In 2019, the majority of Americans accept and support religious freedom as a fundamental right as indicated by the Index score of 67. Although that fact may not come as a surprise, the Index clearly shows that Americans support a much broader array of religious freedom principles than current news cycles might suggest. The majorities seen in most of the dimensions are too strong to categorize as the domain of one political party, age group, or education level. Rather, each dimension shows support that crosses political aisles, generation gaps, and educational experiences.
Across dimensions three themes emerge in the Index’s first year:
- Consensus in a Polarized Society: Even after decades of religious freedom being pulled into the culture wars, Americans accept and support a broad interpretation of religious freedom.
- Preference for a Hands-off Government Approach: Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of the government penalizing groups and individuals for living out their religious beliefs.
- Support for a Culture of Accommodation: Contrary to popular narratives of increased tribalism and polarization, Americans support a culture of accommodation for minority faith practices.
Consensus in a Polarized Society
Even after years of religious freedom being pulled into the center of heated and partisan debates, the principles surveyed in the Index show that, while any individual religious freedom topic may be polarizing, Americans still accept and support a broad interpretation of religious freedom. This support is even more significant given the reported decline of religiosity in America shown in many national polls.1
This year’s Index shows the strongest support in the Religious Pluralism dimension, with a score of 80. This dimension deals with the basic rights to hold unique beliefs and to worship according to those beliefs without facing persecution.
The Religious Sharing dimension, which asks about the freedom to share beliefs with others and to have open conversations about religion in public, had the second highest level of support with a score of 71. In the middle range, with scores of 67, 65 and 63 respectively, are the Religion and Policy, Religious in Action, and Religion in Society Dimensions. These categories cover the broadest spectrum of freedoms, ranging from the right of private organizations to operate according to religious beliefs, to the right of religious individuals not to participate in actions and work that violates their faith, to people’s appreciation of the contributions religious organizations make to society. At the furthest end of the spectrum is the Church and State dimension, with a score of 58, which touches on the interactions between government and religion in the contexts of funding and speech.
No dimension, nor any single question within a dimension, is supported by less than a majority of respondents. Even in the dimension showing the lowest levels of support—the Church and State dimension—a majority of respondents side with a broad interpretation of religious freedoms. If religious freedom were only a culture-war issue, one would expect to see nearly all of the dimensions divided 50-50. Instead, one sits within the 50s, three sit in the 60s and two sit above 70, with Religious Pluralism at 80. Even in dimensions that ask about principles at stake in some of the most recent culture war issues, such as religion influencing business, voting choices, and employment decisions, more than two-thirds of respondents expressed support for protections.
Preference for a Hands-off Government Approach
With a government ever increasing in reach, it is unsurprising that some of the most significant conflicts in religious liberty have arisen because the government has imposed penalties on religious individuals for living their faith in public. On questions across dimensions where a right is presented as a freedom from government involvement or influence, only a minority of respondents accept and support that intrusion.
On the fundamental, but rarely discussed, principles of church autonomy and the ministerial exception, 70 percent of respondents supported religious organizations’ ability to make their own employment and leadership decisions without government interference.
In a nuanced question, two thirds of respondents agreed that the government should be able to treat nonprofits with religious missions equally to secular nonprofits with respect to eligibility for government funds. Even with some of the more controversial questions, such as those addressing beliefs about marriage, 74 percent of Americans said individuals and groups should not face discrimination, fines, or penalties from the government for their beliefs.
Supporting a Culture of Accommodation
Although one of the dominant narratives of our time is political polarization and distrust of others, the Index shows a more nuanced portrait of how Americans feel about dealing with differences in religious practice and belief.2 Across dimensions, with questions addressing minority practices or faiths, or even unpopular beliefs, respondents were broadly supportive of the freedom to practice those beliefs. Furthermore, respondents were supportive of allowing those beliefs to be a part of public life and for governments or workplaces to make room for those practices.
In the Religious Pluralism Dimension, we see some of the clearest evidence of support for minority faith practices. When asked about the freedom to practice one’s beliefs even when they are contrary to accepted practices, 81 percent responded that they accept and support this freedom. Notably this question lists examples of practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Sikhs, and other religious traditions that have in the past been sources of controversy or misunderstanding.
American support extends beyond the freedom to practice those beliefs in general, to the freedom to practice those beliefs in the workplace. Seventy-three percent of respondents supported the freedom to practice similar expressions of faith in the workplace or to change work schedules to accommodate for holy days. Even more notably, 63 percent still support the freedom to practice one’s faith in daily life or the workplace even when it imposes on or inconveniences others.