WASHINGTON (RNS) These are anxious times for white evangelicals, according to two new surveys.
At 20 percent of U.S. adults, they are statistically neck-and-neck with the “nones” — people who claim no religious brand. “Nones” now tally up to 19 percent in the 2014 American Values Survey, said Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which released the survey Tuesday (Sept. 23.)
Evangelicals, said Jones, are on “the losing side of the culture wars, such as gay marriage, and they see that their share (of society) is shrinking and aging, adding to their sense of being embattled.”
“They can no longer say confidently they speak for all people of faith.”
Perhaps for that reason, white evangelicals, more than any other religious group, worry that the government will interfere with their religious liberty.
The survey asked which concerned people more: The government interfering with their ability to “freely practice their religion” or “religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others.”
The overall answer was a tie — 46 percent of Americans overall for each viewpoint. But white evangelicals were significantly more worried about government interference (66 percent) than any other group.
The reverse is the case for “nones” and Catholics, who are more concerned (63 percent and 51 percent, respectively) about religious groups seeking to impose beliefs on others.
Another survey released this week — this one by the Pew Research Center — asked people what groups faced “significant discrimination” in American society.
On a list of eight groups, gays and lesbians led with 65 percent of all surveyed saying this group was under the gun. Atheists were cited next at 59 percent. Thirty-one percent considered white evangelicals to be victims of “significant discrimination.”
Yet, among themselves, 50 percent of white evangelicals see themselves as victims. That’s an unrivaled 19 percentage-point gap in social perception.
“This is directly related to the current political climate, with all the voices of Republicans in the 2012 presidential campaign claiming there’s a ‘war on religion,’” said David Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.
About one in three white evangelicals say it has become more difficult to be a person of their faith in the U.S. today, according to the Pew survey, released Monday, (Sept. 22) . And about the same number say they think of themselves as a religious minority because of their beliefs. No other group comes close to this sense of unease.
But white evangelicals aren’t the only ones to feel embattled. In a discussion of the PRRI survey at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday, a panel of political scientists and journalists looked at the findings in light of the economy and the upcoming midterm elections.
“Ordinary Americans, not just political elites and activists, are more divided along party lines than at any time in the post-World War II era,” said Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz.
We don’t just disagree, “we hate the other party,” said Abramowitz.
His forecast for the next Congress was bleak, bleak and more bleak: “Continuing gridlock, continuing confrontation and continuing dysfunctional government.”
Conservative commentator Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center said if Republicans want midterm votes, the party has to address a white working class that is split, with white evangelicals “extremely different” than working-class mainline Protestants and Catholics.
MSNBC host and journalist Joy Reid said the political divisions — the rise of minorities and growing numbers of people with no religious identification — are shaping up as a kind of “Armageddon” for the GOP in 2020.
The PRRI telephone survey of 4,507 U.S. adults was conducted July 21-Aug. 15, in English and Spanish. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.
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