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From Louie Giglio’s withdrawal from the Inauguration Day prayer, to Hobby Lobby’s refusal to pay for health insurance that covers potentially abortion-inducing medicines, to President Obama’s newly decreed January 16 as “Religious Freedom Day,” the question of religious liberty and just how far it stretches and how much it covers is a media topic du jour.

A new study conducted by Barna Group shows millions of adults—particularly active Protestants—are concerned religious liberties are under threat. The research, conducted in partnership with Clapham Group, included 1,008 adults from across the religious spectrum, representing the nation’s population from the most active to the most skeptical. Here are five observations about the findings:

First, Americans have a relatively gloomy view of religious freedom in the U.S.
Many Americans express significant angst over the state of religious freedom in the U.S. Slightly more than half of adults say they are very (29%) or somewhat (22%) concerned that religious freedom in the U.S. will become more restricted in the next five years. As might be expected, those who are religious are more concerned than those who aren’t—particularly Christians more so than those adherents to other faiths. Practicing Protestants (46% very concerned) are more worried about this prospect than others; yet, 30% of practicing Catholics are also concerned. Barna-defined evangelicals, who meet a series of nine theological criteria, are among the most likely to be concerned about such restrictions (71%).

Not only are most Americans worried about the future of religious freedom, many feel the restraints have already started. One-third of adults believe religious freedoms have grown worse in the last decade. Among practicing Protestants, nearly half (48%) say they perceive freedom of religion to have grown worse in recent years. Three out of five evangelicals (60%) perceive religious freedoms to have grown worse.

Second, there seems to be widespread agreement on what “religious freedom” means, in principle.
While there may not be total agreement on how or when to apply religious freedoms, there does seem to be a commonly accepted definition for the term. Nine out of 10 Americans (90%) agreed with the statement, “True religious freedom means all citizens must have freedom of conscience, which means being able to believe and practice the core commitments and values of your faith.” Practicing Protestants are (97%) are most likely to express strong agreement, followed by practicing Catholics (90%) and adherents of other faiths (89%). Even among religiously unaffiliated Americans, or skeptics, among half agreed (91%) with this description of religious freedom.

Yet, many controversial aspects of religious liberty are bubbling over, with most Americans subscribing to us-versus-them narratives.
If most Americans agree religious liberties are being restricted, there is much less consensus on why that shift is taking place. More than half of Americans (57%) believe “religious freedom has become more restricted in the U.S. because some groups have actively tried to move society away from traditional Christian values.” As might be expected, this opinion is again more common among practicing Catholics (62%) and Protestants (76%) and is nearly a universal perception among evangelicals (97%).

Specifically, about three in 10 Americans (31%) say, “the gay and lesbian community is the most active group trying to remove Christian values from the country.” This perception is embraced by half of practicing Protestants (42%), one-third of practicing Catholics (32%), and three-quarters of evangelicals (72%). By comparison, people of a faith other than Christianity (16%) and religiously unaffiliated adults (11%) were much less likely to embrace this viewpoint.

Fourth, there is a substantial difference of opinion about which values should dominate the nation’s vision for the future. Though most Americans agree religious freedoms should be granted to people of all faiths, there are still a significant number of people (23%) who believe traditional Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in the public square. The majority, though, would disagree: two-thirds of Americans (66%) say there’s no one set of values that should dominate the country and another 11% of adults declined or gave another response. Practicing Catholics (24%) are about on par with the national average, while practicing Protestants (35%) and evangelicals (54%) are above average in selecting traditional Judeo-Christian values.

To further explore this, the research asked respondents what type of organization they would be most likely to support. The most common preference was one that protects the religious liberties of all religions (65%). This is the predominant choice of all faith segments, from Catholics (69%), Protestants (68%), adherents to other faiths (56%) and religiously unaffiliated (58%).

One-third of evangelicals say they would support an organization that protects the rights of those who practice the same religion (33%)—and they are the group most likely to select this alternative. Still, half of evangelicals (48%) prefer an organization that protects the rights of all religions. Interestingly, 15% of evangelicals said they would support neither type of organization, perhaps reflecting an inherent skepticism among evangelicals about these kinds of issues.

The third option provided to respondents was an organization that keeps America secular. In total, 16% of Americans selected this option as the likely beneficiary of their support. Interestingly, religiously unaffiliated adults (29%) are less likely to select this option than are those who affiliate with a non-Christian religion (39%). As expected, this is not a popular alternative among practicing Protestants (8%) or Catholics (14%).

Fifth, younger Americans, in general, are much less concerned about religious liberty issues. The younger you are, the less it would seem you worry about your religious freedoms. The Boomer and Elder generations are much more pessimistic about religious liberty in America when compared to the Buster and Mosaic generations (often referred to as Gen X and Millennials, respectively). Younger adults are less likely to believe religious freedom has gotten worse in recent years; less likely to think some groups have actively tried to move society away from religious freedom; less likely to assert gays and lesbians have been part of this effort; and more likely to believe no one set of values should dominate the country.

Among practicing Christians, the major differences emerge among the Millennials. This younger cohort of Christians, ages 18- to 28-years-old, similar to their peers, is less concerned about issues of religious liberty than are older Christians. Only 19% of younger Christians are very concerned about religious freedoms becoming more restricted and just 12% firmly contend that gay and lesbian advocates have been the most active group trying to remove Christian values. These proportions are half the level of that among older Christians. Further, only one-quarter of Christian Millennials believe that Judeo-Christian values should be given preference, which compares to one-third of older believers.

Comments on the Findings
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, offered the following observations about the research:

First, the simple fact is that America is becoming more religiously diverse. This trend includes growth of faiths other than Christianity, increasing expressions of Christianity beyond white Protestantism, and the growth of the no-faith segment—the so-called religiously unaffiliated. These social changes create increasing tension about how something everyone essentially agrees on—freedom of religion—ought to work itself out in the real world where people find themselves disagreeing on important matters.

Within this context, the research raises the question as to why Christians are so much more concerned about religious freedom than any other group—even adherents of other faiths? What is it Christians are trying to protect and why do they feel under threat? Is this an example of a historically privileged group losing some of their privileges? Is it possible that evangelicals are interpreting a loss of religious privilege as loss of religious freedom? Or is there something significant at stake that evangelicals are more tuned into than most? True religious freedom is much more than permission to put up nativities—or for that matter it is more than invitations to pray at public events. 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. By any measure, matters of religious freedom are likely to be an area of significant struggle in the years to come.

Kinnaman, the author of the book unChristian, suggested that evangelicals have to be careful of embracing a double standard: to call for religious freedoms, but then desire the dominant religious influence to be Judeo-Christian. They cannot have it both ways. 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.

Finally, there is a significant generational divide on the issue of religious freedoms. Younger generations are generally less concerned about religious liberties and their restrictions. They don't see the threat as urgent, nor are they as interested in organizations that uphold the values of favored faiths. They aren't as worried about whether or not Judeo-Christian values dominate the public square and don't believe religious liberties are threatened as a result of the removal of Christian values. This divide between generations could lead to significant disagreement or more conviction by younger Christians that the church is too wrapped up in politics. 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. 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.

Barna Research Online
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Author Biography

George Barna
Web site: Barna Research Online
George Barna is the president of the Barna Research Group, Ltd., a marketing research firm located in Ventura, CA.

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