*** Polls:

Study says 7% of U.S. population are conservative Christians, down from 12% two years ago . People are embracing a wider set of beliefs, expert says.

                                                                                  By : JOHN DART

                                                                                  TIMES STAFF WRITER

                                                                                  August 13, 1994 Saturday

D espite the growing impact of the Christian right on politics, a pollster who specializes in religious issues reports that its demographic base is now shrinking, with the percentage of theologically conservative Christians steadily declining nationwide.

Only 7% of the U.S. population now consists of those with “evangelical” beliefs and commitment, compared to 9% last year (1993) and 12% in 1992, under a standard designed by pollster George Barna, founder and president of the 10-year-old Barnap Research Group in Glendale, who is personally very sympathetic to the evangelicals.

“The movement of the data suggests that we may see a continued shrinking of the ranks of evangelicals in the immediate future, short of a miraculous outpouring of God’s spirit upon the people of our land,” Barna wrote in a recently published


 Barna and the much better-known George Gallup Jr. are among the most active pollsters regularly taking the religious pulse of the nation Despite occasional questions about accuracy, the results of their surveys have been increasingly watched as indicators of how faith is faring in an age of religious pluralism.

About 3 5% of Americans fall under Barna’s less stringent category of “born-again Christian.” The figure, which had dropped to 32 % in 1988 after a series of televangelist scandals, rose to 40 % in 1992, but has fallen again, he said.

Although religion of some form remains “very important” to 62% of Americans (compared to 59 % in 1991), the number of adults who strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in its teachings dropped from 47 % three years ago to 38 % this year, he said.

“So many people who might have held orthodox [Christian] views in the past have embraced a much broader set of beliefs,” Barna said in an interview. “There is a big trend toward a diverse and inclusive spirituality.”

This decline indicates that the strictest evangelical Christians, a prime recruiting ground for the religious right, may be shifting gradually to a less stringent outlook.

B arna, however, said he was not prepared to say what that might mean for the politically active, religiously motivated groups such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition that have gained strength within the Republican Party and in local goveminent.

“We haven’t done any research on that question,” he said. But findings published recent ly in Barna’ s “Virtual America” (Regal Books), indicates some slippage in the number of Amencans who might respond favorably to appeals based on a fundamentalist-like understanding of the Bible and Christianity.

Barna’s book interprets the results from telephone surveys of 1,205 adults in July, 1993, and 1,206 adults last January. steady 95 % of adults continue to say they believe in God or a universal force.

About 67% of those polled agreed with a Christian definition of God as “the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe  who rules the world today”—a substantial drop from 73 % in “ 1992, he said.

In the latest survey, 10 % called God “a state of higher consciousness,” 8% agreed with   a definition of the “total realization of all human potential,” 8 % offered other descriptions and about 7 % said they could not define God, according to Barna.

Although Barna’s company performs surveys and market research for secular and religious clients, his 18 books are written for evangelical readers. He is executive pastor of a church in Oceanside where he and his wife have a second home.

Similarly, Gallup does not hide his active Episcopal Church involvement.

Both pollsters use standard public opinion research techniques, however, said sociologist R. Stephen Warner of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “One difference between them is that Gallup tends to be opti mistic and Barna seems to be pessimistic in interpreting results,” said Warner, who was in Los Angeles recently for the national meeting of the Assn. for Sociology of Religion.

Confidence in the accuracy of religious polling was shaken about a year ago when a sample study of actual Protestant and Catholic church attendance suggested only about 20 % of people attended a worship service in the past week—about half the number reported in polls by Gallup and Barna. Gallup has defended his resuits, and sociologists have continued to debate the issue.

G allup and Barna rely on the truthfulness of survey respondents, and even Barna concedes that on given questions some people give answers they think will make them look good.

For instance, the responses Barna received to questions dealing with Christian broad casting and reading material showed such large audiences that he thinks they “cannot possibly be an accurate portrayal of reality.”

“Naturally, some people are simply lying or posturing, seeking to convey an image they desire, although it conflicts with their actual behavior,” he said.

Another possibility, Barna said, is that people are defining “Christian” more broadly—to include socially and politically conservative publications and broadcast media—which he does not.

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