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It’s like George Barna is trying to win us over. First, the head of Christian polling organization The Barna Group seems to hint at wanting a cease-fire in the culture wars, and now he’s humanizing gays and lesbians!

George Barna, whose company conducted the research, pointed out that some popular stereotypes about the spiritual life of gays and lesbians are simply wrong. “People who portray gay adults as godless, hedonistic, Christian bashers are not working with the facts,” declared the best-selling author of numerous books about faith and culture. “A substantial majority of gays cite their faith as a central facet of their life, consider themselves to be Christian, and claim to have some type of meaningful personal commitment to Jesus Christ active in their life today … Although there are clearly some substantial differences in the religious beliefs and practices of the straight and gay populations, there may be less of a spiritual gap between straights and gays than many Americans would assume.

I can tell you that the above paragraph won’t win him any fans from any number of prominent conservative Christians. Then again, Barna has been increasingly re-positioning himself as something of a maverick within evangelical Christianity. So what else does this recent batch of polling data reveal? Well, while “straight” America and “gay” America have an awful lot in common, spiritually speaking, according to Barna there is one somewhat noticeable difference.

One of the most basic beliefs has to do with one’s understanding of God. This proved to be one of the biggest differences noted in the study. While seven out of every ten heterosexuals (71%) have an orthodox, biblical perception of God, just 43% of homosexuals do. In fact, an equal percentage possesses a pantheistic view about deity – i.e., that “God” refers to any of a variety of perspectives, such as personally achieving a state of higher consciousness or maximized personal potential, or that there are multiple gods that exist, or even that everyone is god.

In other words, homosexuals tend to be more “pagan” that heterosexuals. But this “pantheism” isn’t a barrier to finding common ground, as according to Barna all the “faith tribes” (including the pantheists) need to work together to restore America.

Citing his research, Barna indicated that the United States has seven dominant faith tribes that hold the key to the restoration of the nation. “We must recover the values that made this nation great and that must be firmly in place for order, reason, freedom and unity to prevail,” the researcher explained. “Our faith tribes are central to the development and application of people’s worldviews, which in turn produce the values on which we base our daily decisions. It is on the basis of such values that a nation rises to greatness or plummets to oblivion. The choice is ours. And it is up to our faith tribes to demonstrate the courageous leadership necessary to facilitate a national restoration of the mind, heart and soul. Without a nationwide commitment to this process, we are destined to become a country of historical significance and present-day insignificance.”

This is an awfully big tent that Barna is building. Is he being prophetic, or simply marketing to the changing times? I’d be curious to know how his largely evangelical audience is responding to this shift towards inclusion, bridge-building, and interfaith outreach. Perhaps he’s making a break from the old evangelical order and embracing the (generally) more tolerant “Mosaic Generation” (aka “Generation Y”)? I guess I’ll just have to wait for the next installment of George Barna’s quest to “unite the tribes”.

As regular readers of my blog know, I like to keep track of what George Barna and his conservative Christian marketing and polling firm The Barna Group get up to. While I often suspect some ideological bias in their data collection, Barna has provided some interesting food for thought concerning interactions between Pagan faiths and Christianity over the years. Now George Barna has authored a new book entitled “The Seven Faith Tribes” that claims to hold the key to restoring America’s strength and stability in these trying times.

Citing his research, Barna indicated that the United States has seven dominant faith tribes that hold the key to the restoration of the nation. “We must recover the values that made this nation great and that must be firmly in place for order, reason, freedom and unity to prevail,” the researcher explained. “Our faith tribes are central to the development and application of people’s worldviews, which in turn produce the values on which we base our daily decisions. It is on the basis of such values that a nation rises to greatness or plummets to oblivion. The choice is ours. And it is up to our faith tribes to demonstrate the courageous leadership necessary to facilitate a national restoration of the mind, heart and soul. Without a nationwide commitment to this process, we are destined to become a country of historical significance and present-day insignificance.”

So what are the seven “faith tribes” that Barna describes?

“Casual Christians – 66% of the adult population, Captive Christians – 16% of the adult population, Jews – 2% of the adult population, Mormons – 2% of the adult population, Pantheists – 2% of the adult population, Muslims – one-half of 1% of the adult population, Skeptics – 11% of the adult population”

If you guessed that Pagans are probably filed under “Pantheists” (along with, I’m assuming, Buddhists, New Agers, and “Spiritual But Not Religious” types) you’re probably correct. But how can tribes with such extreme differences of opinion and theology as these renew America together? Barna has identified twenty values that all the “tribes” share, which they can use to form a new moral leadership that will help America thrive.

“In The Seven Faith Tribes, I examined interviews we have conducted with more than 30,000 Americans to better understand our worldviews, moral perspectives, spiritual foundations, lifestyle expectations, family behaviors and core values. The result is an understanding that the United States is home to seven dominant faith tribes, each of which has a divergent worldview – but all of which embrace twenty shared values that help to define their heart, mind and soul and have historically permitted the U.S. to thrive. It is my belief that if we were to refocus on the central values that made America great – and on which a formidable culture can truly be based – then our country can get back on the path of unity and progress. If we continue to focus on the attitudes, expectations and customs that divide us, then we are doomed to self-destruct, leaving behind a legacy as perhaps the most intriguing, longest-running experiments in democracy in world history.”

If I didn’t know better, I would almost think that Barna is proposing an end to the culture wars, a “cease-fire” agreement between faith groups so that an interfaith coalition can re-ground the country for the common good. It sounds, almost, well, progressive in tone. I’m almost tempted to get a copy and read this tribal manifesto, could a prominent conservative Christian be calling for a new attitude in Christian-Pagan relations?

For as long as I can remember Pagans of various stripes have been quick to point out that they don’t recognize the existence of (or worship) Satan, that an embodiment of pure evil just doesn’t fit into a nuanced polytheistic (or pantheistic, or duotheistic) model of the divine. Well it seems that we aren’t the only ones, according to the evangelical polling outfit The Barna Group, most Christians don’t believe in Satan either.

“Four out of ten Christians (40%) strongly agreed that Satan “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.” An additional two out of ten Christians (19%) said they “agree somewhat” with that perspective. A minority of Christians indicated that they believe Satan is real by disagreeing with the statement: one-quarter (26%) disagreed strongly and about one-tenth (9%) disagreed somewhat. The remaining 8% were not sure what they believe about the existence of Satan.”

Interestingly, roughly half of the Christians who don’t believe in a literal Satan do believe that there are “demons” or “evil spirits” that can play havoc with your life. Does this mean that in a sizable portion of the Christian mind a pantheon of spiritual forces (good and evil) seems more likely a single living embodiement of supreme evil? Looks like Pagans and Christains have more in common than I thought! Not that it is helping us have better relations, only 5% of Christians have a positive view of Wicca (and by extension, I assume other Pagan faiths) while a whopping 55% percent don’t like us one bit. Still, it does open some interesting doors for conversation don’t you think?

Recently Get Religion blogger and religion-beat journalist Mollie Hemingway, while discussing a major religion-based factual error in a piece by Slate.com, made this assertion concerning the media and the “pagan” roots of modern holidays.

You get a basic fact like what Candlemas commemorates wrong and it kind of casts doubt on the whole piece. Not to mention that Noah asserts the pagan connection without substantiating the claim elsewhere in the piece. There is literally no explanation — we are just to take him at his word. That’s my biggest beef with the “Christian holy days co-opt pagan festivals” meme that is so popular with the mainstream media. They just run with the story instead of investigating some tangled and complex histories that may not fit into the preferred narrative.

I think Mollie is being overly harsh here, puff holiday pieces are usually adverse to investigating “tangled and complex” matters, and most often settle for the “common wisdom” (whatever that may be at the time). Do we really expect Timothy Noah to read Ronald Hutton’s “Stations of the Sun” to learn that while Imbolc was almost certainly a pre-Christian festival, we have no real way of telling what, if any, traditions currently associated with the holiday actually date to pre-Christian times? That seems a bit much for a slight article about Punxsutawney Phil and his shadow. Further, there seems to be the implied notion that the “Christian cooptation of old Pagan holidays” meme stems solely from a secular journalistic bias or perhaps Wiccan wishful thinking rather than Christians themselves.

While most Catholics and Orthodox Christians seem rather untroubled with the notion of the (possible) integration of “sanctified” pagan elements into their faith, some protestant sects are genuinely and truly upset with the “pagan” foundations of modern Christian practice. Indeed, on the rightward fringe it’s something of an obsession.

A Tennessee historian and author best known for his searches for the Ark of the Covenant – the box containing the Ten Commandments – is now challenging much of modern Christianity, claiming the traditional version of the faith has more in common with ancient paganism than actual biblical content. “Today, it is amazing what is being presented as Christianity,” says Richard Rives of Lewisburg, Tenn., who has just released a book and DVD collection titled, “Time is the Ally of Deceit.” “First century believers would have never accepted [today’s practices],” the 56-year-old ark hunter told WND. “We must earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.” In his new book and videos, Rives goes on a history-packed journey beginning with the creation of the world and Satan’s deception in the Garden of Eden, examining how worship of the sun god among ancient cultures influenced the worship of the true God of the Bible.

But it isn’t just the WND-loving fringe-types (not to mention Jack Chick) who perpetuate the “modern Christianity is mostly pagan” meme. George Barna of The Barna Group also wrote a book about it called “Pagan Christianity”.

Pagan Christianity makes an unsettling proposal: Most of what present-day Christians do in church each Sunday is rooted not in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles.

Which makes you wonder, who has the most invested in Christianity’s “pagan” past? Certainly modern Pagans are big believers in such theories, but we hardly have a lot of influence over the press (and even if some of those theories are ultimately debunked, we have no problem integrating contemporary ideas into our practice). Yes, secular journalists seem to swallow assertions of pagan connections somewhat uncritically, but is it because they aren’t friendly to Christianity (or too friendly to Pagans and atheist debunkers)? I would offer a third possibility, that the “Pagan Christianity” meme is kept alive by Christians. Whether it is from a belief that Christian worship is “tainted” by it, or that Christianity “triumphed” over paganism and kept the best bits, both allow the “mainstream media” to maintain the common wisdom of pagan survivals in modern Christian practice.

I would further argue that some conservative Christians have far more invested in the idea of a pagan-haunted world than a lot of Pagans do. This includes Christian authors parroting debunked and discarded modern Pagan talking points to inflate our menace. You see, Christians don’t like tangled and murkey answers to questions any more than journalists do. The real answers to “how much pre-Christian stuff has gotten into modern Christian practice” aren’t simple, clear-cut, or easy to explain. It is little wonder why both grasp for an easy and simple answer. So if mainstream journalism is uncritically swallowing the “pagan origins” meme, who exactly is feeding it to them?

It’s not just businesses large and small that are hurting from our current economic crisis. As people lose jobs, and others tighten their belts, charitable giving to religious institutions has also dropped precipitously. According to conservative Christian polling firm The Barna Group,  this drop in giving will “cripple thousands of smaller and less stable donor-supported organizations.” This shortfall in charitable giving is now hitting the Pagan-friendly Unitarian-Universalists.

One of the largest congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association, First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, came up $185,000 short in its annual fundraising drive — and announced this past weekend that the church will simply shut down for the month of July. No services, no programs, and the staff will take a month-long unpaid leave. Meanwhile, the UUA itself is projecting a $1.8 million revenue drop in fiscal year 2010, which begins in July. That’s a 10 percent drop. The UUA has already implemented several cost-cutting measures in fiscal year 2009, but many more are expected in the 2010 budget the administration will present to the board in April.

Which raises the question, how will modern Paganism fare during this recession? In some ways little will change. “Paganism” isn’t a denomination or institution, and the several small individual faiths under that wide umbrella will most likely continue to perform their rites and worship their gods (and goddesses) as they did before. Collectively, you could say that we’re way ahead of many Christians regarding the “home church” movement. What’s less certain is how well the bigger pan-Pagan events and institutions that tend to bind us together culturally and socially will persevere over the next five to ten years.

Will our Pagan periodicals survive the current swarm of magazine deaths? Will the Pagan publishing industry reel from major chains like Borders going under? How will attendance fluctuate at the bigger festivals? Will we see some smaller ones close down or go on hiatus? Does Pagan Spirit Gathering’s recent move from Wisteria to Camp Zoe have anything to do with economics? While I doubt we’ll see insitutions like Starwood or PSG grind to a halt any time soon, we may see a general contraction as Pagans lose income or jobs. The common wisdom is that religion, like entertainment, is often recession-proof. But in today’s world, nothing involving money seems certain.

In the coming weeks I’ll be talking to some folks in the know, and taking the temperature of the Pagan economy to see how well we’ll collectively weather this storm. In the meantime, if  you have seen any signs of the recession hitting the Pagan community, feel free to share in the comments.

Conservative Christian polling organization The Barna Group has put out the results of a new national survey that tracks knowledge and opinions concerning the religion of Wicca. Leaving aside my usual reservations about their methodology (which I believe skews heavily towards “born-again” Christians and conservatives), it does say some interesting things about the perceptions and depth of knowledge people have of this Pagan faith nearly fifty years after it being introduced to America.

A slight majority of Americans (55%) say they have not heard the term “Wicca.” Among the 45% who have heard of, the segments most familiar with Wicca include people younger than 60 (50% are familiar with the name, compared to 35% of older adults); Christian evangelicals (65%); Skeptics (61% of atheists and agnostics); Asian Americans (52%); upscale adults (62%); and those who describe themselves as socio-politically liberal in most cases (55%).

While only about half of Americans have heard of Wicca (according to this survey), a surprisingly large percentage (62%) accurately define it as an “organized form” of religious Witchcraft. Only seven percent thought Wicca was Satanic in nature. So, if so many people know who we are, do they like us? According to Barna, not really.

When asked to express their view of Wicca, 6% held a favorable view (2% very favorable and 4% somewhat favorable), and 52% held unfavorable views (7% somewhat unfavorable and 45% very unfavorable). Perhaps the most intriguing response was from the remaining 43% who said they did not know what they thought of Wicca or had no particular opinion about it.

So only around 6% of people who’ve heard of Wicca like Wiccans? That can’t be good. Especially if the large percentage of people who have unfavorable (or very unfavorable) opinions come in at a whopping 52%. Which group do you think will have more influence on the 43% with no particular opinion? Of course they don’t define what “unfavorable” really means. It could be someone who is merely annoyed at a teen-aged Witch they know, or it could be evangelical Christians actively spreading falsehoods about Wiccans.

Despite this somewhat dis-favorable outlook, Barna believes there are many factors that will continue contribute to Wicca’s growth, and that teens will continue to adopt various Wiccan-friendly beliefs.

Barna said he expects Wicca to continue to fly below people’s religious radar until it develops higher profile, more structured leadership, which is in some ways antithetical to Wiccan practices. However, he also expects significantly growing numbers of young Americans to embrace elements of Wiccan practice, such as spell casting and performing magic rituals, which have proven to be central behaviors featured in various popular media presentations in recent years. Many young adults will not consider themselves to be Wiccan but will adopt some of its practices and thinking alongside their more traditional religious views and behaviors.

Like I said earlier, I feel that Barna’s surveys often over-emphasize the conservative Christian voice. So these numbers could be seriously skewed. I also think that his estimates of the number of Wiccan practitioners (which he puts as under 250k) are too low, especially considering the data from the far more robust (and religiously non-partisan) Religious Landscape survey from the Pew Forum. However, I do think this data sends an important message to Wiccans and the wider Pagan community concerning just have far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. It’s why media depictions of modern Pagans are still an important issue. We may be jaded to all the innaccurate and exaggerated lampoons of our belief systems, but for around half of America it may be their first glimpse of what Witches do.

Conservative Christian polling organization The Barna Group has released the results of a new study that claims a majority of Americans no longer believe Christianity is America’s “default” faith.

For much of America’s history, the assumption was that if you were born in America, you would affiliate with the Christian faith. A new nationwide survey by The Barna Group, however, indicates that people’s views have changed. The study discovered that half of all adults now contend that Christianity is just one of many options that Americans choose from and that a huge majority of adults pick and choose what they believe rather than adopt a church or denomination’s slate of beliefs. Still, most people say their faith is becoming increasingly important as a source of personal moral guidance.

According to their numbers, 50% of those polled think Christianity is no longer the automatic faith of people born in America (44% disagreed, 6% did not know).  What does all that mean? Maybe nothing. Attitude isn’t the same as reality, and Christianity (of various denominations) is still the overwhelmingly dominant faith choice in America, but it could mean that people are less likely to assume that everyone around them is Christian. Such a shift could change the way battles over religion in the public square are handled, and maybe usher in a more inclusive era (or maybe not).

As more pollsters dissect Obama’s win, we continue to get a trickle of interesting data points regarding modern Pagans. Conservative Christian polling organization The Barna Group has released their look at how “people of faith” voted in the 2008 election. Of specific interest is their data concerning “other” faiths and Wicca specifically.

“About 5% of America’s adult population associates with faiths other than Christianity (e.g., Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.). Within this group, about half (47%) were registered as Democrats, 30% were independent, and one-quarter (23%) were Republicans. The ballots of this group were most often cast for Barack Obama (62%) rather than John McCain (36%). The support provided to the Democratic candidate is identical to the backing this group provided to John Kerry four years ago (61%) … Among voters who had a favorable view of Wicca, Sen. Obama was the favored candidate 64% to 35%.

It is important to look at the language in that last line. It isn’t about Wiccans specifically, but people who had a “favorable view” of Wicca. To further extrapolate, the family, friends, and co-workers of the estimated 1.2 million modern Pagans in America tended to favor the candidate favored by the majority of modern Pagans. Further proof that using Pagan faiths as a political weapon is quickly becoming ineffective? Should candidates with anti-occult/Pagan skeletons in their closet fear this “Pagan ripple effect”?

Pagan Christianity

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 18, 2008 — 12 Comments

George Barna, head of the conservative Christian polling organization The Barna Group, has co-authored a new book that takes a deeper look at traditional Christian practices. The result, “Pagan Christianity”, seems almost like a fun-house mirror reflection of the rhetoric you can hear from many modern Pagans.

“Pagan Christianity makes an unsettling proposal: Most of what present-day Christians do in church each Sunday is rooted not in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles. Authors Frank Viola and George Barna support their thesis with compelling historical evidence and extensive footnotes that document the origins of our modern Christian church practices.”

Barna, a Catholic turned conservative evangelical, and advocate for the “house church” movement, sees paganism everywhere in the modern Christian church structure.

“Pagan Christianity? also addresses a myriad of other practices, including tax-exempt status for churches, pews, stained glass windows, altar calls, the pastoral prayer, church bulletins, bishops, clergy attire, choirs, tithing, the collection plate, seminary training, infant baptism, the “sinner’s prayer,” and funeral processions, among others.”

Barna’s attitude isn’t all that unique. Many critics of Catholicism and other Christian denominations that cling to “high church” trappings (“smells and bells”) often invoke the spectre of “paganism” to discredit their idealogical opponents and label them “unchristian” (to differing degrees). While Barna claims he only wants to promote “significant reflection”, his insights aren’t that much removed from the obsessed fringe.

Did Christian leaders borrow/steal/sanctify elements from ancient pagan culture, philosophy, and religion? Of course they did. Few argue otherwise. Christianity leapt into the cultural and religious vacuum created within the Roman Empire when Constantine, and subsequent emperors, gradually removed the traditional/pagan faiths from power. It is only natural that the assumption of that much power and prestige would alter a previously persecuted minority faith in an overwhelmingly pagan world.

The question now is if these “acquired” practices are still “pagan” centuries later. Barna, like many disaffected believers, longs to re-create a more “biblical” Christianity. An urge that has fueled radical reformations, and created several different ideas of what “biblical validity” means. In the end, I think the “Pagan Christianity” label says far more about Barna’s hopes and aspirations than it does about content of “high church” Christianity.

Are attitudes towards modern Pagans slowly changing for the better? While there are still plenty of reactionary and hostile attitudes among the Christian faithful, more and more often you can see leaders and clergy who are accepting modern Pagans as a normal part of the fabric of religious experience in America. A recent profile of a new Episcopal priest in Gresham, Oregon seemed to hint at that new reality for a younger generation of Christian clergy.

“The Rev. Jennifer Creswell describes herself as shy and introverted. So of course she decided to pursue that most public of jobs, the ordained ministry. Years ago, aware of her daughter’s religious tendencies, her mother told her she might become a priest someday … After graduating from Grant High School in Portland in 1997, she went to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where she majored in religion. While there, she found herself interested in Buddhism, Judaism and Wicca. “Learning about the other religions was fascinating and fulfilling,” she said. “I guess it was the whole notion of everyone choosing various paths to God and what forms those paths took.” However, she said she decided to remain a Christian and was drawn to the tradition, rituals and repetitive prayer that characterized Episcopal services.”

Creswell attended school during a time when it wouldn’t be unusual to have Pagan colleagues and friends, as such, she sees it as just another “path to God” instead of some sort of demonic spiritual adversary. Nor is Creswell’s experience unique to the more “liberal” mainline Protestant denominations. Conservative evangelical Christian organizations like The Barna Group have long been “warning” their audience concerning the increasingly open attitudes younger people have towards non-Christian faiths.

“There will be new forms of spiritual leadership, different expressions of faith, and greater variety in when and where people meet together to be communities of faith. Ecumenism will expand, as the emerging generations pay less attention to doctrine and more attention to relationships and experiences. Barna predicted that there will be a broader network of micro-faith communities built around lifestyle affinities, such as gay communities of faith, marketplace professionals who gather for faith experiences, and so forth.”

So while it may be easy to get wrapped up in the latest intolerant actions of certain Christian believers, with some of us concocting doomsday scenarios of a new “burning times”, there is a very good chance that their actions represent the death-throes of certain approach to religious outsiders. The next generation of Christian leaders may surprise us by not only being literate and aware concerning modern Paganism, but by being increasingly willing to engage Pagans with mutual respect in ecumenical settings. A good number of them may have “dabbled” themselves.