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Evangelicals Who Distrust Muslims Likely Don’t Know Muslims

A 2019 survey shows how relationships curb Islamophobia and improve understanding between the two faiths.
Evangelicals Who Distrust Muslims Likely Don’t Know Muslims
Image: Anthony Lansilote / Getty Images
A home in Dearborn, Michigan, celebrates Ramadan.

Earlier this week, a Baptist church in Michigan canceled an event titled, “9/11 Forgotten? Is Michigan Surrendering to Islam?” due to pushback from fellow Christians and politicians.

The pastor of Bloomfield Hills Baptist Church identifies as an Islamophobe and organized the gathering because he sees Islam as a growing threat in the US, The Washington Post reported.

While some fellow white evangelicals share his suspicions, research has shown that those who know Muslims in their communities tend to hold more positive views and are more likely to see commonalities between their two faiths.

“The personal relationships with Muslims, that’s a game changer,” Todd Green, Luther College professor and former Islamophobia adviser to the US State Department, told ThePost. “It tends to make you less Islamophobic.”

Yet surveys from various sources have noted the friendship gap between evangelicals and their Muslim neighbors. More than a third (35%) of white evangelicals knew a Muslim personally in a 2017 Pew Research Center release, fewer than any other religious group, and evangelicals surveyed rated Muslims more negatively than other faiths.

The Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research found in 2017 that 17 percent of those with evangelical beliefs reported having a Muslim friend, while the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) reported this year that only 22 percent of evangelicals say they interact frequently with Muslims. FFEU, led by a rabbi seeking to improve Muslim-Jewish relations, also noted that 1 in 3 evangelicals with frequent interaction with Muslims viewed Islam as similar to their own faith compared to 1 in 4 evangelicals overall.

The latest research from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a prominent American Muslim organization, offers another look at the relationship between the two faiths.

The 2019 ISPU poll, released last spring, surveyed a representative sample of the US population along with a sample of Muslims and of Jews. The results may not offer as precise a picture of other religious subgroups due the higher margin of error, but still gives a valuable snapshot at broad trends between the faiths.

Here are five takeaways for evangelicals from one of the leading indicators of Muslim community sentiment in America.

1. White evangelicals lag behind in knowing and befriending Muslims; Jews excel.

When asked, “Do you know a Muslim personally?” 35 percent of evangelicals and 44 percent of Protestants said yes. More than half of the general public responded in the affirmative (53%), and 57 percent of the non-affiliated, 61 percent of Catholics, and 76 percent of Jews.

Only 9 percent of white evangelicals said they knew a Muslim close enough to call for help. Protestants were slightly higher at 15 percent. The general public reported 25 percent for yes; 26 percent for the non-affiliated. Catholics reported 28 percent; Jews, 45 percent.

2. Most Muslims have favorable or neutral views of evangelical Christians, but the feeling isn’t mutual.

While a half of Muslims reported “no opinion” when asked about evangelical Christians, a third had a favorable opinion and only 14 percent unfavorable. (Fewer than half of Catholics, Jews, and the unaffiliated also held a favorable view of evangelicals.)

Meanwhile, just 20 percent of white evangelicals indicated they had a favorable opinion of Muslims, with 44 percent unfavorable. (Protestants were split at 31 percent each; the non-affiliated were 34 percent favorable toward and 18 percent unfavorable. Catholics reported a 39 percent favorable, 18 percent unfavorable. Jews were 53 percent favorable and 13 percent unfavorable.)

White evangelicals also score the highest—and Jews the lowest—on the National Islamophobia Index created by ISPU in partnership with Georgetown University’s The Bridge Initiative. The index measures the degree to which society endorses ideas such as US Muslims being more prone to violence or less civilized than others.

Only 21 percent of the general public has favorable views of Muslims. When measuring favorability of those who know a Muslim, however, the rating jumps to 47 percent, and increases again to 57 percent if that Muslim is considered a good friend.

3. White evangelicals and Muslims rank highest for piety.

White evangelicals and Muslims were the most devoted to their faith when asked about personal religious beliefs and practices in the ISPU survey. They were far more likely than others to consider their religion important to daily life—82 percent of white evangelicals and 71 percent of Muslims said so. Protestants reported a 61 percent positive response. Catholics and Jews were both at 35 percent.

White evangelicals were also most likely (75%) to indicate that their faith gave meaning and purpose to life. Muslims ranked second at 63 percent. Protestants reported a 54 percent response, followed by Catholics at 37 percent and Jews at 33 percent.

A majority of white evangelicals (63%) and Muslims (54%) said their faith led them to forgive others who have hurt them deeply, compared to fewer than half of Protestants (45%), Jews (28%), and Catholics (20%).

White evangelicals reported 64 percent attendance at weekly religious services. Protestants ranked second at 49 percent. Muslims reported a 43 percent positive response, lowered likely because Islam does not require female prayers at a mosque. Catholics were at 27 percent; Jews, 23 percent.

4. Muslims report more religious discrimination, but evangelicals are most likely to say something about it.

A majority of Muslims say they experience discrimination (62%), compared to 43 percent of Jews, 37 percent of white evangelicals, and 27 percent of each Catholics and Protestants. Muslims are also twice as likely as any other faith to say they experience discrimination on a regular basis (11%).

Though they experience different levels of discrimination, Muslims and evangelicals are about as likely to identify with those in their faith who suffer discrimination; 55 percent of Muslims and 57 percent of white evangelicals expressed experiencing this “linked faith.” (Highest solidarity was among Jews—69 percent do.)

White evangelicals speak out the most about the discrimination they experience. Asked if they will take unpopular stands to defend their faith, 78 percent said yes. Jews ranked second at 72 percent; Protestants third at 64 percent. Muslims only slightly outrank Catholics, at 56 percent and 54 percent respectively. ISPU speculated that as Muslims experience more religious discrimination, they are less likely to face the risk of speaking out.

5. White evangelicals want religious law more than Muslims.

ISPU asked respondents if their religion should be the main source, a source, or not a source of US law. Despite some Americans’ fears over Shari’ah law, half of US Muslims (51%) said not at all. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of Jews said likewise, and two-thirds of Catholics. Fewer than half of Protestants (42%) and white evangelicals (27%) said the same.

Most white evangelicals (54%), said wanted their religion to be a source of US law. Protestants agreed at 39 percent, Catholics at 28 percent, and Jews at 19 percent. One-third of Muslims also wished their religion to be included.

But white evangelicals and Protestants reported 17 percent agreement that their religion should be the main source of US law. Muslims ranked second at 12 percent. Jews agreed at 8 percent; Catholics, 5 percent.

ISPU organized responses to public and private religiosity into a quadrant.

Image: ISPU

Both communities are pessimistic in the mutual self-diagnosis of their relationship, but a final statistic—from FFEU—shows there may be an outside culprit to blame.

Around a quarter (24% of evangelicals and 26% of Muslims) describe the relationship between their groups as “poor.” They are more likely to consider it “fair” (37% of evangelicals and 31% of Muslims). Just 21 percent of each describe it as “good.”

Yet when asked how this relationship is covered in the media, half of evangelicals and Muslims describe it portrayed as “poor.”

Despite tensions and negative sentiments between the two, American evangelicals and Muslims have endured similar backlash in their defenses of religious freedom, as CT has previously noted.

“Our data suggests that Islamophobia is more politically driven than religious in nature,” according to the authors of the ISPU report. “Simply knowing a Muslim still cuts one’s likelihood of negative perceptions in half. Create opportunities for face-to-face human interaction between people of different religious and cultural backgrounds while cooperating for the greater good.”

Research note: Across religions, Pew surveyed 4,248 individuals with a margin of error of 2.5 percent. LifeWay’s 2017 survey, focused primarily on perceptions toward Israel, surveyed 2,002 individuals with a margin of error of 2.7 percent. The FFEU survey, released in March, surveyed 1,000 individuals with a margin of error of 4.38 percent. ISPU surveyed a total of 2,376 individuals, including 804 Muslims with a margin of error of 4.9 percent. It also included 360 Jews, with a margin of error of 7.6 percent. But only 184 white evangelicals were surveyed, with a margin of error of 8.65 percent.

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