December 30, 2015

Americans prize religious freedom for Christians — less for Muslims or atheists

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A demonstrator waves during the "Freedom of Speech Rally Round II" across from the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Ariz.

As demonstrator waves during the "Freedom of Speech Rally Round II" across from the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Ariz. May 29, Christian counter-protesters carried "Love Thy Neighbor" signs. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec

A demonstrator waves during the "Freedom of Speech Rally Round II" across from the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, Ariz.

As a demonstrator waves during the “Freedom of Speech Rally Round II” across from the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix on May 29, Christian counterprotesters carried “Love Thy Neighbor” signs. REUTERS/Nancy Wiechec *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-RELIGIOUS-RIGHTS, originally transmitted on Dec. 30, 2015.

(RNS) Eight in 10 Americans say it’s very or extremely important for people like themselves to be allowed to practice their religion freely.

However, support for religious freedom plummeted when people were asked about other traditions, according to a survey released Wednesday (Dec. 30) by the National Opinion Research Center for Public Affairs Research and The Associated Press.

The survey of 1,042 U.S. adults found that overall:

  • 82 percent called religious liberty protections important for Christians
  • 72 percent prioritized it for Jews
  • 67 percent for Mormons
  • 61 percent for Muslims

For Christians, the percentages were nearly identical when asked about people like themselves. The AP-NORC poll was conducted online and by phone. The overall margin of error is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.


READ: America welcomes Christians, Jews; atheists, Muslims not so much


Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, told AP that ideas of religious liberty have become politicized and polarized. 

“Religious freedom is now in the eye of the beholder. People in different traditions, with different ideological commitments, define religious freedom differently,” Haynes said.

But Republicans and Democrats were statistically tied in prioritizing religious freedom for Christians but not for Muslims in the survey, conducted Dec. 10-13, while campaign rhetoric about Muslims was intense.

  • 88 percent of Republicans said it was important to protect the religious liberty of Christians, while only 60 percent said so for Muslims.
  • 83 percent of Democrats said the protections were important for Christians, while only 67 percent said so for Muslims.

Political independents lagged on all the measures, with fewer than 69 percent supporting religious freedom for Christians, 57 percent for Jews, 56 percent for Mormons and 49 percent for Muslims.

The survey was conducted after extremist Muslims launched terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. In the aftermath, there’s been a wave of vandalism and arson at U.S. mosques.


READ: American mosques trying to protect bodies and spirits from hate


Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, flanked by Republic presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, left, Attorney Mathew Staver, second right, and her husband Joe Davis, right, celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson, Kentucky on September 8, 2015. U.S. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Tilley *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MARSHALL-COLUMN, originally transmitted on September 10, 2015.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, flanked by Republic presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, left, Attorney Mathew Staver, second from right, and her husband Joe Davis, right, celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention Center in Grayson, Ky., on Sept. 8, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Tilley
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MARSHALL-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Sept. 10, 2015, or with RNS-RELIGIOUS-RIGHTS, originally transmitted on Dec. 30, 2015.

Recent months have also seen a furor over gay marriage and the rights of religious Christians to refuse to provide same-sex couples with marriage licenses. Kentucky clerk Kim Davis spent five days in jail for refusing to issue licenses.

Last week, the new governor of Kentucky ruled that license forms would not include a clerk’s name. It’s still unclear whether that will meet religious liberty objections by some conservative Christian groups.

According to AP, earlier polls with the NORC have found “dwindling confidence in the government’s defense of religious liberty, with 75 percent in 2011 saying the government was doing a good job, compared with 55 percent who said so this month.”

Americans, particularly Christians, are tense about the religious mix with more non-Christian immigrants and the rapid rise of people with no religion.

The latest Pew Research survey of America’s religious landscape found that although Christians make up 70 percent of Americans, this is a significantly less Christian country than it was seven years ago, with the percentage down nearly 8 points from 2007.

People with no religious identity rose 6.7 percentage points in the same period. The rising influence of these “nones” helped boost support for the legalization of same-sex marriage, an issue hard-fought against by evangelical Christians and Catholics.

Muslims and Hindus, while still very tiny minorities in the U.S., also increased their share of the religious marketplace. And attention to their rising numbers, together with political rhetoric about potential Muslim immigration, may have shaped views revealed in the survey.

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for RNS)

  • Larry

    Most of what many Christians these days are calling “religious freedom” is really a euphemism for having license for discrimination. One cannot value religious freedom if they seek it solely for their own faith.

    What the poll shows is many people do not understand or have an appreciation for the concept of religious freedom.

  • tjien

    “…Christians make up 70 percent of Americans, this is a significantly less Christian country than it was seven years ago…”
    I wonder why is there a question of surprise in the religious decline — in which other “religious” country is it ok to take away the “identity of their God” out of public, buildings, and books in the name of political correctness. Why in this “Christian country” called America we have to tone down our Lord Jesus Christ? What “religious freedom” are we talking about? At Christmas time, store keepers must say ” Happy Holiday” — are we celebrating Christmas?? I think America is forgetting their Christian root. Who is going to support Christianity beside Christians? I am sure this is the same with other religions. It’s easier to be “not affiliated”, then there is no need to defend yourself. Education and religious tolerance is what we need to learn about each other in this new age cultural mixture.

  • Larry

    We are not a “religious country”. In fact our laws forbid it from being one (See 1st Amendment Establishment Clause).

    We are not a “Christian country”. Christians are not entitled to sole recognition of public resources or recognition. They are no more entitled to more rights than any other religious group. You can’t hijack public resources to service your narrow sectarian interests. Your Jesus Christ doesn’t require my tax dollars.

    People say “Happy Holidays” to show respect for all customers regardless of their faith. It is both offensive and silly to naturally assume every customer is Christian. Your offense to such polite recognition is proof positive of the obnoxious level of entitlement Christians feel for a nation they must share with others. Education and religious tolerance is sorely lacking in people who decry having to share their nation with other beliefs. Those who make the same complaints as yourself.

  • Barry the Baptist

    Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong, but I do not see any mention of atheists or religious freedom for atheists in this article.

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  • DavidPun

    Thats because religious freedom is simply the ability to talk about fairy tales performed by the Big Man In the Sky. Why would an atheist want to do that?

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  • Barry the Baptist

    Religious freedom protects those who practice AND those who wish to refrain from practicing any or all religion. The ability to talk about their gods is protected under freedom of speech.

    Also, your post doesn’t address my concern: unless I am mistaken, atheists are mentioned in the title of the article but nowhere in the body. The title makes an assertion that the article does not support.

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