Ethnic Groups Differ Substantially On Matters of Faith

altAugust 10, 2004 The presidential race is showing how differently the four major ethnic groups in the U.S. deal with life.

A new research study from The Barna Group, of Ventura, California indicates that those differences are as significant regarding matters as faith as they are in relation to politics. Based on nationwide surveys among more than 2600 adults, the study concludes that the African-American population is the segment with the most traditional Christian beliefs and practices, and that Asians are generally the least in-tune with Christian perspectives.

The white population of the U.S. is the largest racial group (68%) but also the slowest growing. The fastest growing are the Hispanic (currently 14% of the U.S. population) and Asian populations (4%), with the black population experiencing moderate growth (13%). The overwhelming size of the white population often obscures the significant gaps in belief and practice among the different racial groups.

Matters of Religious Practice

The Barna survey examined eight elements of religious behavior and discovered that blacks were at the high end of religious activity for half of those activities (reading the Bible, praying to God, giving money to churches and watching Christian television). Blacks were also notably less likely than others to be unchurched.

The group that was the least likely to be active in Christian-oriented behaviors was Asians, who generated the lowest scores for all eight religious activities measured. Asians were the least involved in attending church, reading the Bible, praying to God, attending Sunday school, participating in a small group for religious purposes, watching Christian television and who gave the least average amount of money to churches. They were also the group most likely to be unchurched.

Hispanics were the segment most likely to share their faith in Christ with non-believers. In general, Hispanics were below average on most of the religious behaviors examined. They were especially low on the scale regarding the amount of money they donate to churches.

White adults stood out as being neither the highest nor lowest on any of the eight religious behaviors tested.

Religious Beliefs Differ

A dozen belief-oriented measures were studied in the research. Once again, black adults emerged as the segment most likely to parallel Christian or biblical teachings. The African-American segment is the most likely to contend that the Bible is accurate in its teachings, that religious faith is very important in their life, that they have a personal responsibility to evangelize, that Jesus Christ lived a holy life, that divorce except in cases of adultery is sin, and to possess an orthodox biblical view of God.

Interestingly, while blacks are the most likely to be born again (47%, compared to 41% among whites, 29% among Hispanics and just 12% among Asians), they are only half as likely as whites to be evangelical (9% versus 4%, respectively).

Asians were not only the least likely to believe any of the traditional Christian perspectives tested but they were also the most likely to be either atheist/agnostic (20%) or aligned with a non-Christian faith group (at 45%, more than four times the national norm).

Hispanics were more likely than either whites or blacks to reject the idea of the Holy Spirit as a living presence. In general, the religious views of Hispanics were quite similar to those of whites.

Whites were the racial group closest to Asians on two matters: rejecting the accuracy of the Bible and possessing an unorthodox or non-biblical understanding of the nature of God.

Religious Beliefs and Practices, By Race
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)

Read the Bible in the last week
Attended religious service in past week
Prayed to God in the past week
Participated in a small group, past week
Bible is totally accurate (strongly agree)
Satan is not a living being (strongly disagree)
Jesus Christ sinned while on earth (strongly disagree)
Born again Christian
Atheist or agnostic
Aligned with a non-christian faith
Subgroup size

Attitudes Influenced by Faith

Given the fact that two-thirds of Asians are either atheist/agnostic or aligned with a non-Christian faith, their distance from traditional Christian thought and behavior is explicable. However, with 85% of Hispanics defining themselves as "Christian," their reluctance to accept faith influences in cultural experiences is somewhat unexpected. Hispanics were notably less likely than either whites or blacks to support posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, retaining "In God We Trust" on currency and keeping the phrase "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Hispanics are also less likely than whites or blacks to describe themselves as "absolutely committed” to Christianity.

Not surprisingly, blacks were the group most likely to say they are "deeply spiritual" and absolutely committed to their faith.

Overall, however, there was a limited connection between people’s faith practices and beliefs and their positions related to public policy and retaining faith elements in public life.

Outcomes Explained by Church Strength

Upon examining the findings, researcher George Barna noted that these outcomes are consistent with a multi-year research project he recently completed on the interaction between black churches and the lives of black people. "Upon dissecting the role of faith in the lives of black Americans, we discovered that their faith in Christ has empowered millions of blacks to overcome challenges that might otherwise have been debilitating. The local church has been a major source of strength and directive leadership for the black community." Barna noted that black churches have helped blacks to focus on different values and priorities than those promoted by popular culture. "As a result, millions of blacks have found the inner strength to withstand hardships. Our study identified significant links between black people’s ability to remain spiritually and emotionally strong despite cultural challenges and the kinds of leadership, discipleship development, and extended community provided by effective churches."

Barna’s just-released book on the relationship of the black church and the life of its people is entitled High Impact African-American Churches. The researcher wrote the book with Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., an African-American pastor of Hope Christian Church, a large multicultural church in the Washington, D.C. area. Together, Barna and Jackson tie the history of blacks in America to their spiritual journey and reveal both the source of individual strength and community leadership that has enabled the black population to make significant strides over the past century.

“The lessons we learned from studying black churches where people’s lives are being transformed are transferable to any church, in any sector of our culture," according to Barna. "For instance, we found that the black church emphasis upon and facilitation of authentic worship is something that most people yearn for, but relatively few American churches successfully provide for their people. The ways in which the most effective black churches consistently lead their people into God’s presence are not methods limited to use in the black community, but speak to the desires and responsiveness of all Americans. Similarly, what the great black churches in the U.S. have learned about discipleship, serving the needy, evangelism and stewardship is germane to every church, regardless of its congregation’s make-up."

Some cultural observers have questioned whether the strategies that affect the lives of Caucasians will have a similar positive impact among different subcultures. Barna reasoned that the question reflects a lack of understanding regarding how people think and behave. "After conducting research for more than two decades, it has become clear to us that people are people. They are created by the same God, possess the same basic and inherent needs, and struggle with the same cultural and spiritual forces. For the most part, there are not distinct white, black, Hispanic or Asian, or Native American solutions to the human dilemma. There are simply biblical solutions to human need and longing. Language and programs may differ, but the basic challenges and responses are amazingly universal. Jesus is Jesus, regardless of your skin color or country of origin."

When asked to explain the relevance of a study of one racial group to a racially diverse nation, the author of three dozen books on cultural change and religious matters noted that, "What distinguishes blacks in this nation from other racial groups is their more overt need for - and openness to - Jesus in the midst of a culture that until recently has been comparatively unsympathetic to their needs. As the nation’s culture becomes more challenging for people of faith, and as the economic and demographic balance of the nation shifts, the lessons and victories won by black churches will likely serve as a beacon for all ministries in a time of increasing spiritual confusion and searching."

Research Methods

The data described in this report are based on two nationwide surveys conducted by The Barna Group among 2,632 randomly selected adults during January and May of 2004. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±1.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The maximum sampling error associated with the white adults interviewed is ±2.4 percentage points; with black adults, ±5.6 percentage points; with Hispanic adults, ±5.4 percentage points; and with Asians, ±11.2 percentage points.

People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to minimal statistical weighting to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. The survey data were collected through a combination of telephone and online surveys. Households selected for inclusion in the telephone sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Evangelicals" are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; contending that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not determined by church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "evangelical."

“Born again Christians" were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made "a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today" and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "born again." Being classified as "born again" is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.

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