INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Christian pollster George Barna made a controversial argument Wednesday night that Americans are to blame for the destruction of their country and it is up to faith groups to restore it.
The once great United States is decaying, declared Barna to a crowd of hundreds of Christian journalists on the opening night of the Evangelical Press Association/Associated Church Press Convention.
America's divorce, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, spousal abuse and crime rates are the highest or among the highest compared to other developed nations. And the percentage of students graduating from high school on time has not changed in 32 years.
"The enemy of America today is not Iraq. It is not Afghanistan or communism. It is not Somalian pirates. It's the moral degradation and spiritual complacency of Americans," contended Barna, founder of the research firm The Barna Group. "In essence it is the willingness of Americans to become victims of the imposition of values and objectives that defy our common good."
Many factors have led to America's deterioration, he said, including moving from mass production to mass consumption, moving from common values to now radical individualism with personal values, and competition among faith groups rather than cooperation.
"Just think about the shift in mottos that characterize our nation," Barna noted. "We talked about one nation under God, but today really we are one nation under self, sometimes aided by one or more gods."
"We shifted from a nation that said ‘In God We Trust' to reality and self we trust," he said. "We transitioned from being a land of the free and the home of the brave, to now we are the land of the indebted and the home of the self-indulgent. We also shifted from a land that believes you can be all you can be to now it's get all you can get."
This social deterioration is fueled by the breakdown in leadership and core institutions such as family, government, and education, he argued. The nation as a whole has lost its shared vision and the shared values that help manage society.
But there is still hope for restoration, he believes, if the country's seven faith tribes return to their core values.
The seven faith tribes are the religious groups that Barna found based on more than 30,000 interviews he conducted over the years. These tribes are: casual Christians (66 percent of U.S. population), captive Christians (16 percent), Jews (2 percent), Mormons (2 percent), pantheists (2 percent), Muslims (0.5 percent), and skeptics (11 percent).
For too long, he said, these religious groups have contributed to the problem of social decay. Instead of instilling values and morality in their congregants, these religious groups focus on building more and bigger buildings, offering more programs, establishing more nationally recognized leaders, and raising and spending more money.
But now it is time for the faith tribes to return to their core values and start restoring America, he declared.
By harnessing the 20 common values shared by faith tribes – including developing inner peace and purity, representing the truth, practicing self-restraint, respecting life, and being a good citizen – Barna believes that Americans can start to rebuild the country to one of civility, accountability, commitment and unity.
"In America, we are not one in theology, but we can be one in mind regarding how we can apply our disparate theology views in ways that honor our faith, nation, and each other," Barna said.
But not everyone in the audience Wednesday night agreed with Barna's ideas.
Ron Wilson, former EPA director, questioned if the United States really was in such a terrible state as Barna claimed.
"We have trouble and the country is in trouble in many ways, but to me it has always been that way," Wilson said to The Christian Post. "Has there been a time in our history that our sky isn't falling? He is bringing up problems but what has really changed? I don't know."
Yet Wilson mildly praised Barna for presenting "thought-provoking" and "challenging" ideas. He joked, "He (Barna) is right that he does have the gift of discouragement."
Similarly, ACP member Jerry Van Marter, director of the Presbyterian News Service, was unsure why Barna claimed the country is worse off now than before. Compared to previous decades, America no longer has the Jim Crow laws (racial segregation) or carries out the hysterical communist witch hunt. Also, women's right has improved over the years in the United States.
Van Marter said he had come into the evening expecting Barna to present facts from his research, not personal opinions, especially the conclusion that faith tribes are the ones to restore America.
"I have long enjoyed and respected George Barna's research," Van Marter said. "And what I was really hoping to hear in his address were statements backed up by his research. And what I heard sounded too much like opinions.
"To hear so much unsubstantiated opinions from a highly respected research left me feeling confused and cheated. That's my main criticism," the news director for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) said. "You expect to hear research from a researcher. I didn't see a connection between statistics he was citing in the beginning and the conclusion he was drawing in the end."
Barna's lecture Wednesday night is based on ideas he presents in his latest book, 7 Faith Tribes, published by Tyndale. He is the author of more than 40 books ranging from worldviews, trends and children, to church life, spiritual growth and leadership. His company, The Barna Group, specializes in surveys concerning religious beliefs and behavior of Americans, and the intersection of faith and culture.