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The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter
by George Barna
Barna Books/Tyndale House, 2009
(235 pages, $24.99, hardcover)
reviewed by Thomas A. Baima
The Seven Faith Tribes presents George Barna’s “big idea” for confronting the culture wars in the United States. His concern is that “America is being torn apart by our failure to talk and work together toward a shared set of desired outcomes, based on a common set of values that we possess.” To address this crisis, Barna writes a prescription: “To achieve positive outcomes . . . requires that Christians work in harmony with non-Christians—and do so without a covert evangelistic agenda.”
Barna claims that the failure to address the cultural issues is born of most Americans’ unwillingness to dialogue with those who hold other worldviews. His book is based on statistical sociology, specifically, on findings from more than 30,000 interviews. Such a large statistical sample requires our attention, especially when reported by a respected Christian statistician.
Barna’s assertion that “it is the widespread drive to elevate self over community that has triggered our decline” could stand as his thesis statement for what follows. The problem with American culture, he believes, is directly related to the loss of an American experience of community—not to our individual experience of community, whatever that may mean to each of us, but to the failure to achieve a sense of national community. Barna argues that this can be attributed to four institutional failures: in the family, the church, public schools, and government agencies.
Two Christian Tribes
Barna’s survey findings lead him to divide Americans into seven groups or “tribes,” of which Christians comprise two. The two Christian tribes do not line up with existing identities of the major Christian groupings. Rather, they represent a clustering of attitudes and behaviors that reflect Christians’ self-reporting on the 576 distinctive variables enumerated in his surveys. This is different from the way most Christians assign themselves to a segment of the box marked “Christian” in our society.
The larger of the two Christian tribes Barna calls Casual Christians. This group represents two-thirds of all Americans (150 million of the 225 million adults in America) and 80 percent of all self-described Christians. Barna argues that this tribe is the result of the breakdown in national values which his research is describing. Tolerance, liberty, and happiness are the defining touchstones for them.
Casuals seem comfortable picking and choosing the principles from the Bible that they believe are literally accurate. . . . Even so, what Casuals resonate with most in [the biblical narrative] is not so much the implications for their own lives and relationships with God as their pride at being associated with such a deity and the encouragement they draw from those narratives.
Christianity, he later notes, is a place of comfort in their lives.
This group is contrasted with the second, and smaller, Christian tribe, the Captives. Barna chose this term from Romans 1:1 and Titus 1:1, wherein St. Paul describes himself as a “voluntary slave to Jesus Christ.” Captive Christians may best be described as those who see their faith as making a demand on them, a demand they accept. The spiritual dimension of life is, for them, what is most real. It touches every aspect of their lives, every moment of their living. Cyprian or Tertullian would be quite at home with this group. Whereas for Casuals, religious beliefs are a resource, for Captives, they form the guiding and governing principle for all of life. Ala carte is not an option. The menu is prix fixe.
After the Casual Christians (67 percent of adult Americans) and the Captive Christians (16 percent), the remaining five tribes are: Jews (2 percent), Mormons (1.5 percent), Pantheists (1.5 percent), Muslims (1 percent), and Skeptics (11 percent).
Remarkably, Barna’s findings indicate that not one of the seven tribes feels “free to practice . . .without breaking laws or upsetting . . . other tribes.” All of them feel “that they are not understood and cannot get a fair hearing . . . that their freedoms are being eliminated by political maneuvers by other tribes . . . that tribal leadership is more about political power than spiritual/moral guidance,” and that they have suffered “a loss of the experience of religious freedom.” All of this gives them a sense that “the nation is losing its heart and soul.”
For such marginalization to be felt across the tribal spectrum is newsworthy and a key element of Barna’s rationale for his “big idea.” While it’s not surprising that people within a particular religious tribe would say they feel marginalized by the dominant culture, one wouldn’t expect them to think that every other tribe shares that feeling. Yet, according to Barna’s surveys, every tribe does, and that surprising finding is foundational to his prescription.
Since, as the data on the seven tribes shows, there is no overarching worldview around which American society can be organized, Barna’s prescription is to identify the existing values shared among the disparate worldviews and to build our common life as a nation on them. He identifies twenty such values that, he argues, can form the basis of a genuine civic community.
Drawing on Shared Values
To speak of shared values is difficult because most religious systems want to find agreement not only on the “what” but also on the “why.” So perhaps a better word than “agreement” would be “convergence”: The values of the various faith tribes converge around twenty specific value indicators.
Barna speaks of the indicator as a “calibration of our values and world views.” The individual faith tribes are not changing their values. Rather, they are discovering where, with a bit of calibration, they can find convergence with other tribes. One such converging value indicator, for example, is “to represent the truth well.” Barna writes:
While most of America’s faith tribes contend that there are not moral absolutes and that truth is in the eye of the beholder, all of the tribes concur that consistently conveying truth, whatever a person understands it to be, is appropriate. Intentionally leading people astray is rejected by each tribe as mutually detrimental. Honesty is still deemed to be the best polity.
Be mutually respectful of human rights. Life is valuable; if we did not believe this, we would not have children and we would not seek to live long lives. While there may be extraordinary situations in which a life may be taken, those are exceptions. Apart from those infrequent times, people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
A final example has to do with civility:
Be courteous and polite. There is no excuse for rude behavior. A society that fosters vulgarity in any form is a culture in descent. Each tribe has its own motivation for encouraging civility, ranging from demonstrating love to protecting one’s physical security and reputation.
Barna believes that his twenty value indicators express specific content that could form the basis for greater dialogue across the tribes.
Armed with his data—which, while indicating the lack of a common worldview, also shows agreement among the tribes on both a sense of marginalization and a wide range of common values—Barna shapes his argument for the revitalization of America through intentional inter-tribal engagement based on shared values.
If the decline of America is a result of the failure of the guiding institutions of family, church, public schools, and government agencies, the revitalization will have to come from the bottom up, but ultimately it must reach leadership. Leadership in each of these areas will be the key to the future of the nation. Barna would have us somehow “empower value-driven leaders,” and “re-commission the media” to develop programming that supports the shared values of the nation.
Barna asserts that Christians must change the way they engage American culture if a revitalization of the nation is to be realized. In this regard, he argues that Christian witness is prior to Christian proclamation. The church as a guiding institution of American society is as much to blame as the family, public schools, and government agencies for the current state of the nation. Renewal of all of these institutions, the church included, is necessary for the revitalization of America.
This book, respectful of religious diversity while at the same time provocative in its demands, is an important contribution to the reflections of traditional Christians on culture.
Thomas A. Baima is a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and provost of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. He holds a doctorate from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome/Angelicum.