A woman and her baby during a July 4th parade in Atlanta, Ga.

Ditch the country music cliche: God's not our first influence

When you talk about yourself, what markers of personal identity come first?

If it’s not “God, family and country” in that order, well, there go your credentials for Nashville stardom.

The real order is family first (62 percent) followed by “being an American” (52 percent). “Religious faith” falls steeply to third place (38 percent) – if it’s mentioned at all, according to a survey released Thursday (March 19) by The Barna Group.

Americans identify how much various factors make up their personal identity. Family comes in first, followed by "being an American," and religious faith. Photo courtesy of Barna Group | design by Chaz Russo

Americans identify how much various factors make up their personal identity. Family comes in first, followed by "being an American," and religious faith. Photo courtesy of Barna Group | design by Chaz Russo

The California-based Christian research company found another 18 percent of those surveyed said faith had a little to do with idea of who they are and nearly 20 percent scored it at zero influence.

No surprise, the folks Barna qualifies as “practicing” Christians (Catholics, Protestants and Mormons who say they have attended church at least once in the last month and/or say religion is important to them) scored faith highly at a rate more than double the national average. Evangelicals led the way with the strongest faith-first identity ties.

But they're not most Christians -- not by a long shot. The survey also found only 37 percent of self-identified Christians (Barna definition) are practicing while 64 percent are non-practicing, said Roxanne Stone, a vice president at Barna Group and the designer and analyst on the study.

The results were also skewed by age:

  • Family first: Millennials (53 percent); Gen X-ers (61 percent); Baby Boomers (64 percent); Elders (76 percent)
  • Being an American: Millennials (34 percent); Gen X-ers (37 percent); Baby Boomers (66 percent); Elders (80 percent)
  • Religious faith: Millennials (28 percent); Gen X-ers (34 percent); Baby Boomers (45 percent); Elders (46 percent)

Barna surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults ,conducted online from February 3 to February 11, 2015. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Stone observed, “Gen-Xers and Millennials have a reputation for wanting to be individualists—for wanting to break away from traditional cultural narratives and to resist being ‘boxed in’ by what they perceive as limiting expectations.”

Will young evangelicals shift as they age? There’s no guarantee of that.

Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, drawing on their 2014 American Values Survey research, said white evangelicals may be facing the decline that mainline Protestant denominations faced years ago.

He looked at the ratio of seniors to people under age 30 in their survey and found there are “three times as many young unaffiliated (no religious identity) as there are white evangelicals under 30. There was a time when evangelicals crowed about mainline decline and blamed it on liberal theology. But if you look at the millennial market share among evangelicals -- it’s now exactly the same as it is for the mainline – 10 percent," said Jones.

This may not bode well – for churches or country music clichés.