Half of Americans worry about their own religious freedom

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29 2013 12:40 p.m. MST

Half of all Americans believe the freedom to practice their religious beliefs will be more restricted in the near future, according to a new poll that found Christians to be more concerned than other groups about their rights to religious liberty.

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Half of all Americans believe the freedom to practice their religious beliefs will be more restricted in the near future, according to a new poll that found Christians to be more concerned than other groups about their rights to religious liberty.

The survey, released last week by the Barna Group, showed 51 percent of Americans expressing angst over the state of religious freedom in the United States in the next five years.

Broken down by faith tradition, the poll of 1,008 adults found that Christian evangelicals were the most concerned, with 60 percent saying their religious freedom has been under attack for the past decade and 71 percent fearing that same freedom will be increasingly restricted in the next five years.

The study is the latest of several conducted in the past year on an issue that is increasingly prominent as governments and courts around the world wrestle with religion's role in public life. This poll in particular raises some questions about Americans' perceptions of how religious liberty applies to them personally, as well as to those of differing faiths.

"Protestants and Catholics, who represent nearly three-quarters of Americans, must discern a path that takes seriously the increasing religious diversity of the nation and how religious freedom in America affects freedoms in other countries," said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a California research firm that specializes in culture and Christianity. "By any measure, matters of religious freedom are likely to be an area of significant struggle in the years to come."

Public values

According to the survey, which was taken in November 2012, significant majorities of all faith traditions — including those who identified as religiously unaffiliated — said they support organizations that protect the religious freedom of all religions.

But the research also showed that 54 percent of evangelicals said traditional Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in the U.S., while just 37 percent of them agree that no one set of values should dominate the country. About one-fifth of all of those surveyed believe Judeo-Christian values should be given preference, while more than two-thirds (66 percent) said no one set of values should dominate the country.

The results raised a red flag for Kinnaman, who sees contradicting views among those evangelicals he surveyed: On one hand, they call for religious freedoms, but on the other, they desire the dominant religious influence to be Judeo-Christian.

"They cannot have it both ways," he said. "This does not mean putting Judeo-Christian values aside, but it will require a renegotiation of those values in the public square as America increasingly becomes a multi-faith nation."

Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program, said it is difficult to determine whether those showing a preference for Judeo-Christian values in fact have a double-standard in their views about religious liberty without knowing exactly who they think should give precedence to them. It isn't clear from the Barna report whether respondents have in mind government, advocacy groups or their surrounding community.

Walsh explained that every faith tradition believes their values are the best, and every faith should have the freedom to express that preference in determining public policy.

"What they don't get to have is government promoting their religion. That is a different issue altogether," Walsh said.

He cited a 2006 speech by then-Sen. Barack Obama, who spoke against the secularist view that religion is strictly a private affair and not allowed in the public square.

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