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Understanding America's Five Faith Tribes

News Image By PNW Staff July 10, 2017
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Belief matters because it drives action, both in the voting booth and out. We read and hear every day about a society embracing LGBT rights or turning away from the Church, and it may be cause for concern. 

Although these trends are not to be ignored, it is important to keep in mind the fact that no society possesses a single group identity. 

Instead, a closer look at the true divisions within society offers considerable insight into how the five major "faith tribes" behave based on their beliefs as well as how each is able to influence American culture as a whole. 

Through examination of how these faith groups move a society, changes can be tracked, understood and predicted.

The breakdown of these cultural tendencies comes from research conducted by Barna and is particularly relevant following the unusual election cycle of 2016 and the major cultural forces that many believe are pulling the country in opposite directions. 

Whereas it is true that there are a great many faith practices in the United States, three of the five faith tribes used in Barna's research are Christian simply because of the fact that each is greater in size than any minority religion and that their influence on both culture and politics is also substantial. 


All of the following figures refer to the adult population.

1. Evangelical Christians (6%)

Evangelical Christians, a group narrowly defined by the Barna researchers, tends to be older than each of the other four tribes. 

They are also politically more conservative with 69% of respondents classed as fiscal conservatives and 79% as social conservatives. 

The great majority (84%) are pro-life and pessimistic on the direction of the country (69%). The Tea Party movement also enjoys its greatest support, around 50%, from Evangelical Christians.

Spiritually, they believe in absolute moral truth, traditional moral values (98%) and the accuracy of the Bible. 

Politically, only 18% describe themselves as environmentalist and a scant 4% support LGBT rights. In contrast to the common view of gun ownership, only 31% own a firearm, not so far removed from the 22% of religious skeptics and atheists who own guns. 

In general, Evangelical Christians find themselves on the opposite side of the political and cultural spectrum, not in contrast to other religions but, rather, from skeptics and atheists.

2. Non-evangelical Born Again Christians (23%)

The faith tribe Barna describes as Non-Evangelical Born Again Christian is larger by a factor of nearly four, but has been declining in population over the past decades. 


They tend to be less conservative and less traditional, though the majority still self-identifies as conservative on both fiscal (56%) and social stances (59%). 

Spiritually, they share the confession of sin and trust in the salvation of Christ. Non-Evangelical Born Again Christians may belong to any one of a number of mainline churches, but it is their beliefs that set them apart from the other faith tribes and unite them, even across denominational lines, with other Non-Evangelical Born Again Christians.

Firearm ownership is the highest among this group and despite fiscal and cultural conservative leanings, they double the support of Evangelical Christians for environmentalism (37%) and the Black Lives Matter movement (36%) while increasing the support for LGBT rights seven-fold at 27%. 

Still, 87% support traditional moral values and 63% are pro-life with a nearly equal 62% holding a pessimistic view of the direction the country is heading.

3. Notional Christians (42%)

Notional Christians are the largest faith tribe and show a plurality of support, though not a majority, for the democratic party. 

Less theologically conservative at 30%, Notional Christians, those who believe in Christianity in a general way but have not made a personal commitment for their own salvation, also show more progressive beliefs on environmentalism and LGBT rights, both at 39% support. 

Rather than trusting their faith in Christ's sacrifice on the cross (only 10% believe in salvation through faith alone), their notion of salvation comes from earning their way into Heaven through good moral acts on Earth.

4. All Other Religious Faiths (6%)

All other religious faiths combined, including Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and numerous others, comprise only 6% of the total US population. Barna has categorized Mormons in this category as well, further swelling its ranks. 



This is the segment of those polled who identify themselves as being the most willing to engage in civil disobedience as a form of protest (31%) and fully 43% consider themselves to be environmentalists. 

They are the only faith group to align in their majority with the Democrat party (58%) and support for LGBT rights (47%), they also support traditional moral values (57%) and a set of moral absolutes.

This group composed of all other religions is the group least likely to own a gun but also most closely aligns with Notional Christians with respect to the stated importance of their faith with only 43% responding that their faith is very important to them. 

Their social liberalism further aligns them with Notional Christians with respect to their support for environmentalism, abortion, Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights and gun control

5. Skeptics and Atheists (23%)

The group composed of skeptics and atheists sits so far on the opposite end of the spectrum from Evangelical Christians that it is a strain to classify them as a 'faith' tribe.  

By far the most liberal of the five faith tribes, 48% of skeptics call themselves environmentalists, 13% are pro-life and 66% support the LGBT movement. 

Overall, 62% claim liberal positions on most social issues. As many as 44% consider themselves fiscally liberal as well. 

Why Does It Matter?

To understand the faith tribes is to understand American politics. To understand how the five faith tribes grow or shrink in size or change their geographic distribution is to understand how politics is shifting. 

The 2016 election cycle saw Evangelical Christians lining up behind President Trump with the Notional Christians splitting their vote between Trump and Clinton. 

To predict future political opinion on LGBT rights, gun control, fiscal issues or abortion, shifts among faith groups is an essential study. 

As the ranks of Evangelicals slowly shrink and skeptics, Notional Christians and other faiths grow, the national consciousness will be pulled along with them. 

Some predict that the 2016 election may be a high point for conservative politics.


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