Check out this fascinating new study from the Barna group that appears to show the damage that is being done to the Christian faith by the political actions of right wing fundamentalists. This should serve as a serious wake-up call for the culture warriors who are attempting to increase the role of religion in politics – they are alienating the next generation of believers and non-believers severely.

The study shows that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than did previous generations when they were at the same stage of life. In fact, in just a decade, many of the Barna measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward, fueled in part by a growing sense of disengagement and disillusionment among young people. For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a “good impression” of Christianity.

One of the groups hit hardest by the criticism is evangelicals. Such believers have always been viewed with skepticism in the broader culture. However, those negative views are crystallizing and intensifying among young non-Christians. The new study shows that only 3% of 16 – to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals. This means that today’s young non-Christians are eight times less likely to experience positive associations toward evangelicals than were non-Christians of the Boomer generation (25%).

The study explored twenty specific images related to Christianity, including ten favorable and ten unfavorable perceptions. Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative. Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%) – representing large proportions of young outsiders who attach these negative labels to Christians. The most common favorable perceptions were that Christianity teaches the same basic ideas as other religions (82%), has good values and principles (76%), is friendly (71%), and is a faith they respect (55%).

Even among young Christians, many of the negative images generated significant traction. Half of young churchgoers said they perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. One-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

So why is this happening? Who exactly is to blame for this view among both Christians and non-Christians that their religion is hypocritical and overly political? I think this study shows that it’s the culture warriors.

Interestingly, the study discovered a new image that has steadily grown in prominence over the last decade. Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is “anti-homosexual.” Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than anything else. Moreover, they claim that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.

The result appears to be a continuing alienation of each subsequent generation towards Christianity.


And the Barna researchers believe that this isn’t just a trend seen in young people that will reverse as they get older.

As pointed out in the Barna Update related to atheists and agnostics, this is not a passing fad wherein young people will become “more Christian” as they grow up. While Christianity remains the typical experience and most common faith in America, a fundamental recalibration is occurring within the spiritual allegiance of America’s upcoming generations.

I think the message is clear to those that are willing to see it. Politics and religion is bad for both politics and religion. It is generally believed that one of the reasons religion has been so successful in the US while it has waned in European countries is because there has been separation of church and state in this country. When religion interferes in politics it has classically generated contempt and animosity for religion. As fundamentalists have become the most vocal and visible element in Christianity due to their politicking for bigotry towards gays and lesbians, as well as foolish abstinence laws and legislated morality, their public image has been severely compromised both within and without the Christian community.

H/T Box Turtle Bulletin.


  1. #1 Suricou Raven
    October 4, 2007

    Barna Group? In my experience, any study they produce should be considered highly suspect.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    October 4, 2007

    Ha! Seeing as how the Religious Right is butt-loaded with loathsome individuals such as Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson, and Bill O’Reilly, and coupled with idiots like Mike Huckabee and George Bush, it is only fitting.

    As Bush once said: There’s an old saying in Tennessee � I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee � that says, fool me once, shame on � shame on you. Fool me � you can’t get fooled again.” �George W. Bush, Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2002

  3. #3 MarkH
    October 4, 2007

    Suricou, I disagree. The Barna group is a reputable group, even if they have a Christian/Evangelical bent. Even if they were predisposed to paint a pro-Christian picture, this survey certainly does not accomplish this.

  4. #4 CRM-114
    October 4, 2007

    The problem is that delusions are not self-correcting. This is especially so in the case of elective delusions. Do you think any religious people feel shame when they offend other people with their bizarre antics? I think resistance only encourages them.

  5. #5 MarkH
    October 4, 2007

    I’m not sure this will encourage them. The fundamentalists have acted in the past to create big-tent organizations to increase political efficacy. The recognition that their current strategy alienates a huge portion of the population – including the people that are to replace them as they die off – my actually register and force them to change their worst behavior.

    The CRM-114 reference is awesome by the way.

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    October 4, 2007

    I love religion.

  7. #7 usagi
    October 4, 2007

    The recognition that their current strategy alienates a huge portion of the population – including the people that are to replace them as they die off – my actually register and force them to change their worst behavior.

    Ha! Oh dear… That’s rich…

    The group that considers Sam Brownback as a viable Presidential candidate despite his liberal views is going to change their behavior.

    Please, tell us another one, Mark. You’re on a roll.

    What’s far more likely is that Christianity’s negatives are going to continue to rise, and the loudest group of shriekers will broaden their attacks on anyone who refuses to renounce their evil ways and join them (see Orac’s post about an encounter with street preachers a few weeks back). Unless the Dominionist parallel economy managers to succeed (and it may), “mainstream” Christians, who declined to speak out about the fanatics who steeplejacked their religion, are going to find themselves extinct in a few decades. All that’ll be left are the outright loons, and that starts impacting your reputation quickly no matter how much history you have behind you.

  8. #8 MarkH
    October 4, 2007

    Well Usagi, it may not be so cut and dry. The younger ones as they come in may moderate the message. The current leadership may recognize their waning influence. Nothing is impossible.

    But the data do suggest that their survival is somewhat at stake. If they don’t stop presenting a message that is distasteful to young people, they’re screwed.

  9. #9 usagi
    October 4, 2007

    Mark, if you were dealing with something rational (or even susceptible to data), that might be the case. These people are not. The truth of their message and their absolute unwavering belief in it is the only thing that matters. You look at the data and see the trends spelling doom. They look at it and see the group getting into paradise growing smaller and praise God for it. There is no greater group of purity trolls. If they implode, it’s just proof to God of their devotion.

  10. #10 Ahcuah
    October 5, 2007

    Wow. Just think about how much stronger that trend would be if the New Atheists weren’t scaring so many of them away with their uncompromising rhetoric.

  11. #11 MarkH
    October 5, 2007

    But they have done just that in the past. Don’t forget the 90s when the Christian coalition set aside internal struggles for a common goal. They have acted in a politically savvy way in the past, don’t rule it out for the future.

  12. #12 Dr. Oscar
    October 5, 2007

    This will be joyous news to all those “Christians” who enjoy being “oppressed”. And the Republican reverend Robertson (as Dr. Gene Scott used to call him) will spin this by saying “it’s all Satan’s work so send me more money”. It’s a shame Dr. Scott isn’t around to tell them all to go to Hell anymore.

  13. #13 Suricou Raven
    October 5, 2007

    I can see increasing polarisation – Christians fractioning into the fundamentalist/conservatives and the not-quite-liberal. The space in between will be emptied, much like the center ground of US politics: Everyone will be forced to pick a side. Either be a fundamentalist – complete with homophobia, young-earth creationism, and values from the 1800’s – or reject all of those. No way to pick-and-mix positions.

  14. #14 Ex-drone
    October 5, 2007

    It’s a promising trend, but the US experiences periodic fundamentalist revivals. This may just signal the wane of the latest cycle. If so, I hope that I am long gone before the next “Great Awakening.”

  15. #15 Ted
    October 5, 2007

    Religious fundamentalism tends to follow nationalism. Exposure to other cultures on more equal footing = reductions in nationalism. Current generation is “well” connected in technologies that span borders -> greater acceptance of diversity.

    Fight like hell for open access across the networks for the trend to continue and eschew limitations that enhance nationalism –like cultural segregation on the basis of national security.

    Or maybe it’s the effect of atheists mercilessly fisking ID-ers on ScienceBlogs. Supposedly that works too because I hear fundamentalists are pwned by atheist logic and ridicule.

  16. #16 DragonScholar
    October 5, 2007

    I don’t find it surprising – though it’s happening at a faster clip than I’d expect. After decades of the religious right hammering away, creating an image, they now have to live with it- and the backfire.

    It’s the religious version of Freakonomics. Think of it as Freakology. They didn’t realize the implications of actions.

    This also has very strong implications for the discussion the religious right may bolt the Republican party. Their practices are essentially a mix of divisive and consolidating – and a third party would let them be divisive while consolidating their power (and at least let them make some runs at the state level). However, if they do so, they can almost guarantee complete alienation on a national level since they’re apparently quite good at turning people off.

    I could actually see Christianity as a “brand” being identified with sucha religious right third party, only accelerating an increase in negative opinions of Christianity.

  17. #17 TTT
    October 5, 2007

    What were their methods and what was the sample size?

  18. #18 usagi
    October 5, 2007

    Don’t forget the 90s when the Christian coalition set aside internal struggles for a common goal. They have acted in a politically savvy way in the past, don’t rule it out for the future.

    Valid point, but it’s not the 90s any more. That’s rather the point of the shift that’s taken place in Dominionist circles (and that’s the only group that can consistently deliver a block of votes dictated from the leader to the troops). It’s been ingrained for so long now that there can be no compromise, there’s no room left to make any compromises (it’s a feature, not a bug). They don’t accommodate dissenting voices within, they cast them out. Any youths who dissent only have the option of toeing the line, forming their own groups with no resources or power, or joining other, non-fundamentalist sects. The net result is the same. The only question is if mainstream Christians will try to reclaim the Christian “brand” from the extremists. My own view is that they’re too late. Moderates may have to rebrand as something else or accept the negative perception that comes with sharing a name with a group of psychotics.

  19. #19 cubiclegrrl
    October 6, 2007

    My own view is that they’re too late. Moderates may have to rebrand as something else or accept the negative perception that comes with sharing a name with a group of psychotics.

    Yep, definitely too little, too late. In American eyes, the average Muslim is expected to assume the burden of proof that s/he is not Osama’s posse. So I have very little sympathy left for the average Christian’s squirming over their hate-mongering, money-grubbing, clinic-bombing, Rapture-ready brethern. That’s just too d–ned bad: They were–with several notable exceptions–too scared of being kicked out of Jesus’s clubhouse to stand up for their so-called beliefs. Let ’em squirm until they grow a pair and clean house.

    If the unholy alliance of the plutocrats and theocrats in the GOP is broken up, it’d be the best thing to happen to the US in decades. I very much hope that the younger folks are a key element in that.

  20. #20 Billy (A Liberal Disabled Veteran)
    October 6, 2007

    Ex-drone said “It’s a promising trend, but the US experiences periodic fundamentalist revivals. This may just signal the wane of the latest cycle. If so, I hope that I am long gone before the next “Great Awakening.”

    I fear you may be right. If the current crop of fundies alienates too many youngsters, they will desert the right wing churches. In thirty to fifty years, the few who stick with it will then present “a return the the good old days when men were real men, women were real women, and small fuzzy creatures from alpha-centauri were real small fuzzy creatures from alpha-centauri and the world was great because everyone believed in only THIS!!!!”

    Unfortunatey, some people will find this appealing (especially since so few of them will remember what really went on) and a whole new fundamentalist revolution will attempt to hijack reality.

  21. #21 DuWayne
    October 8, 2007

    Billy –

    I doubt it. The conservative Christian right, is in it’s death throws. Do they have revivals? Of course, but they keep getting smaller and smaller, with a smaller pond to fish from. To get a revival going, they need sympathy, mostly from the moderate faithful, who realize that society has gotten more decadent than they might think proper. The thing is, less people are fitting the bill than ever before.

    A hundred years ago, if you put a reverend phelps on a street corner, he’d have had the town he was in enamored. Fifty years ago, half the folks walking by would have shaken their heads, maybe laughed, the rest would have listened with rapt attention. Just a few years ago, before he started picketing soldiers funerals, most everyone, even fairly extreme righties, found his rhetoric deplorable, if they heard of him at all.

    The honest truth of it is, many theologically conservative Christians think Robertson a bit loony and wish he’d shut the hell up. Moderates think the whole lot of them are insane and repugnant. Most young people don’t see the point.

    I think teh Gay, is the straw breaking the camels back. Most young people have friends who are gay, family who are gay, co-workers who are gay or are gay themselves. Follow a faith that believes these people deserve to go to hell, just because they happen to find others of the same sex attractive? No bloody way. This is by no means the death knell of religion or spirituality, but is sure as hell is the death knell of the extremism. Across the board, young folks (it hurts that I can’t really claim membership anymore) are tired of it.

    The next “great” revival, will be even smaller. The fuel has been burning itself out for well over a century. Soon, the “great” revivals, will be nothing but an ever shrinking fringe. They are, in their hearts, aware of this. Thus the frantic runs at institutionalizing bigotry, into state constitutions and even attempts to do so at the national level. Even that’s running out of steam as the lies they told to pass them have been coming out into the light of day.

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