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RELIGION / JOHN DART : Evangelical Christians a Shrinking Community, Poll Finds

Despite the growing political impact of what critics call the “Religious Right,” a pollster who specializes in religious issues reports that its demographic base is shrinking, with the percentage of theologically conservative Christians steadily declining nationwide.

Only 7% of the U.S. population consists of people with “evangelical” beliefs and commitment, compared to 9% last year and 12% in 1992, under a standard designed by pollster George Barna, founder and president of the 10-year-old Barna Research Group in Glendale, who is personally sympathetic to the evangelicals.

“The movement of the data suggests that we may see a continued shrinking of the ranks of evangelicals in the immediate future, short of a miraculous outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the people of our land,” Barna wrote in a recently published book.

Barna and the better-known George Gallup Jr. are among the most active pollsters who regularly take the nation’s religious pulse. Despite occasional questions about accuracy, the results of their surveys have been increasingly watched as indicators of how faith is faring in an age of religious pluralism.

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About 35% of Americans fall under Barna’s less stringent category of “born-again Christian.” The figure, which had dropped to 32% in 1988 after a series of televangelist scandals, rose to 40% in 1992, but has fallen again, he said.

Although religion in some form remains “very important” to 62% of Americans (compared to 59% in 1991), the proportion of adults who strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in its teachings dropped from 47% three years ago to 38% this year, he said.

“So many people who might have held orthodox (Christian) views in the past have embraced a much broader set of beliefs,” Barna said in an interview. “There is a big trend toward a diverse and inclusive spirituality.”

This decline indicates that the strictest evangelical Christians, a prime recruiting ground for the Religious Right, may be shifting gradually to a less stringent outlook.

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Barna, however, said he was not prepared to interpret what that might mean for politically active, religiously motivated groups such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition that have become more prominent within the Republican Party and in local governments.

“We haven’t done any research on that question,” he said.

Yet, findings published this month in Barna’s “Virtual America” (Regal Books), indicate some slippage in the proportion of Americans who might respond favorably to appeals based on a fundamentalist-like understanding of the Bible and Christianity. Barna’s book interprets the results of telephone surveys of 1,205 adults in July, 1993, and 1,206 adults in January.

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A steady 95% of adults continue to say they believe in God or a universal force.

About 67% of those polled agreed with a Christian definition of God as “the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe who rules the world today,"--a substantial drop from 73% in 1992, he said.

In the latest survey, 10% called God “a state of higher consciousness,” 8% agreed with a definition of the “total realization of all human potential,” another 8% offered other descriptions and about 7% said they could not define God, according to Barna.

Although Barna’s company does surveys and market research for both secular and religious clients, his 18 books are written for an evangelical audience. He recently became executive pastor of a church in Oceanside, where he and his wife have a second home.

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“I’m not the type who likes to just research and observe,” Barna said. “I wanted to serve in a local church on weekends, in this case, one that is multicultural and aggressive evangelistically.”

Similarly, Gallup does not hide his active involvement in the Episcopal Church.

Both pollsters use standard public-opinion research techniques, however, said sociologist R. Stephen Warner of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“One difference between them is that Gallup tends to be optimistic and Barna seems to be pessimistic in interpreting results,” said Warner, who was in Los Angeles this week for the national meeting of the Assn. for Sociology of Religion.

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Confidence in the accuracy of religious polling, at least in measuring church attendance, was shaken about a year ago when a sample study of actual Protestant and Catholic church attendance suggested that it is only half the 40% or so who tell Gallup and Barna’s pollsters each year that they attended a worship service in the previous seven days.

Both Gallup and Barna rely on the truthfulness of survey respondents. Critics have speculated that some people give answers they believe will make them look good.

The critical study was done by three researchers, Kirk Hadaway of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, Cleveland; Penny Long Marler of Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., and Mark Chaves of the University of Notre Dame.

Sharply contested by sociologist-priest Andrew Greeley as “a sloppy piece of work,” the study was praised by Gerald Marwell, editor of the American Sociological Assn. journal that published it.

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Warner takes a moderate stance on the study. “It was a very important, solid piece of work, but not impeccable. It was provocative but not definitive,” he said.

“But I also find it implausible that half of the people who said they attended services are lying,” Warner added.

Indeed, in 1993 the Gallup Poll found that when an attempt was made to pin down the respondents--by asking them to name the church or synagogue where they attended services in the previous week--the percentage of those who described themselves as churchgoers dropped only 1%.

Forty-one percent said yes to the usual question and 40% said yes when also asked to name the place of worship, according to Gallup’s Princeton Religion Research Center.

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Nevertheless, the responses Barna received to questions dealing with Christian broadcasting and reading material showed such large audiences that he thinks they “cannot possibly be an accurate portrayal of reality.”

As an example, he said that 35% of those surveyed said they had watched a televised church service or other Christian program in the past seven days. That would translate to as many as 70 million adults per week nationwide, which Barna views as implausible.

Likewise, 22% (which would represent about 40 million adults) said they read a “magazine devoted to Christianity or to activities of special interest to Christians.” Yet a very generous estimate of the national readership of Christian periodicals would be 20 million people, Barna said.

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“Apparently, many people continue to believe that being associated with (Christian media) is still a socially desirable characteristic,” he wrote. And perhaps many intended to watch the programs or read the publications, he said.

“Naturally, some people are simply lying or posturing, seeking to convey an image they desire, although it conflicts with their actual behavior,” he said.

Another possibility, Barna said, is that people are defining “Christian” more broadly--to include socially and politically conservative media--which he does not.

“For instance, one study we conducted discovered that the most widely read ‘Christian’ magazine was ‘Reader’s Digest,’ ” Barna wrote.

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“Another study revealed that among the most listened to ‘Christian’ radio programs were ‘The Paul Harvey Report’ and Rush Limbaugh’s talk-radio program,” he said.

About the Survey

Pollster George Barna categorizes his survey respondents as “born-again Christians” if they fulfill two criteria--that they have an ongoing, personal commitment to Christ that is still important today, and they believe they are heaven bound because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their savior.

To be classified in the stricter “evangelical” category, Barna says they must agree with those two statements plus six others: that religion is important in their lives, that God is an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator and ruler of the world, that you cannot get to heaven just by doing good things, that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches, that Satan is a living force and not symbolic, and that they have a personal responsibility to tell other people of their religious beliefs.

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All others he categorizes as “non-Christians.”


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