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."
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.
"So to say that men and women should not inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates is a practical absurdity," Obama said. "Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition."
In the context of what Obama said seven years ago, Walsh explained, it's understandable why someone might say that Judeo-Christian values should be given precedence generally.
"But if someone asks me if government should (give my religious values precedence over others) I say, "That’s not (government's) job,'" Walsh said. "But it is the job of everyone to advocate what is good based on their moral background."
The Barna survey also probed understanding of religious liberty, finding strong agreement among people of all faiths, including atheists and agnostics, that it "means all citizens must have freedom of conscience, which means being able to believe and practice the core commitments and values of your faith."
Conflicts over religious freedom have become increasingly prominent in the United States and in other areas of the world. On the national front, the contraception mandate promoted under the Affordable Care Act has become the leading issue on religious freedom as at least 44 religious organizations or businesses with devout owners have sued the government claiming compliance to the mandate would violate their right to practice their religious beliefs.
The conflict is also playing out on the state level over issues such as same-sex marriage, education and property rights.
On the world stage, Egypt is divided over the expanded influence of Islam in the government and its newly adopted constitution. In Europe, the continent's Court of Human Rights ruled earlier this month on four cases involving religious expression in the workplace, finding that religious freedom is not an absolute right.
"Religious freedom is, in effect, not regarded as important as stopping certain other forms of discrimination," the court ruled in two cases involving employees who refused to provide services to gay clients because it violated the workers' religious beliefs.
The Barna survey found that the demographic least concerned about religious liberty in America was so-called Millennials — adults born after 1984 — with only about one-fifth saying they were very concerned that religious freedom restrictions will grow in the next five years. One-quarter of Millennials said the state of religious freedom has grown worse in the past decade, compared to 33 percent of all adults in the survey.
"Organizations have to come to realize that enrolling younger Christians on these issues will require a different set of arguments and strategies than has been effective in the past," Kinnaman said. "For Millennials, the most religiously diverse generation in U.S. history, it is critical to answer why religious liberty matters and how it ought to work in a pluralistic society."
Walsh said that result is consistent with what he has found. He said younger Americans have historically been less aware of their religious freedom, primarily because it hasn't been emphasized in their education.
But Walsh is optimistic this current generation will better "grasp religious freedom when it is explained to them" because they are more likely to come from backgrounds of minority faiths that could face discrimination.
Walsh said his organization is working on an initiative with various faith communities to come up with a curriculum that explains religious freedom and the role of religion in society.
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