of the researchers’ goals was to create a typology that could be used to track Americans’ level of engagement with the Scriptures—involving both their views of the Bible’s authority and their habit of Bible reading. The following graphic breaks down the four categories of Bible engagement. (These categories are used throughout this report. Here we look at the broad landscape of U.S. engagement; in later sections we’ll examine key segments, such as practicing Christians and African Americans, whose Bible engagement differs markedly from the U.S. norm.)

Four Types of Bible Engagement


Bible engaged and Bible friendly people both have “high” views of the Scriptures, but those who are engaged read or listen to the Bible more frequently than those who are friendly. Bible neutral folks are less convinced about the Bible’s supernatural origins, but are likewise unconvinced that it is merely the product of human hands. Bible skeptics, on the other hand, believe the Bible is just a book of teachings written by men, rather than the word of God.


The Word of God

To measure Bible engagement, researchers at Barna present survey respondents with a series of statements, asking them to choose one phrase (out of five options) that best describes their belief about the Bible. The best definition of the Bible, according to most Americans, is either the actual word of God (24%) or the inspired word of God with no errors (30%) or with some errors (14%).

In other words, a remarkable two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) fall within the scope of historic Christian orthodoxy when it comes to their beliefs (one of the top three definitions), and just over half (54%) hold what is commonly known as a “high” view of the Scriptures (one of the top two definitions).

Americans' Beliefs About the BibleBeliefs About the Bible


Some Americans are more convinced than others, however. For example, 31 percent of Elders 70 years and older subscribe to “the actual word of God” as the best definition of the Bible—making them twice as likely as Millennials to do so. Similarly, residents of the South (30%) are nearly twice as likely as Northeasterners (17%) to believe the Bible is the literal word of God.

A plurality of adherents to others faiths (34%) and a strong majority of those of no faith (66%) define the Bible as “just another book of teaching written by men that contains stories and advice.” That definition is also preferred by a plurality of unchurched adults (31%) and by significant minorities of Northeasterners (21%) and Westerners (21%).


A Good Read

A majority of Americans may hold a “high” view of the Scriptures, but that doesn’t mean a majority reads it—at least, not very often. Slightly more than one-third reads the Bible once a week or more frequently (36%) and the same proportion reads the Bible less than once a year or never (35%). The remaining three in 10 read somewhere between once a month and once a year.

How Frequently Americans Read the Bible

As with perceptions of the Bible, women, black adults and older Americans are leaders when it comes to Bible reading.

Readership among U.S. adults may be lower than one might hope, but a healthy majority expresses a desire to read the Bible more (62%), and nearly one-quarter says they actually did increase their reading over the last year (23%). Even if some of these individuals are presenting an optimistic assessment of their Bible reading, we can see that the Bible benefits from a “halo effect”—that is, a majority of Americans are still “pro-Bible.” This is an important indicator of opportunity for Christian leaders.


Bible Engagement in America

Different age, ethnic and faith cohorts have varying tendencies when it comes to Bible perceptions and reading habits, so these groups also tend to have higher or lower levels of Bible engagement based on those views and habits. For example, Elders and Boomers are generally more highly engaged than Millennials and Gen-Xers, and black adults are more engaged than Hispanics and whites. (We will explore these differences more deeply in Parts II and IV.)

Bible Engagement in America

Special Report

The Bible & Discipleship

Barna partnered with The Navigators in a multiphase study to assess the state of discipleship in America’s churches. Researchers interviewed senior pastors and discipleship leaders from across the country, as well as self-identified Christians from the general population, to identify what’s working to help people grow spiritually. Since the Bible emerged in those interviews as a key factor in effective discipleship, the findings are included here as another “puzzle piece” in Barna’s efforts to assemble a clear picture of the Bible in America.

The State of Discipleship (Barna, 2015) is a Barna report produced in partnership with The Navigators.

Among church leaders—as one might expect—engagement with the Bible is considered a fundamental dimension of discipleship. Two-thirds of senior pastors (64%) and discipleship leaders (67%) say intentional, systematized study of the Bible is an essential element of spiritual formation. Six out of 10 senior pastors (60%) and three-quarters of discipleship leaders (73%) consider in-depth education about the Bible essential to spiritual growth. When it comes to practices that have the greatest impact on developing disciples, church leaders put personal Bible study (92%) and small group Bible study (88%) at the top of the list. Eight out of 10 say Bible teaching in weekly services makes an impact (81%), and two-thirds believe memorizing scripture is effective (65%).

Both practicing Christians and non-practicing Christians consider group Bible study to be a crucial practice in their spiritual development—yet key differences emerge in how much these two groups engage. Practicing Christians are also more likely to say relationships formed through a small group Bible study have been an important aspect of their spiritual journey (61% vs. 22% of non-practicing Christians).

Among Christians who say spiritual growth is important to them, one-third of practicing Christians are currently in a small group Bible study (33%), yet only 6 percent of non-practicing Christians are in such a group, even though many of these same adults attest to the impact of a group study on their own spiritual life. The chart below shows the ways in which practicing Christians outpace others in their pursuit of scripture-oriented discipleship.

Participation in Discipleship Activities

The Bible in Entertainment

In recent years, the entertainment sector seems to have turned back to one of its favorite sources: the Bible. In past decades, films like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Passion of the Christ and The Prince of Egypt have been critical and box office successes. The latest crop of faith-inspired titles includes films like Noah, Exodus, Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Risen, The Young Messiah, The Bible miniseries, a new remake of Ben-Hur, Miracles from Heaven and Last Days in the Desert. Barna continues to explore how viewing religious content onscreen affects the way people view Christianity in everyday life. There are a number of insights that are relevant to The Bible in America.

First, it’s not surprising that practicing Christians are the group most likely to be aware of and interested in viewing films or shows with Christian content. The three in 10 Americans who are most likely to prioritize and practice their faith represent more than 70 million adults nationwide. Generally, practicing Christians are most receptive to entertainment that contains clear messaging and implications for their faith. In other words, when content is made for practicing Christians, they generally respond most favorably toward it.

Second, the market for faith-driven content is not exclusive to practicing Christians. The U.S. population continues to be quite open to such entertainment, as long as it’s entertaining. Interestingly, Bible-driven movies like Noah and Exodus drew audiences in roughly equal proportions across all faith segments. Another example: Among all adults, 14 percent said they had watched some portion of the The Bible miniseries on the History Channel in 2014. While one-quarter of practicing Christians said they tuned in, this televised program also generated reported viewership among 10 percent of non-practicing Christians (who represent an audience of 100 million adults!), 8 percent of adherents to faiths other than Christianity and 3 percent of the non-religious audience.

The Bible on Screen


Third, we find evidence that faith-driven entertainment can change perceptions and activity. Can Bible entertainment encourage Bible engagement? It seems likely. For example, among adults who increased their Bible readership in 2013, one in nine (11%) said watching The Bible miniseries inspired them to read the Scriptures more. This may seem like a small overall percentage, but it represents a huge number of people in an aggregate sense.

Also, some faith-oriented films seem to impact how some people think about Christianity. When asked if any movies from the last two years made them think more seriously about religion, spirituality or religious faith, 13 percent of U.S. adults say they have been influenced by film in this manner. The most commonly mentioned movies included God’s Not Dead, The Bible miniseries, Noah, Courageous and Heaven is for Real.

Finally, people have mixed views on how well Hollywood portrays Christianity. Just over one-quarter of all adults (28%) feels Hollywood’s general representation of Christianity is sometimes positive, sometimes negative; another 21 percent say it is neutral, neither positive nor negative. Practicing Christians hold a wide range of feelings about Hollywood’s treatment of Christianity. The most common perceptions are that Hollywood portrays their faith negatively (25%) or depicts it with mixed results, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively (27%). Only one in nine practicing Christians (11%) believes that Hollywood describes Christianity positively.

In a crowded marketplace, the commercial success of Bible-oriented and faith-driven fare is all but certain. There’s a good chance studios will continue producing content inspired by the Christian faith since there is a built-in audience of adults who identify as Christian and many of the stories are well-known to most Americans.

Does Hollywood Get Christianity

The Bible in Society & Politics

One of the key findings of The Bible in America is the degree to which the Bible is central to Americans’ views of a good society. When people are asked to choose from a list of literary works the one book they believe has had the greatest impact on humanity, the Bible tops the list—even among the more Bible-resistant Millennials.

Yet there seems to be growing discomfort, as noted earlier, with how much influence the Bible wields today in U.S. society. The tracking numbers show rising levels of skepticism about the Bible’s role in culture. This is due in large measure to the increasingly mixed feelings of Millennials, who are twice as likely as Boomers (26% vs. 12%) and three times more likely than Elders (8%) to say the Bible has too much cultural influence.

The Bibles ImpactPerceived Impact on Society

Given the skepticism among younger adults about the role of the Bible in culture, it’s not surprising to find there is also ambivalence about the Scriptures’ impact on politics and governance. An overall majority of U.S. adults say politics would be more civil (51%) and those who govern would be more effective (53%) if politicians read the Bible on a regular basis—but those majorities are not spread evenly across the population.

Young adults are less convinced than older Americans that regular Bible reading is the solution to uncivil and ineffective politics. Only about one-third of Millennials and half of Gen-Xers say politics would be more civil (31% Millennials, 47% Gen-Xers) and politicians would be more effective (34% Millennials, 49% GenXers) if they read the Bible more often. By comparison, two-thirds of Boomers and three-quarters of Elders believe politics would be more civil and effective with regular Bible reading.

The Effect of Regular Bible Reading on Politicans

These numbers—and the differences between generations— signal a sea change in U.S. society. The two older generations of Americans (Boomers and Elders) are consistent in their belief that Bible engagement would make society a better place, yet Gen-Xers and especially Millennials are quite resistant to that notion. Even in the midst of a lot of generational differences, these represent some of the most significant gaps on any subject in this report. Younger generations are reprioritizing the Bible’s role in public life.

In an analysis of a group we call “Bible minded”—who believe the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches and have read the Bible within the past week—compared with the general U.S. population, Barna found that the Bible minded are comparatively cause- and issues-oriented when it comes to political concerns. Rating how much influence each issue has on their voting habits, Bible-minded people are more likely to prioritize religious liberty (66% vs. 34% among all adults), abortion (46% vs. 32%), marriage (55% vs. 33%) and poverty (51% vs. 42%).

Interestingly, Bible-minded adults tend to be skeptical about the government’s ability to change for the better and disappointed when change doesn’t happen. At the same time, Bible-minded adults are more likely than average to self-describe as politically active, to be personally invested in the political process, and to be hopeful they can make a difference by being politically involved.

Perceptions of Politics

Bible-Minded Cities

Each year, the American Bible Society and Barna look at how each major metro area in the U.S. views the Bible. The annual “BibleMinded Cities Report,” based on interviews with 65,064 adults over a 10-year period, shows how people living in the nation’s 100 largest media markets view and use the Bible. Individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches are considered “Bible-minded.” This definition captures action and attitude—those who both engage and esteem the Christian Scriptures. Thus, the rankings reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible in various U.S. cities. With a host of religiously charged social issues sparking national conversations, it’s important for Christian pastors and leaders to note how the Bible stacks up in their communities.

As in previous years, the South remains the most Bible-minded region of the country in 2016, with all of the top 10 cities located below the Mason-Dixon line. After dropping down to the runner-up position last year from the top spot three years in a row, Chattanooga, Tennessee, reclaims its title as the most Bible-minded city in America. Fifty-two percent of its population qualifies as Bibleminded. Birmingham / Anniston / Tuscaloosa, Alabama—the most Bible-minded city of 2015—dropped to second place (51%).

Third, fourth and fifth places went to Roanoke / Lynchburg, Virginia (48%), Shreveport, Louisiana (47%) and Tri-Cities, Tennessee (47%), respectively. Other cities in the top 10 include Charlotte, North Carolina (46%), Little Rock / Pine Bluff, Arkansas (46%), Knoxville, Tennessee (45%), the Greenville, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina, area (44%) and Lexington, Kentucky (44%).

The bottom five cities are primarily in the Northeast or on the East Coast, with the exception of one in the Midwest. The least Bibleminded city in 2016—Albany / Schenectady / Troy, New York—moved up one spot from last year, with only 10 percent of residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Boston, Massachusetts (11%) moved from third to second place while Providence, Rhode Island (12%)—the least Bible-minded city in 2015—dropped two spots to third place. The only Midwestern city to make the top five was Cedar Rapids, Iowa (13%), followed by Buffalo, New York (13%), to round out the list.

Other cities in the bottom 10 include Las Vegas, Nevada (14%), the San Francisco, California, area (15%), Hartford / New Haven, Connecticut (16%), Phoenix / Prescott, Arizona (16%), and Salt Lake City, Utah (17%).

Americas Bible-Minded Cities 2016

Special Report

The State of the Bible 1816

On October 28, 1996, an article in the business section of the New York Times reported that the $200 million market for Bibles “is flat as a leather Bible cover.”4 A director for marketing at Oxford University Press suggested that the American market for the holy book had reached a saturation point. Most experts blamed the glut in the market on the rise of the so-called big box stores—Barnes & Noble, Walmart and Sam’s Club—that also sold Bibles. According to the Times article, the latest American Bible Society translation to hit the market, the Contemporary English Version, had only captured 1 percent of the Bible market for its publisher, Thomas Nelson.

One reader who was disturbed by the Times article was Eugene Habecker, then-president and CEO of American Bible Society. Habecker penned a letter to the editor that was published a few days later. He did not dispute the fact that Bible sales were going through a sluggish season. What bothered Habecker the most about the article was the fact that so many Americans owned a Bible (he estimated that there was one in at least 90 percent of homes), but few had any idea what was in it or how to engage with its content. “The people who have Bibles . . . don’t use them enough,” Habecker wrote, “or when they do, they don’t remember what they have read.” Habecker concluded that American Bible Society, despite its impressive distribution numbers, was not doing enough to teach people how to use the Bible. The seeds for the current program of “Bible engagement” was born.

Elias Boudinot, the first President of American Bible Society, would have agreed with Habecker. But when he led the charge to found American Bible Society in 1816, he was much more concerned with distribution than with use. Boudinot believed there were a large number of people living in the United States who did not own a copy of the Christian Scriptures and who would benefit from having access to the Bible. He believed that the Bible was a tool for evangelism and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, any reader of the Bible could decipher its meaning and be transformed by its message. The goal was to simply put a copy of the Bible—without interpretive notes or comments—in the hands of as many people as possible and let God do the rest.

Like the organization in the 21st century, Boudinot and the founders of American Bible Society were concerned about the state of the Bible in the nation. Their concern was twofold. First, people needed a copy of the Bible. The American Bible Society founders received regular reports from Western missionaries who lamented the desperate need for Bibles on the frontier. One of those missionaries was Samuel J. Mills of the Massachusetts Missionary Society. In 1812 Mills joined fellow missionary John Schermerhorn on a year-long tour through the Southern and Western portions of the United States. Their mission was evangelistic, but they were also charged with gaining information— survey data, if you will—about the state of Bible ownership in these areas. Upon his return, Mills claimed that there were between 40,000 and 50,000 French Catholics in Louisiana who did not own Bibles. He estimated that in at least 13,000 Bibles were needed in St. Louis to provide one for every family. Thirty thousand more Bibles were needed for the same reason in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois and Mississippi. Mills lamented that the “whole country,” from “Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico,” is “as the valley of the shadow of death” due to a lack of Bibles.

The founders’ second concern was the role Bible should play in the development of the American republic. Boudinot believed that the United States, especially under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and his followers, was moving in a secular direction. On several occasions he used his pen to defend orthodox Protestantism against threats from “infidels” seeking to undermine the role the Bible must play in American culture. For example, in 1801, fearful that heretics and unbelievers were infiltrating American society and influencing its youth, Boudinot published a booklength critique of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, which he perceived as an attack on traditional Christianity. Boudinot called his book The Age of Revelation or The Age of Reason Shewn to be an Age of Infidelity. In this book Boudinot defended traditional Christian doctrines such as the divine inspiration of the Bible, the Virgin conception and deity of Christ, and Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It was clear that Boudinot and the founders of American Bible Society wanted a Christian republic that was rooted in the teachings of the Scriptures.

Over the course of three or four decades following the creation of the organization in 1816, Boudinot’s prayers were answered. American Bible Society published and distributed millions of Bibles throughout the United States and the world. A massive evangelical revival swept the nation in those years, essentially Christianizing the culture and bringing moral reform to the republic. And American Bible Society led a revolution in religious printing and publication that brought the Bible and Christianity to ordinary people in 19th-century America.

When Eugene Habecker took American Bible Society down the path of Bible engagement in the 1990s, a path the organization follows to this day, he was continuing the work begun two centuries ago by men and women empowered by the same Spirit and enlivened by the same vision.


DR. JOHN FEA, PHD, teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He is the author of several books, most recently, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Previous Section


Read Section
Next Section

The Bible in a Changing Context

Read Section