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Report: Support for Religious Freedom Rebounds in America

The fifth annual index by a leading law firm finds that friendship is key to maintaining gains amid polarization and the shifting emphasis of Gen Z.
Report: Support for Religious Freedom Rebounds in America
Image: azulox / Getty / Edits by CT

American support for religious freedom is trending in the right direction.

Rebounding from COVID-19 lows in 2020, the Becket Religious Freedom Index registered a new high in 2023 in its annual monitoring of “first freedom” resilience in the United States. Amid widespread political polarization, core support for the right of individuals to live according to their faith remains strong.

“Despite some efforts to turn religion into a scapegoat for our nation’s problems, most Americans believe that religion—and religious freedom—are key to solving them,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO of Becket. “As we celebrate Religious Freedom Day, we should remember that religious liberty remains the cornerstone of our effort to form a more perfect union.”

Results were released on January 16, marking Virginia’s 1786 passage of the statute for religious freedom which became the basis for the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Initially led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the day has been commemorated in the United States ever since a presidential proclamation in 1993.

Either three centuries or 30 years later, there should be no “sky-is-falling narratives about American culture,” summarized the report.

Featuring 21 questions across six categories, the annual index measures perspectives on the First Amendment. Now in the report’s fifth year, Becket polled a nationwide sample of 1,000 Americans in October, scoring their opinions from 0 (complete opposition) to 100 (robust support).

The composite score is 69, one point higher than last year and up three points from 2019.

Becket’s report asserts the religious impulse is natural to human beings, and therefore, religious expression is natural to human culture. Through its law firm, the group defends religious rights. Through its index, Becket discovers if Americans agree.

Questions are repeated each year to measure consistency across detailed application:

  • Support for “religious pluralism” measured 84 on a 100-point scale. Experiencing a 7-point increase since 2020, this category 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 72. This second-highest category explores the extent to which people should be free to share their religious beliefs with others, but shows sharp divides between the religious and non-religious.
  • Support for “religion in action” measured 68. With statistically significant half-point gains since 2019, this category studies the freedom to practice beliefs beyond the walls of the home or place of worship.
  • Support for “religion and policy” measured 66. The only category not to score an all-time high, it probes the proper place of religion in crafting law and public policy.
  • Support for “religion and society” measured 65. Up 3 points from last year, this category reviews the contributions of religion and people of faith to the creation of healthy communities.
  • Support for “church and state” measured 59. Also up 3 points from last year, this most controversial category examines the boundaries of interactions between government and religion.

Beyond the questions that populate these categories, the index also gauged religious liberty opinions on three additional topics that test the levels of overall support. Two suggest pushback against a liberal ethos.

First, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 30 years after its passage in 1993, still commands respect. About two-thirds of Americans agree that its level of protections are “just about right” (63%). Amid some claims that state-level versions of the law are used to undermine LGBT rights, this community is even more likely (65%) to agree. Only 12 percent of survey respondents believe the act goes too far, while 26 percent believe it does not protect religious freedom rights enough.

Second, Americans support faith-driven parental rights to opt-out children from curriculum on gender and sexuality. Nearly three-quarters (74%) agree, with strong agreement (42%) four times higher than strong disagreement. Meanwhile, 58 percent of Americans oppose school policies mandating preferred pronoun usage in schools, a 12-point increase from 2021.

“The American people sent a clear message in this year’s Index: Parents don’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to raising their children,” said Renzi. “Parents want schools to teach their children math and science, not force them to embrace controversial gender ideology.”

Third, Americans support religious freedom over economic interests. In light of last year’s findings of 90 percent support for Native American sacred land rights, Becket asked specifically about a pending Supreme Court case over a disputed copper mine. Though told that excavation would create jobs and power electric vehicles, 73 percent still sided with the protection of indigenous sanctities.

Furthermore, 59 percent of Americans believe that religion is “part of the solution” to national problems, up 9 points from last year.

But even though support for religious freedom is widespread, many Americans decreasingly feel it. People of faith registered only 50 percent agreement that they are accepted in society, a 5-point drop from last year—largely driven by non-Catholic Christians. Non-Christians feel even less acceptance at 38 percent.

Polarization may drive the perception. Democrats scored 57 in the religion and policy section, while Republicans scored 76. Racial breakdowns, however, do not accord with conventional political associations. White Americans score 66, in line with the national average. But Black Americans display even stronger support for religious liberty at 72.

Not all of the survey results are encouraging to people of faith. Respondents supporting the “absolutely essential” right to preach one’s religious doctrine dropped 5 points to 35 percent. And the right of religious sharing in general drops precipitously among the nonreligious, with a 12-point gap at age 65+ increasing to a 22-point gap for ages 35–44.

This comes as religious attachment is also declining. Two-thirds of Americans (67%) describe themselves as at least somewhat religious, down 3 points since 2019. Two-in-five (41%) describe themselves as very religious, down 6 points since 2021.

And Gen Z is less protective of religious freedom than anyone else.

Its index score of 59 compares unfavorably to all other generations, at or above the national average of 66. But rather than expressing a dismissal of religiosity, Gen Z’s focus is simply shifting, Becket suggests.

While only 36 percent support the right to preach, 48 percent support the right to share one’s religion. And while 66 percent of Gen Z support the right to choose a religion—8 points less than the national average—63 percent support the right to religious practices different than the majority, 12 points higher than the national average.

Becket said Gen Z shows the least support for businesses to employ and craft policies according to the religious values of the owner. But they outpace all generations in support of religious clothing at work (58%) and of opting out of work participation when it violates religious belief (49%).

Yet even if society continues moving away from a consensus of faith, 87 percent of the nonreligious accept tolerance and respect of a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God.

How should Christians steward these positive numbers? Friendship.

While 53 percent of society expresses a high appreciation for people of faith, nonbelievers drop 39 points if they have no believers within their social circle. For those who do, the percentage bounces back 21 points. And while nonbelievers with religious friends equal the overall religious pluralism score of 84, it falls 11 points for those without.

Overall, Becket is optimistic.

“Americans have a better appreciation of what religious people need when they are taken together as a nation, instead of split apart,” states the report’s conclusion. “Our nation values religion and people of faith, approves of strong protections for religious liberty, and supports a healthy, diverse, and pluralistic society where Americans of all faiths (or none at all) can live together in harmony.”

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