The most likely influence on who people vote for in this year's U.S. presidential contest is their religious beliefs despite fewer Americans attending church these days, a new survey in the United States reveals.
The survey conducted by Barna asked a nationwide sample of voters to rate the relative personal impact of 10 different sources of influence and its results were released Oct. 27.
Yet, the picture is not uniformly rosy for the religious world.
While religious beliefs rank on top of the list of influences, pastors rank at the bottom.
The survey results underscore the importance of faith in helping Christians figure out how to vote, says George Barna, the Barna company's special analyst for 2016 U.S. election polling
"There is great potential for churches and pastors to impact voting decisions," said Barna. "In fact, one out of every four Americans say they trust their church or pastor to exert a lot of influence on their political choices."
Barna said the survey illustrates a "tremendous opportunity" for churches to position themselves as relevant to people's life choices while taking advantage of an available opportunity to influence people's lives.
"Our research reveals that most pastors have chosen to not speak to their congregants about the issues or the candidates involved in this year's election, which might explain the low-ranked influence of pastors in this study," he said.
Barna noted that if more pastors were willing to teach their congregants how to think biblically about political issues, "matters of governance, and candidate selection, the election campaign might have been dramatically altered."
Surveys do not show accurately how people of faith will vote for Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two main candidates in the presidential poll among Christians and Jews, but with Trump's anti-Islamic stance, Muslims are believed highly unlikely to vote for him.
PEOPLE RESIST ADMITTING TO INFLUENCE
The Barna survey noted that opinion research has long shown that Americans resist admitting that their views or behavior are influenced by external sources, and particularly those that overtly seek such influence, such as advertising.
The same pattern is common when asking people to estimate the perceived impact of certain influences on their political choices.
Barna's survey finds that none of the 10 sources of influence are considered to have "a lot of influence" on who people will support for President by even as few as one out of every five respondents.
The top-rated sources of influence are a person's religious beliefs (18 percent say that had "a lot of influence") and family members (10 percent).
The other eight sources examined fall within the five to eight percent range.
When combining those who say a source exerted either "a lot" or "some" influence upon their choice of a presidential candidate, the rankings change only slightly.
The top influence is still religious beliefs, listed by one-third of adults (33 percent).
That was followed by family members and news media, each listed by 28 percent, then friends and television political commentators, each chosen by one-quarter (26 percent).
About one out of every five respondents say that each of four other sources had at least "some influence" on their choice: political commentators on websites and social media, political commentators on radio, political commentators in publications, and advertising by the candidates' campaigns.
The only laggard among the 10 sources is the pastor of the respondent's church, listed as having at least some influence by just 14 percent of adults.
However, when those people who do not have someone they consider to be their pastor were eliminated from consideration, then pastors were tied with the other four sources as the lowest-ranked influence, impacting one-fifth of adults (20 percent).
RELIGIOUS SEGMENTS CLAIM DIFFERENT INFLUENCES
When the Barna data were analyzed according to each person's religious beliefs, very different patterns emerged.
Three-quarters of all evangelicals (75 percent) assign "a lot of influence" to their religious beliefs.
One out of five of them also attribute a lot of influence to the pastor of their church (22 percent) and to family members (21 percent. No other source tested is mentioned as having a lot of influence by even one out of ten evangelicals. The survey reveals that there are no evangelicals interviewed who say that either campaign advertising or political commentators in publications had "a lot of influence" on their voting choices.
Like evangelicals, non-evangelical born again Christians also place religious beliefs at the top of the list of major influences on their voting choices. Altogether, three in 10 (30 percent) ascribed "a lot of influence" to their religious beliefs. No other entity is listed by at least 10 percent of this group.
Notional Christians – i.e., those adults who describe themselves as Christian but are not born again, a segment that represents nearly half of America's churchgoing people – assign equal weight to the influence of six different information sources.
About one out of every ten notional Christians assign either a lot or some influence to family members (12 percent), friends (11 percent), campaign advertising (11 percent), news media (10 percent), religious beliefs (10 percent), and their pastor (9 percent.
Not far behind are political commentators on television and in publications (each at 7 percent) and political commentators on radio and on websites and social media (6 percent each). Statistically speaking there is no meaningful difference in the perceived influence of any of the ten sources evaluated.
Adults not connected to Christianity show different influences. People aligned with non-Christian faiths are most likely to say news media have a lot of influence on their political choices (18 percent). That's followed by the impact of their religious beliefs (15 percent) and political analysts on television (12 percent).
Religious skeptics such as atheists, agnostics, or those who have no religious affiliations, are the least likely of any "faith" group to admit to being influenced by external sources.
Among the skeptics, family members, news media, and television analysts are the sources most likely to be acknowledged as having "a lot of influence" on their political choices. However, each of those are named by just 5 percent.