Did 2020 Shift Americans’ Perceptions of U.S. History?

(Barna) Previously, Barna compared perceptions of America’s history among all U.S. adults and practicing Christians. This data, originally collected for Barna’s Beyond Diversity report, showed that, overall, practicing Christians are far more likely than all American adults to view the U.S. as historically blessed and chosen by God, a Christian nation and a leader to the rest of the world. But that reporting reflected views in 2019, before significant events including the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a racial justice uprising, an extremely divisive election season and an attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In January of 2021, Barna once again polled U.S. adults about their perceptions of the nation. This article offers a breakdown of what has and hasn’t changed among U.S. adults and Christians* since 2019, while also showing how ideas about the U.S. differ based on respondents’ political affiliation.

*Editor’s note: As practicing Christians are partially defined by church attendance, which was subject to many fluctuations through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have chosen to focus this article’s reporting on self-identified Christians at large.

U.S. Adults & Christians Are Closely Aligned in Seeing the U.S. as a Nation of Immigrants
A quick glance at the infographic below reveals two overarching findings:

1. Self-identified Christians are consistently more likely than all U.S. adults to view America as historically Christian, blessed and chosen by God, made up of immigrants, a leader to the rest of the world and not oppressive to minorities.
2. Americans’ views of their nation have held relatively steady over the past couple years—but the needle has moved in some slight but noteworthy ways.

So what has changed? First, more self-identified Christians today strongly agree that the U.S. has historically been a Christian country (33% vs. 29% in 2019). Both U.S. adults and self-identified Christians are less likely now to “somewhat agree” that the U.S has historically been a leader to the rest of the world, each shifting 5 percentage points lower since 2019. Self-identified Christians are also more likely today to “strongly agree” that the U.S. has historically been a nation chosen by God (24% vs. 20% in 2019).

When it comes to perceptions of America historically having been a nation of immigrants, both U.S. adults and self-identified Christians shift slightly away from their strong agreement in 2019. This question stirs the greatest movement, with 6 percent of both U.S. adults and self-identified Christians moving from “strongly agree” to “somewhat agree.” Even with these shifts in play, when compared to data from all the other statements about America, U.S. adults and self-identified Christians are most closely aligned in their responses for this prompt.


Republicans Are Less Likely Today Than in 2019 to Strongly Agree the U.S. Is a World Leader
Segmenting the data by political party—specifically, looking at Democrats and Republicans—shows great divides. Further, whether because of shifts in internal views or responses to external events, some perceptions aren’t entirely settled by party affiliation.

Analyzing shifts from mid-2019 to early-2021, researchers found Democrats today are more emphatic in their strong agreement that the U.S. has historically been a leader to the rest of the world (33% in 2019 to 38% in 2021). Republicans have moved in the opposite direction—currently, half (49%) strongly agree the U.S. has long been a global leader, versus 57 percent of Republicans in 2019.

By political party, Americans are undecided about their country’s connection to Christianity. Republicans are firm in their conviction that the U.S. is, historically, a Christian country (41% strongly agree in 2019 and 2021). Yet, there is some softening in their belief that it is also a country blessed and chosen by God. Democrats, meanwhile, have become slightly more open to the idea of the U.S. being a subject of God’s favor—though, overall, Republican and Democrat alike are largely neutral on these points.

When asked if the U.S. has historically been a nation of immigrants, 52 percent of Democrats today strongly agree, a smaller majority than in 2019 (60%). Republican views remain mostly unchanged, a trend that holds when asked whether the U.S. has oppressed minorities. Democrats, however, are steady in their affirmation of the U.S.’ historic oppression of minorities.