Americans have diverse relationships, but some groups are much better known than others—Evangelicals are largely invisible

(Original release date: June 19, 2008) Study results released from Grey Matter Research & Consulting (formerly Ellison Research) of Phoenix, Arizona show Americans often know a wide variety of people quite different from themselves. However, this level of familiarity doesn’t extend equally to all groups. For instance, most Americans know at least one Catholic, African-American, homosexual, Latino, and physically disabled person very well, while only a minority can say the same thing about knowing any Asians, evangelicals, Mormons, American Indians, or atheists.

The findings are from a study independently designed, funded, and conducted by Grey Matter Research among a representative sample of over 1,000 American adults. Grey Matter Research is a full-service marketing research firm.

The study asked Americans whether (and how well) they know a variety of different kinds of people. Relationships fell into four different categories: you currently know someone like this very well, you currently know someone like this casually, you used to know someone like this, and you have never known someone like this.

Knowledge of different racial or ethnic groups is fairly close to the proportions of these groups in American society. Virtually all Americans know at least one White person very well. Among all non-Whites, 92% currently know a White person very well, and only 1% say they have never really known a White person at all. Among Americans who are not Black, 68% currently know at least one Black person very well, while just 2% have never known a Black person at all. Among all non-Latinos, 72% currently know a Latino individual very well, and just 1% have never known one.

The numbers are much smaller for Jews, Asians, and American Indians, all of whom are less common in American society than Whites, Blacks, and Latinos. Just 44% currently know an Asian person very well, while 10% of all Americans have never known one at all. The numbers are almost identical for American Indians, and very similar for Jews.

A person’s racial or ethnic identity can often be determined visually, while their beliefs can be far less obvious. Seventy-six percent of all non-Catholics currently know a Roman Catholic individual very well, while just 3% have never known a Catholic.

But Catholics represent a large segment of the U.S. population; other religious groups are far less known. Just 21% currently know a Mormon individual very well, while 35% have never known any Mormons. Eighteen percent know a Muslim very well, while 46% have never known one. And 14% currently know a Buddhist very well, while 59% have never known a Buddhist.

All three of those religious groups represent a relatively small percentage of the American population (each in the low single digits). Conversely, 17% of all Americans call themselves evangelical Christians, and 30% call themselves born again Christians (with crossover between the two groups). Yet despite evangelicals (by any definition) being a larger presence in the U.S. than Muslims, Buddhists, and Mormons combined, Americans are only slightly more likely to know someone they identify as an evangelical than they are to know an adherent of any of these smaller religious groups. Just 24% of all Americans who say they are not evangelical know an evangelical person very well, while 40% have never known any evangelicals at all, even casually.

Things are only somewhat better for born again Christians. Among Americans who do not call themselves born again, just 38% say they are very well acquainted with someone who is, while 18% have never known a born again Christian.

Only half of all Americans know a member of the Christian clergy very well, although another 20% know one casually. Twelve percent have never known a clergyperson at all.

Many Americans also do not know anyone from the opposite side of the political spectrum. Just 47% of Americans who do not call themselves politically conservative say they know someone very well who is a conservative, while 24% have never known a conservative. Similarly, 42% of all adults who do not call themselves politically liberal know a liberal individual, while 25% have never known a liberal.

Beyond race/ethnicity and beliefs, the study looked at a few other types of individuals. Almost two out of three Americans who were born in this country know someone very well who was born in another country (65%), and just 5% have never known someone born in another country. But just 16% report knowing an undocumented immigrant very well, while another 13% know someone like this casually, and 54% have never known an undocumented immigrant.

Fifty-three percent currently know a gay or lesbian person very well, and another 20% know someone like this casually. Just 9% have never known a gay or lesbian person.

Fifty-six percent of all Americans who are not physically disabled say they know a physically handicapped person very well, and another 22% know someone like this casually. Just 6% of Americans have never known a physically handicapped individual.

Forty-seven percent of those who have never been to jail or prison say they are very well acquainted with someone who has, while 15% have never known someone like this.

Fifty-five percent of those who do not consider themselves to be wealthy said they know a wealthy individual very well, while just 12% have never known anyone who is wealthy. On the other end of the spectrum, 22% know someone who is or has been homeless very well, while 45% have never known someone who has experienced homelessness.

Comparing what people are, or what they consider themselves, with what kinds of people they know brings out a wealth of interesting details. Consider the following:

  • Politically, liberals and conservatives are about equally likely to isolate themselves from the “other side.” Fifty percent of political conservatives don’t currently know any liberals very well, and 43% of political liberals don’t know any conservatives very well.
  • Interestingly, political moderates are much more likely than people on either end of the spectrum to mix primarily with their own kind. Sixty percent of all moderates don’t know any conservatives very well, and 65% aren’t well acquainted with any liberals.
  • It may not seem odd that only half of Americans know a member of the Christian clergy very well, but what does seem odd is that 30% of the people who regularly attend worship services say the do not currently know any clergy members very well. In fact, 14% of those who attend worship services do not even know any clergy members casually – even their own minister or priest. This was particularly true of Catholic churchgoers, 23% of whom report not knowing any clergy even casually.
  • People under 35 are especially unlikely to know a Christian clergyperson very well (39% do, compared to 48% of people 35 to 54 years old, and 61% of those 55 or older).
  • It cannot be assumed that all Americans know people of “their own kind” very well, either. Eleven percent of people who were born outside the U.S. do not know anyone else born outside the U.S. very well. Fifteen percent of the physically disabled do not know any other handicapped people very well. Thirteen percent of self-described evangelicals don’t know any other evangelicals very well. Numbers are relatively similar for many other types of Americans.
  • Americans cross religious lines quite easily with their friends and acquaintances. People who regularly attend worship services are as likely to know an atheist as are the unchurched. Protestants, Catholics, evangelicals, and the irreligious are about equally likely to know any Muslim or Mormon believers. People who are active in a Christian church are about as likely to know any Jewish individuals very well as are those who aren’t religiously active (although “Jewish” can be a reference to both ethnicity and religion). Over a quarter of all practicing Catholics know an evangelical very well, and over half can say the same thing about at least one Jewish person.
  • Forty-eight percent of all Latinos personally know an undocumented immigrant very well, compared to 24% of Blacks, and just 10% of Whites.
  • Although there is often tension between religious groups and the gay and lesbian community, it’s not because they are entirely ignorant of each other. Sixty-two percent of evangelicals know a gay or lesbian person at least casually, as do 75% of all Protestant churchgoers, and 77% of all Catholic churchgoers.
  • Similarly, 68% of all political conservatives and 70% of all Republicans know a gay or lesbian individual at least casually.
  • Although “diversity” is often associated with political liberals more than political conservatives, there is diversity among both groups – just in different directions. Liberals are more likely than conservatives to know atheists, gays or lesbians, Buddhists, people who have been homeless, people who have been to jail or prison, and undocumented immigrants very well, while conservatives are more likely than liberals to know Christian clergy, evangelicals, and born again Christians very well. There is no difference between liberals and conservatives in the likelihood of knowing Catholics, Blacks, Muslims, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, Jews, the wealthy, the physically handicapped, or people born outside the U.S.
  • The West is the most diverse area of the U.S. in terms of relationships. People living in the West are more likely than those in other areas of the country to know atheists, Mormons, Buddhists, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, Jews, gays and/or lesbians, undocumented immigrants, people born outside of the U.S., and both liberals and conservatives.

Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, noted that the study raises questions about why members of some groups are largely invisible to so many Americans. “For instance, compare the gay and lesbian community with the evangelical community,” Sellers said. “There’s no definitive count on exactly how big each one is, but most estimates put homosexuals as somewhere under ten percent of the U.S. population, while 17% of Americans call themselves evangelical. Yet three out of four Americans know a gay or lesbian person at least casually, while not quite half know an evangelical. Is this because homosexuals are more open than evangelicals about who they are? Because Americans are more open to knowing a homosexual than an evangelical? Because evangelicals themselves are less likely to reach into the broader community to form relationships? These questions are certainly open to debate, and not just about these two specific groups. You could just as easily ask these questions about Mormons versus evangelicals, where Americans are just as likely to know a Mormon as an evangelical, even though by any measure the evangelical population in the U.S. is dramatically larger than the Mormon population.”

Sellers also suggested that interpretation of these findings will depend on whether one views the glass as half full or half empty. “On the positive side, the study shows the vast majority of Americans know someone of a different racial or ethnic background very well, and many also know people of different religious or political viewpoints. On the negative side, there are plenty of types of people many Americans have really never encountered. Four out of ten have never known – even casually – someone who has experienced homelessness. A third have never known an evangelical or a Mormon. Almost half have never known a Muslim. One out of five has never known an American Indian. One out of every four liberals has never known a conservative, and vice versa. Not knowing a variety of people has implications for how we live our lives and how we think of others.”

He also noted that the study results both confirmed and exploded some of the assumptions about liberals and conservatives. “There’s some stereotyping of liberals as open-minded and diverse, and of conservatives as more closed-minded and less diverse. Interestingly, it is actually the political moderates who are the most likely to be isolated from people with different political viewpoints. However, the study also shows conservatives are much more likely to know evangelicals and born again Christians, while liberals are more likely to know atheists, homosexuals, and people who have experienced homelessness, which would fit with some of the stereotypes about both groups. What is striking, though, is not so much the differences as the similarities. Yes, conservatives are more likely to know a born again Christian, but two-thirds of liberals also know one at least casually. And yes, liberals are more likely to know a gay or lesbian person, but two-thirds of conservatives also know one at least casually. Liberals and conservatives may have very different worldviews, but the relationships they maintain aren’t really all that different, despite the stereotypes.”

Study Details:
The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research, a marketing research company located in Phoenix, Arizona. The sample of 1,007 adults is accurate to within ±3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution.

The study was conducted in all 50 states. Respondents’ age, household income, geography, racial or ethnic background, and gender were carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.


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