A year full of uncertainty sets the stage for the second annual Religious Freedom Index. Although the questions constituting the Index stay the same—providing a consistent year-by-year picture of American perspectives on religion, culture, and the law—this year’s report also includes new questions on how religion and religious freedom relate to the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice, and the 2020 election.
Since the release of the first edition of the Religious Freedom Index at the end of 2019, Americans have sailed through a maelstrom of unexpected changes. But the Index—which is based on asking the same questions in the same order with the same phrasing each year—gives us an island of consistency amid this storm. New questions added this year also give us a deeper understanding of how the unique events of 2020 relate to some of our most fundamental First Amendment freedoms.
The responses to Index questions show some subtle movement, as expected of an Index meant to track underlying opinions and perspectives. With two years of data points, the Index has established a foundation from which to evaluate trends over time. Yet this year, we also ask questions that readers will not find compiled in any other single poll. These questions include the role of faith in coping with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, evaluations of faith communities’ roles in advocating for racial justice, and the importance of a candidate’s stance on religious liberty in voting decisions. This mix of perennial and timely questions makes this year’s Index an essential tool for understanding American opinion in 2020 and a solid baseline for evaluating changes in the years to come.
The Religious Freedom Index’s unique, holistic approach to religious freedom and year-over-year consistency make it the only poll to track sentiment across a broad spectrum of religious liberty principles. The data files for each year of the Religious Freedom Index are hosted online by The Association for Religion Data Archives, home of the “best data on religion,” and can be accessed at thearda.com/archive. Rather than only focusing on the most controversial issues of the day, the Index asks questions that provide insights into opinion on past, present, and future religious liberty topics. These responses statistically group into six dimensions that contribute to the yearly Index score: 1) Religious Pluralism, 2) Religion and Policy, 3) Religious Sharing, 4) Religion in Society, 5) Church and State, and 6) Religion in Action.
In this year’s Index we find Americans steadfast in their support for religious freedom principles and drawing on their religious identity to face the year’s challenges and inform their approaches to opportunities for change that lie ahead.
From the results of the Index questions, and additional questions asked this year to contextualize those questions, we find three themes emerging:
- Americans weather storms anchored by faith:
Americans are anchored in their opinions on religious freedom, just as religion sustains them through difficult times.
- Religious identity cannot be quarantined:
Religion is part of who Americans are, not just something they do. Respondents support protections that reflect the reality of religious identity.
- Leadership gaps in defending racial justice and religious freedom:
In two areas–religious communities advocating for racial justice and elected officials prioritizing religious freedom–the Index reveals significant leadership gaps.
Americans weather storms anchored by faith
In 2020, consistency is a rare gem, and we find one in the stability of Index responses regarding Americans’ opinions on religious freedom. However, consistency in this context hardly means predictability.
In a year when nations wait on science and government to provide a cure to the coronavirus pandemic, it may seem that religion and people of faith would have little to offer in terms of solutions. Yet this year, more than 60 percent of respondents said that religion and people of faith are part of the solution to the issues facing our country. It may also seem that thanks to everything from Zoom fatigue to election exhaustion to lockdown weariness, Americans lack the capacity to feel strongly about anything. But again, when it comes to solutions to the country’s issues, the Index shows an increase of 7 percentage points among those who think people of faith are definitely part of the solution—the strongest level of agreement.
Perhaps Americans see people of faith and religion as part of the solution in part because religion helps Americans as individuals navigate the personal challenges of the pandemic. More than 60 percent of respondents said that faith or religion was important to them during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, respondents older than 65, who across polls tend to be more religious and more at risk during the pandemic, were much more likely than the total sample to say that faith and religion were extremely or very important to dealing with the pandemic. Surprisingly, Gen Z respondents, who across polls tend to be less religious and least at risk during the pandemic, were also much more likely than the average to say faith and religion had been extremely or very important.
As respondents look to faith and religion during times of social unrest like those experienced in 2020, they of course also look to government. Yet when comparing the role of religion versus the role of government in providing stability to society, respondents were more likely to say that religion provides greater stability.
Religious identity cannot be quarantined
Diving deeper into the source of stability in the Index numbers, and the stability provided by religion, we found evidence in this year’s Index for the perception that religion is part of an individual’s identity. The centrality of religion helps explain respondents’ opposition to policies and actions that treat religious exercise as a mere hobby or activity.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed with a description of religious faith as a way of life for many people. Sixty percent agree that religion for some people is a fundamental part of “who I am” and should be protected accordingly. And a majority of respondents agreed with the statements that religious freedom is inherently public and that religious exercise extends to school, work, social media, and other public places. Concerning the question of whether religious freedom is inherently public, two of the more supportive demographic groups were Gen Z and Black respondents.
This finding of Gen Z support matches last year’s findings of support for religious expression in the workplace under the Religion in Action dimension. This year, Baby Boomer respondents increased their support for religious expression in the workplace by at least 5 percentage points, specifically for allowing people to abstain from work that violates their sincere religious beliefs, and for accommodating religion in the workplace even when it causes an inconvenience or imposition for others.
Seeing religion as an identity also helps explain views on religious worship during the pandemic. State and local governments across the country walked into lawsuits brought by religious plaintiffs when they failed to treat houses of worship and religious schools equally in their pandemic reopening policies. A majority of respondents said that houses of worship should be treated with at least the same priority for reopening as businesses. When it came to comparing priorities of allowing outdoor religious services and outdoor protests, respondents were twice as supportive of giving priority to outdoor religious services.
Leadership gaps in defending racial justice and religious freedom
There were two areas of the Index where we noticed a significant leadership gap: whether religious communities sufficiently advocated for racial justice and whether elected officials properly prioritized religious freedom. Respondents cared deeply about both of these issues but didn’t seem to find the engagement they expected from their leaders. The responses suggest that religious organizations have the opportunity to uniquely influence social issues, possibly more effectively than government.
The first area of unmet respondent interest was in religion and racial justice. More than four out of five respondents who said faith was important also think that religious organizations should have a role in advocating for racial equality and justice. Nearly half said that role should be a major one. However, less than half said that their faith community had done a good job of responding to these same issues. Furthermore, of the total sample only 36 percent of respondents said that religion had a positive influence and made significant contributions toward equality and justice for racial minorities. This portion only increased to 47 percent among those who said faith was important.
Just as people of faith were unsatisfied with their community’s responses to the racial justice issues they find important, the American people seem similarly dissatisfied with their elected officials’ performance in protecting religious freedom.
Respondents who were registered to vote were consistently more supportive of religious freedom than those who were not registered to vote. And when it came to voting decisions, a candidate’s stance on religious freedom was an important factor to 78 percent of voters. Interestingly, it seems a candidate’s stance on religious freedom may be more important or influential to voters than their own faith—only 45 percent said their faith influenced their vote a moderate amount or more.
When asked which branch of government does the best job of protecting religious freedom, respondents were more likely to choose the courts than elected officials including the president, Congress or state governments. The branch supposed to be the most representative of all, Congress, was the least likely to be chosen.
In both these areas, we see a hunger and interest from voters and people of faith. Yet in both areas, we also see dissatisfaction with their communities’ handling of these issues. In religious groups dealing with issues of racial justice and elected officials protecting religious freedom, there exists a clear opportunity for leaders to engage and address this desire for increased attention and action.
The Religious Freedom Index includes data gathered in an annual online poll of a nationally representative sample of American adults (n=1,000) conducted by independent research company, Heart+Mind Strategies. The poll includes 21 questions that contribute to the Index and are asked with the same phrasing every year. The poll also includes additional questions that are not calculated in any of the Index dimensions and change from year-to-year based on current events. The polling takes place each year between mid-September and mid-October.
After the first year’s results were gathered, Heart+Mind Strategies constructed the Index and dimensions via factor, path and conceptual analysis including second-factor modeling. Each dimension is calculated by using and scoring individual responses to questions included in each dimension. Within each dimension, the scores on individual responses are used to calculate a summated score for that dimension and re-scaled from 0 to 100. The average of all six of the dimension scores is then used to create the final Index score.
The six individual dimensions and overall Index use a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 indicates complete opposition for the principle at issue and 100 indicates robust support for the same principle.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty does not participate in the gathering or coding of responses, or in the scale construction. Rather, Becket contributes its broad expertise representing people of all faiths in religious liberty cases to ensure that the polling instrument broadly reflects America’s many diverse religions and the full spectrum of religious liberty issues. Becket produces the final report, disseminates the findings, and engages the public in discussions on the Index and religious freedom.
The 2020 Index results serve as a validation of the Index’s original methodology and establish a solid foundation for evaluating trends beginning next year.
The Religious Freedom Index provides valuable information to all who care about religion, culture, and the law by providing the only source of time trend data on a wide scope of religious freedom principles. The 2019 Index introduced the scope of the poll and resulted in the six dimensions of analysis. This year’s Index validates the first year and provides the baseline for evaluating trends starting with next year’s Index. In this year’s Index, we evaluate changes from last year where applicable, but do not yet report on broad trends. This year’s Index is the crucial jumping-off point for all subsequent years.
In this year’s Index results we see little change from last year, with the Index composite score at 66 on a scale from 0 to 100 where 0 indicates complete opposition to religious liberty and 100 indicates robust support for religious liberty. This is a decrease of one point from last year’s score of 67. Across the dimensions we see minor decreases in all dimensions other than Religion in Action. However, the only dimension to change at a statistically significant level was Religious Pluralism.
These changes within the margin of error show stability of opinion that will be discussed in depth in the Index findings, but more importantly, they establish the Index’s value in revealing underlying trends. As these dimensions change, the change will be gradual and observable. We won’t expect wild swings that leave the user of Index data confused about which direction the American people are moving. Instead, we’ll expect to see gradual but clear movement over time that readers can count on to reflect actual underlying changes in perspectives on religion in American culture and the First Amendment.
Although we are confident that each individual year’s Index report will continue to provide valuable insights on its own, as trends develop over time, the Index will be able to provide a truly unique window into American opinions on our most basic freedoms.
The Index dimensions and scaled scores are as follows:
- Religious Pluralism: 77. How do respondents view the basic rights to hold beliefs about God, adhere to a religion, and live out the basic tenets of that religion in their daily life, especially when those beliefs and practices may be outside the mainstream?
- Religion and Policy: 66. What is the proper place for religion when it intersects with law and policy?
- Religious Sharing: 69. When someone follows a religion, to what extent should they be free to share their religion and beliefs with others?
- Religion in Society: 62. How does religion contribute to a healthy society and how do people feel about the efforts of religion to make contributions within society?
- Church and State: 56. What are the boundaries of interactions between government and religion?
- Religion in Action: 65. How free are individuals to practice their beliefs beyond the walls of their homes or places of worship?
Consistency may be the last thing anyone expects in 2020. Across this year’s findings, however, Americans remain consistent in their opinions on religious freedom as they apply these principles to the unique circumstances and challenges of the year.
In 2020, the Index shows that Americans remained firm in their religious freedom opinions while gaining strength from religion and faith to navigate the year’s challenges. The findings and questions also focused on the challenges and opportunities ahead, and revealed areas where Americans hunger for change and see room for improvement.
While much changed in 2020, religious freedom continues to garner support across demographics through each of the Index’s six dimensions, as reflected by this year’s composite score of 66 on a 100 point scale (where 0 indicates opposition to religious freedom across a wide range of contexts and 100 indicates complete support across that same context).
In this second year of Index findings, we focus on the intersection of these stable Index results and societal issues unique to this year. These additional questions ask about the intersection of religious freedom and the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice, religious identity and much more.
Our findings present a picture of Americans relying on religion and religious freedom to deal with the challenges of 2020, both reactively and proactively. Americans rely on religion and religious freedom as they face difficult circumstances. They also rely on religion and religious freedom to change those circumstances and move forward. We saw evidence for this versatility of religion and religious freedom in contexts of societal unrest, the coronavirus pandemic, and issues of racial justice. In these areas and others, religious freedom and religion contribute to Americans’ resiliency through the challenges of 2020.
We summarize these findings across the Index dimensions and additional context questions:
2020 Key Findings:
- Americans weather storms anchored by faith:
Americans are anchored in their opinions on religious freedom, just as religion sustains them through difficult times.
- Religious identity cannot be quarantined:
Religion is part of who Americans are, not just something they do. Respondents support protections that reflect the reality of religious identity.
- Leadership gaps in defending racial justice and religious freedom:
In two areas–religious communities advocating for racial justice and elected officials prioritizing religious freedom–the Index reveals a significant leadership gap.
Opinions on religious freedom reflect stability in a year of unexpected change at the same time that religion provides stability to deal with those changes.
Stability of opinion
From the aggregate view, Americans continued to support religious freedom across the six Index dimensions. In a year of intense polarization, Americans have yet to let their opinions on religious freedom fall along simple political or demographic lines. On a series of 16 questions asking about support of everything from praying or worshipping without fear of persecution, to beliefs about marriage and sexuality, to wearing religious clothing at work, at least 60 percent of respondents supported the religious freedom protection in every question.
Breaking the Index questions down by demographics, we see many shifts from the previous year. These shifts, however, do not support the hypothesis that political affiliation determines opinions about religious freedom.
From this year’s results, although Republican and Democrat respondents certainly differ on many individual questions, the majority of respondents in both parties support most of the freedoms on which we polled. Further, there is little evidence to suggest that voters of one party over time will become more supportive of religious freedom than voters of the other party.
On many questions, Democrat and Republican respondents’ views became more closely aligned, rather than more divided. These included the freedom to practice religion in daily life without facing discrimination or harm from others, freedom to pray or worship without fear of persecution, freedom for people to run their business or private organization according to their religious belief, tolerance and respect of a broad array of beliefs about God, the freedom for any individual or group to believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, freedom to practice one’s beliefs even if they are contrary to accepted majority practices, and the freedom to practice faith at work by wearing religious clothing.
On some questions where Democrats were more supportive of a specific freedom last year, Republicans were more supportive this year. For example, in the 2019 Index, 66 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans supported freedom to practice one’s religion in daily life or at work even if it creates an imposition or inconvenience for others. This year 61 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans supported this freedom. Some other areas where Democrats were more supportive last year, but Republicans were more supportive this year, including the freedom for people to choose a religion, freedom to practice religion in daily life without facing discrimination or harm from others, and allowing religious organizations to receive government funding on equal grounds with non-religious organizations.
Only one Index dimension, Religious Pluralism, saw a statistically significant level of change. Even in that category, which lowered slightly from a score of 80 to 77, every specific item was supported by at least 80 percent of respondents.
Source of Stability
In facing the crises of the past year, results from the Index show that Americans consider religion to be a unique source of stability. Even though many religious Americans could not practice their faith in the same ways they had in previous years, they used faith as a tool for overcoming uncertainty and change. Respondents viewed that stability as beneficial to society as a whole.
More than three-quarters of respondents (78 percent) said that religion is important to providing stability to society in times of social unrest. Interestingly, respondents were more likely to say that religion was important in providing stability to society than in providing stability to themselves as individuals. Among Democrats, this contrast was even greater. Although 68 percent said that religion was important to providing stability individually, 77 percent said that it was important to society. Although they differed on religion’s importance to providing stability to themselves as individuals, when it came to religion’s importance to providing stability to society, Democrats and Republicans were virtually identical.
Not only do Americans see religion as a source of stability, they also see religion and people of faith as part of the solution to the issues facing society, with more than 60 percent of respondents saying that religion and people of faith are part of the solution. Even regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the public looks to scientists and public health experts for guidance, religious people and organizations remain relevant. This question asked a third of the sample specifically whether people of faith were part of the solution or problem (in relation to issues facing society, not just COVID-19). Fully 62 percent of this group of respondents said people of faith were part of the solution and the portion with the highest level of agreement, definitely part of the solution, rose from seven percentage points since last year (24 to 32 percent).
Particularly when dealing with the pandemic, Americans looked to religion and faith for support. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of respondents noted that the pandemic had a negative effect on their lives. Nearly the same percentage, 62 percent, said that faith or religion was important to them during the outbreak. Both respondents over age 65 and younger respondents from Gen Z were more likely than the general population to say that their religion and faith had been of special importance during the pandemic. Female respondents from these two age groups were even more likely to say that religion had been very or extremely important during the pandemic.
Although the government’s response to the pandemic is often the focus of public attention, respondents are more likely to say that religion did a better job of providing stability than government. While 31 percent think religion provides greater stability to society than government, only 21 percent think government is a greater source of stability. A plurality of respondents, 33 percent, said that government and religion equally provide stability to society.
As governments began to break every sector of society into “essential” and “nonessential” services in response to the coronavirus pandemic, they inadvertently sparked a conversation about what can and cannot be quarantined.
When it comes to religion and religious freedom, there has been a growing tension over the past few years over whether religion is something people simply do, or part of who they are. Some consider religion an essential service whereas others think it can be shut down if needed. The answer to this question has serious implications for religious freedom protections and policy. Data from the Index and additional questions show support for the idea that religion is part of an individual’s identity, not just a hobby or a weekend activity, and further, that to recognize this reality, an individual’s religion requires protections and accommodations.
We can see how Americans’ opinions on the public or private nature or religious practice and the importance of religion apply to the specific context of pandemic shutdowns and re-openings.
In a number of cases during the pandemic where houses of worship asked to receive equal treatment with places of business such as malls, barbershops and casinos, courts ruled that the places of business could receive higher priority. But when asked to compare priorities for re-openings after coronavirus outbreaks, a majority of respondents said that houses of worship should be treated with at least the same priority as reopening businesses.
Many governments during the pandemic allowed outdoor protests to occur without restrictions, while completely curtailing outdoor religious services. When asked about whether outdoor religious services or outdoor protests should be given priority during the pandemic, respondents were twice as likely to say that outdoor religious services should have higher priority.
Respondents were also asked to evaluate whether they thought the government treated religious congregations fairly during the pandemic. Although a third chose not to choose a side, more respondents, 39 percent, said that the government treated religious congregations fairly. However, respondents who said faith was important in their lives were evenly split on whether the government treated religious congregations fairly. Highly religious respondents, or those who attend worship services once a month or more frequently, were more likely than average to say that the government treated congregations unfairly, as were those who had people of faith in their social circles.
Given the politicization of government reactions to the pandemic, it may be unsurprising that Republicans were more likely than the average to say that religious congregations were treated unfairly and Democrats were similarly much more likely to say they were treated fairly—43 percent of Republicans said congregations were treated unfairly while 45 percent of Democrats said congregations were treated unfairly. Once again, Gen Z respondents’ position on this issue differed from the average. Gen Z respondents were more likely than the average to say that religious congregations were treated unfairly by the government.
The Religion in Action dimension asks about protections and accommodations for religious practice in the context of communities and workplaces. This dimension held steady from last year, but there were some noteworthy shifts among older and younger generations.
Last year, we highlighted how the strongest support in this dimension was driven by Gen Z and Millennials. This year, Baby Boomers increased their support by more than 5 percentage points on freedom for people or groups not to participate in work or actions that violate their sincere religious beliefs, and freedom to practice religion in daily life or at work even if it creates an imposition or inconvenience for others. On the question of freedom to not participate in work or actions that violate sincere religious beliefs, Baby Boomers also overtook Millennials as the most supportive generation, with 81 percent saying they completely or mostly accept and support conscientious objections. For the most part, changes in Millennial and Gen X opinion on this dimension moved within the margin of error.
Taking a step back from stances on specific religious freedom principles, this year’s Index also asked questions about the centrality of religion to an individual’s identity. From these questions, nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed that religious faith is a way of life for many people and means more than just praying or attending worship services once a week. In a question that also mentioned protections stemming from religious beliefs, 60 percent of respondents agreed that for some people, religion is a fundamental part of “who I am” and should be protected accordingly.
On a more general question asking about the public and private nature of religious practice, a slight majority of respondents agreed that freedom of religion is inherently public and that protections for religious exercise should extend to school, work, social media and other public places. More than 60% of Gen Z respondents agreed with this statement. Black respondents were also more likely than the general population to agree with this statement. Other questions exploring specific applications of this idea only reached a plurality of respondents supporting one side or another, with at least a third of respondents choosing to neither agree nor disagree.
When it comes to perceptions of how places of worship reacted to COVID-19 restrictions, most respondents think that they reacted appropriately. Again, neither side reached a majority due to the significant portion of respondents who said they reacted neither appropriately or inappropriately, but 40 percent said that places of worship reacted appropriately to the restrictions and 30 percent said they reacted inappropriately. Republican and Democrat respondents were again respectively more or less supportive of places of worship’s reactions, though to a lesser extent than when asked about whether congregations were treated fairly or unfairly.
Through the pandemic, but also when it comes to restrictions on religious expression in general, Americans view religion as much more than just something people do. Rather, they understand religion as part of someone’s individual identity. This translates to opposition to government actions that impact living according to that identity and support for practice of religion that extends beyond the walls of the home or places of worship.
There were two areas where the Index suggested a significant leadership gap: how elected officials have prioritized religious freedom and how religious communities have advocated for racial justice. Respondents indicated that when voting, religious freedom stances are a high priority; yet they didn’t think that elected officials did the best job of protecting religious freedom. Similarly, people who said faith was important in their lives said that religion should play a role in advocating for racial equality and justice; yet they didn’t think that their faith communities have done a good job of dealing with these issues.
Respondents cared about both of these issues but didn’t seem to find the leadership or engagement they expected from their leaders. The responses suggest that religious organizations have the opportunity to uniquely influence social issues, possibly more effectively than government.
The first area where we saw significant portions of respondents looking for leadership was in the area of racial justice. The Index shows evidence that, instead of looking to politicians, Americans want their religious communities to become more involved in these issues.
The Index specifically asked those who indicated that faith was important in their lives what role religious organizations and people should have in advocating for racial equality and justice. More than 80 percent of these respondents said that religious organizations and people should indeed have such an advocacy role. Nearly a majority of respondents asked this question said that religious organizations and people’s role should be a major one. This group included support of more than two-thirds of the very religious, and those who attend a religious institution at least once a week, along with support of more than 60 percent from those older than 65 and those who consider themselves politically liberal.
With many respondents who say faith is important in their lives indicating they want religious communities to play a role in advocating for racial equality and justice, one may expect that this same group sees their communities fulfilling that role. That was not the case. Less than half of these respondents said their faith community did an excellent or good job responding to issues of racial equality and justice. Only 12 percent of these respondents said their communities did a poor or very poor job, but 40 percent, nearly as many as said did a good job, said their faith community did neither a good nor poor job of responding to these issues.
Taking a more historical perspective, the Index also asked the total sample about their views on the contributions of religion and religious people to equality and justice for racial minorities. Respondents were most likely to say that religion had a positive influence, but this did not reach a majority of agreement—36 percent said the influence had been positive, while 24 percent said the influence had been negative. Even among those who said faith was important in their lives, only 47 percent said that the influence of religion had been positive.
Despite religious leaders’ role in the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement, respondents had mixed feelings about the role of religion on the issue of racial justice. Thirty-seven percent of Black respondents said that religion had a positive influence, similar to white respondents (40 percent). However, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American respondents were all much more likely than white respondents to say that religion had a negative influence on racial equality. Only nineteen percent of white respondents said religion’s overall influence had been negative, while 30 percent of Black respondents, 34 percent of Hispanic respondents, and 28 percent of Asian respondents said the influence of religion had been negative.
Elected officials also seem to be letting voters down in their roles as defenders of religious freedom. Respondents who are registered voters have different views on religious freedom than those not registered to vote. On nearly every dimension of the Index, registered voters were more supportive of protections for religious liberty than those who were not registered voters. This difference was significant, often 10 percentage points or more.
Registered voters took that support to the ballot box and weighed decisions on candidates based on their religious freedom policy. Among registered voters, more than three-in-five said a candidate’s stance on religious freedom was an important factor in their voting decisions this year. For registered voters who also said that faith was important in their lives, this level jumped to more than three-in-four, or 78 percent.
Although some cast religious freedom issues as only important to Republicans, more than 60 percent of both Republicans and Democrats said a candidate’s stance on religious freedom was important. The main difference between respondents of the two parties is the intensity of this importance. More than a quarter of Republicans said that religious freedom stances were extremely important while only 8 percent of Democrats said the same.
The share of registered voters who said that faith influenced their voting decisions was actually smaller than the share who said religious freedom stances were important. Although 62 percent of the sample said that faith was important in their lives, only 45 percent said that faith had at least a moderate amount of influence on their voting decisions this year—16 percent less than those who said a candidate’s stance on religious freedom was at least somewhat important.
In the same way that people of faith evaluated their faith communities for their work in advocating for racial equality and justice, respondents were asked to evaluate the branches of government on their records of protecting religious liberty.
Respondents were more likely to say the courts, rather than the president, Congress, state government or other government bodies, did the best job of protecting religious liberty. In fact, elected officials, including the president and Congress, did not even come in second. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said that the courts do the best job of protecting religious freedom, with 21 percent saying other government bodies, 19 percent saying the president, 18 percent saying state governments, and 15 percent saying Congress.
Those who indicated that faith was not important in their lives were even more likely than the average to say that the courts do the best job of protecting religious freedom. Those who said that faith was important were more likely to say that the President (Trump at the time) did the best job. Although among the total sample, Congress was least likely to be seen as the branch of government protecting religious freedom, Gen Z, Black, and Hispanic respondents were more likely than the average to view Congress as the best protector of religious freedom.
Elected officials lose out to both the unelected courts and the ambiguous “other” category when it comes to protecting religious freedom. Yet registered voters evaluate these same officials on religious freedom at the ballot box. In a similar way, those who said faith was important want their faith communities to take a role in advocating for racial equality and justice but don’t typically think their communities have done a good job of doing so in the past. In both situations, these communities are looking for leadership who can help address these issues.
The Religious Pluralism dimension asks respondents about how different belief systems and practices can simultaneously exist in society. They address the freedom to choose to follow a religion, or no religion at all, and what it means to live out that choice in daily life.
Dimension Score: 77
In 2020, the items in the Religious Pluralism dimension continue to be the most widely supported across all the dimensions. However, this dimension was also the only one to see a statistically significant change—a drop of 3 from the previous year.
This dimension deals with some of the most basic of First Amendment freedoms, the least likely to find their way into controversial cases or policies. For that reason, it will be especially interesting to watch whether this decrease becomes a trend in the following years. Since the ties between this dimension and specific real-world events are more difficult to trace, it may require greater exploration to determine the cause of those trends.
Since the dimension scores are calculated on an individual level, it is also possible to calculate the dimension score for a specific demographic. Baby Boomers lead other generations with an overall score of 82. On four out of the five questions that make up this dimension, Baby Boomers surpassed 90 percent support. Generally, each generation is slightly more supportive than the generation one younger on each of these items—somewhat of a contradiction to the popular belief that younger generations are more supportive of pluralism than older generations. Still, no generation shows levels of supports below 70 percent on any question in this dimension.
One question to watch asks about support for tolerance and respect for a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God. This question saw some of the largest shifts of any in the Index. Support on this question dropped more than five percentage points among Democrat, Gen Z, and respondents not registered to vote.
It is concerning to see a decrease for general tolerance in a year when discussions on cancel culture also permeate public discussion. An additional question asked both this year and in 2019 presented two statements about whether people of faith holding unpopular views should be harassed or silenced or allowed to hold those views without fear. Last year and this year, more than two-thirds of respondents agreed that people of faith should be able to hold views, even if they are no longer popular, without fear of being harassed or silenced. Although different age and political affiliation demographics showed significant differences from the mean, there was not any significant demographic bloc where a majority said those with unpopular views deserve to be harassed and silenced.
This year respondents again supported the freedom to pray or worship without fear of persecution more than any other item in this dimension, or the Index, with 88 percent support. The least supported item in this dimension was the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs even if they are contrary to accepted majority practices, with 80 percent support.
The Religion and Policy dimension covers a wide range of religious practice and belief. It asks about the interactions of government, private organizations, and individuals with religion. Many of the questions in this dimension relate to current religious freedom debates.
The Religion and Policy dimension, although it asks about principles central to many current religious freedom cases, sits right at the average of the dimensions this year. Some of these freedoms at the core of current issues include freedom to run businesses and private organizations according to religious beliefs, freedom for religious groups and organizations to make their own employment and leadership decisions, and the freedom for groups or individuals to believe in traditional marriage.
Although the freedoms asked about in these questions are more front-and-center in current public discussion, each saw almost no movement from the previous year.
One area of current conflict that deals with multiple questions in this dimension is that of religious student groups on college campuses. In an additional question, we asked whether religious student organizations at public universities should be allowed to ensure that their members and leaders agree with the core principles of their faith.
A plurality of respondents, 45 percent, supported religious student groups being able to make these leadership and membership decisions and only 16 percent opposed. Interestingly, respondents of the generation primarily in college, Gen Z, were less likely to support (38% net support) association rights of religious student groups in this question. Baby Boomer respondents were much more likely to support religious student organizations’ rights, with a majority, 52 percent, supporting. In a similar question, a plurality of respondents did not support public university officials shutting down religious student organizations when they disagree with the religious student organizations’ beliefs.
This dimension also deals with an issue especially important in an election year—religious persons’ voting decisions and religious organizations’ stances on political topics. These two freedoms are the most and least popular of this dimension. With 78 percent support, the freedom for people to rely on their personal religious beliefs to guide their voting decisions is the most popular in this dimension. With 67 percent support, the freedom for religious organizations and leaders to discuss political topics and to endorse or oppose political candidates is the least popular.
The Religious Sharing dimension considers the exchange of religious ideas in the public square. Closely tied to freedom of speech, this dimension provides insights into unique aspects of communication in American society.
The Religious Sharing dimension is designed to ask about specific interactions between people of different religious convictions or of no religious belief at all. Responses indicate that Americans are very supportive of protecting the freedom to engage in evangelism and public preaching—with both questions in this dimension receiving at least 70 percent support.
The freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others was supported by 79 percent of respondents and the freedom of individuals to preach the doctrine of their faith to others was supported by 73 percent of respondents. Gen Z respondents are the least supportive and respondents from older generations share the same general level of support as each other. Among different religious demographics, Christian respondents tend to be the most supportive of both questions in this dimension, followed by non-Christian and Agnostic respondents whose responses look quite similar. Atheist respondents are the least supportive, but their support for the freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others increased 9 percent from last year.
The wide support for evangelism and preaching in public settings contrasts with the additional question asked this year about the public or private nature of religion. In this question, respondents identified which of two statements they agreed with more—one that stated freedom of religion is inherently public and added that religious exercise and sharing of beliefs should be allowed in school, at work, on social media, and in other public settings, and the another that stated freedom of religion is inherently private and that religious exercise and sharing of beliefs should stay within homes and houses of worship.
In contrast with broad support of over 70 percent for evangelism and public preaching, respondents were much more split on this additional question (not part of the Index) of the public nature of religion and religious freedom, with 52 percent saying that religious freedom was inherently public and 42 percent saying that religious freedom was inherently private.
Respondents from different generations differed in their response to this question. Gen Z respondents were by far the most supportive of religious freedom as inherently public—66 agreed with this statement. Millennial and Gen X respondents showed little differentiation from the average. The majority of Baby Boomer respondents were actually more likely to say that religious freedom was inherently private.
The Religion in Society dimension directly asks respondents to evaluate the contributions of religion and people of faith to society. It gives context to religious participation in civil society.
Attitudes about religious people and their contributions to society impact broader attitudes about protecting those same people in the exercise of their faith. Although Religion in Society is below the Index average score, the individual responses tell a nuanced story about how people of faith fit into society.
As noted in our Key Findings, most Americans continue to say that religion and people of faith are part of the solution for the various issues we face today, and the portion who said that people of faith are definitely part of the solution increased by 7 percentage points.
Respondents in demographics less likely to say religion and people of faith are part of the solution—including Democrat and Independent respondents, respondents who said faith was not important, Gen Z, Gen X and Baby Boomer respondents—were more likely to say religion and people of faith were part of the solution this year.
The other two questions in the dimension ask about acceptance of people of faith and their ability to live according to their beliefs and appreciation of people of faith’s contributions to society. Although responses changed slightly, the change here was driven mostly by a movement of respondents from saying they accept or appreciate people of faith completely or a good amount to a moderate amount.
Last year and this year we asked a related additional question about perceptions of religious discrimination. Last year 71 percent of the population said that religious people face discrimination because of their faith many or a few times a year, while this year that portion decreased to 66 percent. Relatively the same portion of respondents said religious discrimination happens a few times a year, but fewer said that it happens many times a year or all the time.
Additionally, we asked those who said faith was important how accepted they feel in society. Last year, less than a majority said they feel at least moderately accepted, while this year 52 percent say they felt at least moderately accepted. While similar shifts of support from the highest to second-highest level of support or agreement happened in other areas, the overall portion of respondents choosing the two highest levels of acceptance for this question increased.
Religious people and people of faith continue to be a majority in the United States, but as the demographics of religious people change, it will be informative to watch how this dimension correlates to the others. Although respondents may have opinions on religious freedom independent of their opinions of religious people, it seems likely that shifts in attitude in one area are correlated with the other.
The Church and State dimension surveys respondents about the interactions between government and religion. In asking about government funding and government speech, it draws out opinions on the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
On matters of what constitutes a healthy separation of church and state, a majority of Americans continue to favor equal treatment of religion in government funding contexts and use of religious symbols and language in government displays. Yet this also continues to be the area of the Index with the least consensus among respondents.
When asked whether they agree with the statement that the government should be able to use religious symbols or language in public displays, non-religious and non-Christian respondents disagree while Christian respondents agree. This is one of the sharpest divides registered by the Index. Respondents not affiliated with a religion disagree with government use of religious language and symbols at relatively the same level as atheists. Both groups disagreed with the statement at least 70 percent of the time. Among those not affiliated with any religion, this is a significant increase from last year, when they opposed this statement 62 percent of the time. Religious respondents who were not Christian are more evenly divided, with 54 percent disagreeing with the statement supporting government use of religious language and symbols (agreement was 62 percent among Christian respondents).
Still, nearly two-thirds of respondents support equal access to government funding for religious and non-religious organizations. Related to the issue of government funds and religious organizations, this year some Democratic presidential primary contenders said that religious organizations that do not support same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. We asked about religious organizations’ tax-exempt status and found significant portions of respondents—at least one-third on each question—choosing not to pick a side. When comparing those who did choose to agree or disagree, most respondents supported preserving tax-exempt status and equal funding for religious groups.
On the general question of whether churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations should be considered tax-exempt non-profits, 39 percent of respondents supported tax-exempt status compared to 28 percent who opposed. Respondents were more divided on whether religious leaders should be allowed to express political views while their organizations maintain tax-exempt status. Of those who chose a side, 34 percent supported allowing religious leaders to express political views and 30 percent opposed.
In short, while Americans are supportive of continuing tax-exempt status and equal access to government funding for religious organizations, they remain divided over the use of religious language and symbols by government and over the expression of political views by tax-exempt organizations.
The Religion in Action dimension reveals opinions about public acceptance of religious expression – especially from minority traditions – in the public square. It asks about religious practice across a variety of contexts and situations.
Religion in Action, like Religious Sharing, asks respondents about religious expressions in public and how those expressions should be accommodated. Although it asks about situations that require others to change or accommodate behavior, it sits close to the average of dimension scores.
Comparing generations across this dimension paints a complex picture of how each understands religion in public life. On the freedom for people or groups to choose not to participate in actions or work that violates sincere religious beliefs, Baby Boomer and older respondents are the most supportive. On the freedom of employees to practice their faith at work by wearing religious clothing, the generations are relatively indistinguishable. On the freedom to practice one’s religion in daily life or at work even if it creates an imposition or inconvenience for others, Millennial respondents are the most supportive (Gen Z respondents were the most supportive last year). Considering this data shows the danger in painting with broad brush strokes when comparing different generations’ opinions on religion in the workplace.
This year, changes in atheist respondents’ opinions on this dimension stand out for their consistent increase in support. On each question, atheist respondents increased their support by at least 6 percentage points. Their support increased 18 percentage points from last year (an increase of more than 50 percent) on the freedom to practice one’s religion in daily life or at work even if it creates an imposition or inconvenience for others. This year, this was the only question of this dimension where a majority of atheists did not support the specific freedom, but here they were only 2 percentage points below a majority of support.
These Religion in Action responses demonstrate how essential religious identity is to individuals in that they show support for living that identity in every aspect of life. This year, we also asked questions directly about opinions on religion and whether it was central to identity.
A majority of respondents agreed that religious faith is a way of life for many people, that for some people it is a fundamental part of “who I am,” and that taking away religious freedom is the first step to losing broader freedoms. A plurality of respondents disagreed when asked if freedom of religion means only the freedom to believe, if the government should stop people of faith from acting on their beliefs if others think those beliefs are harmful, and if it is appropriate to ask someone to reconsider their religious beliefs if they are different from mainstream beliefs.
Given that Americans support the idea that religion is an important part of someone’s identity, it is not surprising that they also support religious people living their faith at work and in public life.