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Polarized Americans Still Support Religious Freedom

Survey sets benchmarks to measure US commitment to First Amendment rights.
Polarized Americans Still Support Religious Freedom
Image: Mark Wilson / Staff / Getty
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo address the State Department's second religious freedom ministerial.

Last year, American support for religious freedom survived COVID-19.

The right to free speech held firm amid racial tensions.

And vigorous backing of the First Amendment endured a contentious presidential campaign.

So concludes the 2020 Becket Religious Freedom Index, which will monitor the resilience of the United States’ “first freedom” through the yearly challenges to come.

“Americans understand religion as a fundamental part of an individual’s identity,” said Caleb Lyman, director of research and analytics at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“It is no surprise that they support strong religious freedom protections in work and public life.”

Designing 16 questions across six categories, the annual index measures perspectives on the First Amendment. Now in its second year, in October it polled a nationwide sample of 1,000 Americans, scoring their support from 0 (complete opposition) to 100 (robust support).

The composite score is 66, a statistically insignificant decline from 67 in 2019.

Becket’s report recognizes that the religious impulse is natural to human beings, and therefore religious expression is natural to human culture.

Through their law firm, they defend religious rights. Through their index, they discover if Americans agree.

The 16 questions are repeated each year, to measure consistency across detailed application:

  • Support for “Religious Pluralism” measured 77. The most significant decline across the six categories, down from 80, it gauges popular support for holding beliefs about God, adhering to a religion, and living out the basic tenets of religion in daily life.
  • Support for “Religious Sharing” measured 69. Down from 71, it explores the extent to which people should be free to share their religious beliefs with others.
  • Support for “Religion and Policy” measured 66. Down from 67, it probes the proper place of religion in crafting law and public policy.
  • Support for “Religion in Action” measured 65. Holding steady from last year, it studies the freedom to practice beliefs beyond the walls of the homes or place of worship.
  • Support for “Religion and Society” measured 62. Down from 63, it reviews the contributions of religion and people of faith to the creation of healthy communities.
  • Support for “Church and State” measured 56. Down from 58, this most controversial category examines the boundaries of interactions between government and religion.

But beyond the questions that populate these categories, the index also tallied opinions on the salient issues of 2020 in light of a foundational respect for religious identity.

Nearly 2 in 3 Americans (65%) view religious faith as a way of life for some people, and 60 percent said so of themselves.

This faith cannot be quarantined, according to the index, as 62 percent said that faith was important to them during the pandemic.

But COVID-19 was not the only national controversy.

More than 8 in 10 Americans (84%) said religious organizations and people should have a role in advocating for racial equality and justice. And while 7 in 10 said that religion was important to them during times of social unrest, 78 percent viewed it as an important source of social stability.

Nonetheless, the survey revealed a perceived lack of leadership.

Only 39 percent said that religious congregations were treated fairly during the pandemic.

Only 49 percent said their faith community did a good job on racial issues.

And in terms of protecting religious liberty, the courts (27%)—not politicians (the president: 19%; Congress: 15%)—win the highest confidence.

Even so, more leadership is desired.

More than 6 in 10 registered voters (61%), and 78 percent of people of faith, say that a candidate’s stance on religious liberty is important to them.

Nuanced readings—and other polls—hint it may not stay this way.

According to Becket, over 60 percent of both Republicans and Democrats view support for religious freedom as an “important” aspect of a political platform. But it is “extremely important” to more than a quarter of Republicans, compared to only 8 percent of Democrats.

And in November, Religion in Public asked 1,600 Americans to evaluate a statement in support of religious freedom. Support was strong when not attached to a political candidate.

But when attributed to both Joe Biden and Donald Trump, support declined. It declined further when attributed only to Biden, and further still when attributed only to Trump.

The nature of the religious citizen in need also matters.

An August poll by The Associated Press found religious freedom “important” to 8 in 10 Americans, and “very important” to 55 percent.

According to 77 percent of political liberals, Muslim freedoms are at risk. Only 32 percent of conservatives agree.

But when it comes to threats to the freedom of evangelicals, Catholics, and other Christians, the percentages switch. Conservatives outpoll liberals by a 2-to-1 margin.

The divide itself is a great threat, said Asma Uddin, a religious liberty lawyer.

“The vast majority of religious believers don’t view religious freedom as a partisan tool,” she said. “It is a way to protect something that is core to their identity and with deep meaning in their lives.

“The continued polarization of religious freedom risks that protection.”

Uddin, a fellow with the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute (and a Muslim previously interviewed by CT), was formerly a legal counsel with Becket. She highlighted the index’s question on COVID-19 to illustrate the political divide.

Whereas only 29 percent of Republicans believed the government treated religious congregations fairly, 45 percent of Democrats said it did.

Becket insists, however, that while there are differences in specific application along party lines, across the board there is little evidence that one party will become more supportive of religious freedom than the other over time. All 16 questions show minimum 60 percent support. And 7 of the 16 index questions reveal less partisan polarization than the year before:

  • To pray or worship without fear of persecution (86% of Americans agree)
  • To practice religion in daily life without facing discrimination or harm (85%)
  • Tolerance and respect for a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God (82%)
  • To practice one’s religious beliefs even if contrary to majority practices (79%)
  • For religious employees to wear religious clothing at work (75%)
  • To believe that marriage is between a man and a woman (74%)
  • To run businesses or organizations according to religious beliefs (71%)

But on one question, Becket signaled concern. The decline in “Religious Pluralism” was driven largely by eroding of the “tolerance” question above. Though the partisan gap narrowed overall, Democratic and Generation Z support dropped 5 percent.

In fact, the generational gap may be of more concern than politics.

The index asked a sub-question about the right of religious organizations at public universities to determine their own leaders and membership criteria. Overall, 48 percent of Americans were in support, with 16 percent opposed.

Baby Boomers registered 51 percent support, with the same 16 percent opposition. But Generation Z supported at only 38 percent, with 23 percent opposition.

Another question asked if religion and people of faith are part of the solution to what happens in the country, or part of the problem. Overall, 61 percent of Americans said they were part of the solution.

Baby Boomers agreed at 65 percent, while Generation Z agreed at 57 percent.

In general, support for religious freedom declined each generation.

But significantly, the “solution” question saw significant increases in support—across categories.

Generation Z had only 50 percent agreement in 2019. Democrats rose from 45 percent to 50 percent. And even people of no faith increased their agreement from 29 percent to 37 percent.

While this may be due in part to the increased religious outreach of the Biden campaign, “Church and State” remained the most controversial category.

Support for religious aid organizations to receive government funding registered at 65 percent, while support for government use of religious symbols registered at 53 percent.

Sub-category questions revealed greater divide. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39%) support the tax-exempt status of religious organizations, while 3 in 10 (29%) oppose. Speaking politically should not threaten this status, say 34 percent, while 31 percent say it should.

“Yes, there continues to be broad support for religion and religious freedom,” said Uddin, whose forthcoming bookThe Politics of Vulnerability explores these issues.

“But how that is defined with respect to government power is a politicized issue.”

Evangelicals, she recommends, must advocate for religious freedom as widely as possible in order to counteract this trend.

If they do, America will stand with them.

Nearly 8 in 10 Americans support the freedom for faith to guide one’s voting principles. And 7 in 10 support the right to argue that certain behaviors are sinful, immoral, and should be avoided in society.

Evangelicals, like everyone else, should cherish the First Amendment.

“Americans view faith as an essential, stabilizing force … and they want their elected officials to do a better job of protecting religious freedom,” said Luke Goodrich, senior counsel at Becket and co-editor of the index.

“We will all be better off if our leaders and government officials respect [this] foundational value.”

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