How Are Christians Viewed by Outsiders?

Surprisingly Few Adults Outside of Christianity Have Positive Views of Christians

December 3, 2002

George Barna Research Group

(Ventura, CA)- One reason why evangelical churches across the nation are not growing is due to the image that non-Christian adults have of evangelical individuals. In a nationwide survey released by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California, among a representative sample of people who do not consider themselves to be Christian, the image of evangelicals rated tenth out of eleven groups evaluated, beating out only prostitutes. The non-Christian population was not as dismissive of all Christians or religious people; however, as ministers and "born again Christians" were among the three highest-rated segments evaluated.

Impressions Count

Adults who do not consider themselves to be Christians were asked to provide their views of eleven groups. The only group that received a "favorable" opinion from a majority of non-Christian individuals were "millitary officers". Fifty-six percent had favorable impressions of the group and just 6% had an unfavorable opinion. (The remainder was somewhere in-between or did not have an opinion of the group.) Higher positive scores were awarded by this group by men (64% held favorable impressions), people 55 and over (67% favorable), whites (62%) and college graduates.

Just less than half-44%-said they have a favorable opinion of ministers, with only 9% having a negative opinion of the group. Born again Christians ranked third, with one-third (32%) saying they had a favorable impression of the group, and half as many (17%) indicating an unfavorable impression.

Among the remaining eight groups, half had a higher positive than negative image and two had a predominantly negative image. The segments whose image tended to be more favorable than unfavorable included Democrats (32% favorable, 12% unfavorable), real estate agents (30% positive, 11%negative). Republicans (23% favorable, 22% unfavorable) and evangelicals (22% favorable, 23% unfavorable) were the only groups whose image was equally positive and negative. Groups with a predominantly negative image were lesbians (23% positive, 30% negative) and prostitutes (5% favorable, 55% unfavorable).

In terms of the actual positve and negative percentages awarded to different groups, the study points out that less than half of the non-Christian public has a favorable impression of any of the three religious groups evaluated. Just 44% has a positive view of the clergy, only one-third (32%) has a positive impression of born again Christians and just one-fifth (22%) have a positive view of evangelicals.

Views Vary by Demographics

Different slices of the non-Christian population possess divergent views of such groups. For instance, non-Christian men were more likely than non-Christian women to have a positive fiew of millitary officers (64% vs. 47%, respectively). While non-Christian women had substantially more positive impression of born again Christians and just one-fifth (22%) have a positive view of evangelicals.

Age impacts people's perspectives, too. Non-Christian Baby Busters-those aged 19 to 37-were nearly three times more likely to have a favorable impression of lesbians thatn were older non-Christian adults, and were also more likely to have a positive view of movie and TV stars (32% compared to 18% among people 38 or older.) They were far less likely than their elders to have a favorable impression of evangelicals (18% vs. 25%, respectively). Busters were twice as likely to have a positive impresion of born again Christians (35%) as they were to hold a favorable view of evangelicals (18%).

White non-Christians were twice as likely as non-white non-Christians to have a more favorable opinionof Republicans (28% vs. 15%).

Non-Christian college graduates give their approval more sparingly than do less highly educated non-Christians. College graduates gave comparatively lower favorability ratings to born again Christians, ministers, evangelicals, lawyers, and media stars.

Language and Sources Considered

The survey data suggest that people form impressions on the basis of one-dimensional images created and communicated by the mass media. "Our studies show that many of the people who have negative impressions of evangelicals do not know what or who an evangelical is," commented George Barna, whose firm conducted the research. "People's impressions of others are often driven by incomplete, inaccurate, or out-of-context information conveyed under the guise of objectivity when, in fact, there is a point-of-view being advanced by the information source. Too often, we develop mental images of others without knowing those people."

Barna said he hopes people will reflect on these findings and examine their own perceptions of people who may be different from themselves. "During the holiday season millions of people slip into churches they do not usually attend, or give money to charities, or talk and sing about peace and goodwill. While we are in a more ponderous, generous and forgiving mood we may also consider people groups about whom we have developed a negative or unflattering impression, and examine the basis of those attitudes. We find that when people examine the foundation of their impressions and then talk to a few people from the groups of which they hae a low opinion, they discover that those people are not so bad after all. There may be some difference of opinion, but the negative impressions that result in animosity and division often dissipate if we dig beneath the surface of our attitudes."

The research also reveals the power of language. "Somehow "born again Christians" have a more favorable image than do "evangelicals", although few adults are able to identify any substantive differences between those two groups," noted Barna. "This is most likely a result of the thrashing evangelicals receive in the media. It seems that millions of non-Christians have negative impressions of evangelicals, even though they cannot define what an evangelical is, accurately identify the perspectives of that group, or identify even a handful of people they know personally who are evangelicals. There appear to be a lot of religious divisiveness in America based on caricatures and myths rather than on the basis of true ideological or theological differences."

Research Methodology

Ed.: This section is not fully reproduced. This was based on a telephone survey of 270 adults, who identified themselves as non-Christian, in the continental U.S. The error rate is +/- 6.2% at the 95% confidence level.

Question: Is your impression of people in this group generally favorable, generally unfavorable, or somewhere in-Between?
Group Favorable In-Between Unfavorable Don't Know
Millitary Officers 56% 32% 6% 6%
Ministers 44% 40% 9% 7%
Born again Christians 32% 41% 17% 10%
Democrats 32% 47% 12% 9%
Real Estate Agents 30% 51% 11% 8%
Movie and TV performers 25% 54% 14% 7%
Lawyers 24% 53% 18% 5%
Republicans 23% 47% 22% 8%
Lesbians 23% 38% 30% 11%
Evangelicals 22% 33% 23% 22%
Prostitutes 5% 29% 55% 11%




Manna's Response