The Cultural Context for the 2016 Election

An objective assessment of American society is hard to come by these days. Every observer possesses a worldview, and that worldview automatically acts as a filter on how reality is perceived and then communicated. The media certainly make no pretense of objectivity in their reporting; perhaps expecting unbiased reporting is unrealistic, or even impossible. With that in mind, what follows is an attempt to provide a brief, data-based, objective assessment of the state of American culture today.

State of the Union

Here are some of the more significant reflections of data describing Americans’ assessment of the state of America today with particular emphasis upon the spiritual condition of the nation.

  • Americans are losing faith in all aspects of their Christian heritage and commitment. During the past decade alone there have been huge declines in the proportion of people who claim to be deeply spiritual (-21 points); who say their religious faith is very important in their life (-16 points); who claim to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life (-12 points).
  • Belief in God, trust in the Bible, and reliance on Jesus alone for salvation have all declined precipitously. Fewer than one in five adults believes that absolute moral truth exists and is defined in the Bible; claim to be totally committed to investing themselves in spiritual development; contend that they are very committed to having deeper spiritual experiences than they have had in the past; or say the most important decision they have ever made was asking God for forgiveness and inviting Jesus to be their Lord and Savior.
  • Religious behavior is being radically reshaped. Many of the traditional Christian activities – praying, attending worship services, reading the Bible, attending Christian education offerings, volunteering at a church, sharing their faith in Christ with non-believers – have dropped anywhere from seven to 13 percentage points in the last ten years. A mere one out of ten adults has a conversation about faith in a typical week with someone who believes differently than they do.
  • The unchurched population is growing like cancer, rising by 11 points in ten years, now approaching half of the adult public. Most unchurched adults consider themselves to be Christian and spiritually inclined; one in five is born again! The dropout rate continues to climb because half of the unchurched say the churches they have attended do not add sufficient value to their life.
  • The Bible is taking a big hit. While more than nine out of ten households own one or more copies, just one-third read from it during a typical week last year. Only one out of three adults believes it is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches. A minority of Americans say the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life, which helps explain why only half of the country wants the Bible to have greater influence on American society.
  • Discipleship has fallen out of favor in the U.S. Only 5% of Americans are addressing the likes of brokenness of sin, surrender and submission to God, or a commitment to intensely love God and people. Among people who believe that Jesus was a real person, only one out of every six claims to make the “greatest possible effort” to follow the example of Jesus.
  • Americans were once proud of their country and their government, but those days are long gone. Less than one out of every five adults has a great deal of confidence in the legislative branch, the executive branch, the judicial branch, the various agencies and departments of federal government, or in their state government. Why? Because most people believe that a majority of their tax money is wasted (an average of 51 cents on the dollar), that elected officials don’t care what the people think, and just 3% say they can always trust the government in Washington to do what is right.
  • The nation’s morals and values are a mess – and collectively we know. More than seven out of ten adults agree that the nation is greatly divided when it comes to the most important values. Our moral behavior profile is appalling. A majority argues that co-habitation, sexual fantasies, sex outside of marriage, giving birth outside of marriage, divorce, doctor-assisted suicide, homosexual relations, and same-sex marriage are morally acceptable endeavors. Within the next decade we expect a majority to add pornography and profanity to the list.
  • Major social institutions no longer hold the confidence of Americans. Of 15 such institutions, only two – the military and the police – are held in high esteem by a majority of adults. (And the rating of the police is on the decline.) Confidence in churches has plummeted by 11 percentage points in the last decade. All of our political institutions have sustained dramatic declines in trust. Banks, public schools, and the media are falling rapidly.
  • People have less and less hope for the future of America. Two-thirds argue that the government will never change for the better. Never! Voting participation has been on the decline. Seven out of ten say the obstacles to experiencing the American Dream as more extreme than ever. In fact, most adults – and especially Millennials – believe the American Dream is beyond reach. A majority say America is no longer a place where everyone has the opportunity to get ahead and move up to a better standard of living. In fact, only one in five adults believes that today’s children will have a better life than was experienced by their parents’ generation – less than half as many who held that view at the turn of the millennium. Instead, two-thirds of adults now say that most children will grow up to be worse off than their parents were.[1]

This is the cultural context for the 2016 battle for the White House and control of Congress.

[1] The information in this article is from America at the Crossroads: Explosive Trends Shaping America’s Future and What You Can Do About It, by George Barna, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 2016 (forthcoming).