After a uniquely divisive year, Americans rebuild consensus around support for religious freedom pushing the Index score to a new high.
For many Americans, 2021 signified a hopeful beginning of moving on after a difficult 2020 characterized by division, unrest, and uncertainty. At a national and individual level, Americans are in various stages of recovery from the effects of the pandemic and a tumultuous election year. The Index questions help us to see how the events of these last few years have impacted opinion on foundational freedoms. We are excited to see the beginnings of trends in American opinion in this third edition of the Religious Freedom Index, after two years of establishing a baseline. The additional questions asked in the Index survey, some unique to this year and some repeated from previous years, provide greater detail into these changes, alongside insights into unexplored areas of religious freedom opinion.
The Religious Freedom Index is designed to give a holistic view of changes in American attitudes on religious liberty by surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,000 American adults each year. The questions asked in the Index cover a wide spectrum of religious liberty protections under the First Amendment. The responses to these questions statistically group into six dimensions: 1) Religious Pluralism, 2) Religion and Policy, 3) Religious Sharing, 4) Religion in Society, 5) Church and State, and 6) Religion in Action. The composite Index score is the average score of these dimensions. In addition to the Index questions, each year we include supplemental survey questions to probe Americans’ views on timely or special topics.
As the urgent problems of the previous year shift into new and unexpected trials this year, the Index results offer positive news both for the current state of American freedom and for its future. This year’s Index composite score of 68 represents an increase of two points from last year. Behind this two-point increase, respondents increased positive religious liberty views on 20 of 21 Index questions from last year and brought 15 of 21 to new highs. In terms of dimension, this two–point overall increase came from every dimension rising two or three points from last year, and three of the dimensions reaching new all-time highs while the other three matched previous highs.
The additional questions in the Index survey this year asked Americans about the role of religion in education, the place of religious speech in the public square, the relationship between government and faith-based organizations, and of course, the continuing implications for religious exercise of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the Index reaching a new high, we see Americans bouncing back from an especially divisive year with newfound confidence in their support for a wide spectrum of religious freedom principles.
Importantly, this new high was consistent across the series of sixteen questions that make up the bulk of the Index. All sixteen of those questions but one saw Americans coming out of a 2020 dip to support religious freedom at levels equal to, or exceeding, those from 2019 And, encouragingly, we observed a positive shift toward more intense, or confident, support for religious freedoms. More Americans said that they completely supported these varied components of religious freedom; there was an average four-point increase in this top-box response across these 16 Index questions. On all of these 16 questions but one, this year more respondents indicated complete acceptance and support, the highest level of acceptance and support, than any other response option.
This promising principal finding from our 2021 Index leads us to several questions. What attitudes, environments, and events influenced this bounce back in support for religious freedom? How does this more robust, principled support manifest in real-world applications of religious practice? How likely is it that this renewed support will be maintained or exceeded in future years? What are the nuances or differences among different demographics, and how similarly do Americans perceive religious freedom? Some of these questions we will explore in this report, and others will help us as we formulate additional questions in the years to come.
Our exploration of this year’s Index is categorized by three themes that connect the results across individual Index questions and additional questions in the survey. These themes are:
2021 Key Findings:
- Americans want a fair shake for faith-based organizations:
Americans value faith-based organizations and want the government to partner with them on fair and equal terms.
- Americans value religious voices in national conversation:
Even in heated national debates, Americans want faith-based opinions and worldviews to be heard.
- Agreeing on the essentials, Americans prioritize houses of worship in a pandemic: Americans continue to value religion during the pandemic, with most saying houses of worship provide essential services.
Americans want a fair shake for faith-based organizations
The faithful exercise religious freedom when their beliefs compel them to build and contribute to organizations that work to solve the problems their communities face. In this year’s Index and additional questions, Americans supported these organizations and their equal treatment as they worked alongside the government to solve our community’s challenges.
The most significant increase in support for religious freedom on an individual Index question was seen in those who said that religious organizations that provide services to help in the community should be just as eligible to receive government funds as nonreligious organizations. Alignment with this position increased six points since last year to 71 percent.
Support for equal funding opportunities rose among Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z respondents. Since 2019, support among each subgroup increased five points or more. Gen Z respondents stick out for their consistent six-point or more increase in support each year since 2019, with a nine-point increase this past year.
Alongside these increases, we see broad support for government partnership with faith-based organizations based on results, not ideology or beliefs. The survey asked whether the government should limit partnerships with faith-based groups to those who completely align with the government’s beliefs, or whether the government should make partnership decisions based on organizations’ results, even when beliefs of the faith-based organization and the government may be at odds. Nearly two-thirds, 65 percent, of respondents said the government should partner with faith-based organizations based on success, not alignment of beliefs.
Despite heated contemporary debates on government and faith-based organization partnerships, support for partnering based on results, not beliefs, spanned many unexpected subgroups. Majorities of Republican, Independent respondents all said government should partner with faith-based organizations based on results rather than beliefs. So too did majorities of respondents who said faith was not very or not at all important, and respondents with no religious affiliation.
Underpinning this increase in support for the role of faith-based organizations and preference for partnership independent of ideological alignment, Americans increasingly expressed appreciation for the contributions of religion and people of faith to society. A seven-point increase from last year in those who said they appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith completely or a good amount pushed this level of appreciation to 54 percent. Those who said they completely appreciate these contributions, the highest degree of appreciation, increased nearly eight points since last year.
Americans value religious voices in national conversation
While civility and openness to other viewpoints in conversation about controversial topics seems to have become a rare occurrence, Americans still want religious voices to take part in these essential conversations.
So many of these conversations focus on competing solutions to the problems our country faces. More and more, Americans seem to see people of faith in particular as part of the solution to those problems. Each year of the Index, more respondents have said that people of faith are part of the solution to these issues, not part of the problem. This year, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that people of faith are part of the solution, a five-point increase since 2019.
More Americans this year also include the ability to share religious ideas in the public square as part of their definition of religious liberty. Eighty-three percent of respondents said that the freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others is an important or absolutely essential part of religious freedom. For the first time, a majority of respondents, 52 percent, said that this freedom was absolutely essential, up nine points since last year.
Beyond sharing beliefs, Americans want people of faith to be free to share religious ideas in the public square. Even when it comes to controversial topics, 62 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree that people with religiously based opinions on controversial topics should be free to voice them in public. Notably, majorities agreed regardless of whether the respondent said faith was personally important. Sixty-six percent of those who said faith was at least somewhat important agreed on this question, and still 53 percent who said faith was not at all or not very important agreed.
One notable area of consensus on the importance of religious voices was the role of parents in public education. When administrators’ or educators’ views of what should be part of public school curriculum conflict with parents’ views, respondents think parents’ views should have the final say. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) said that parents are the primary educators of their children and should be free to opt their children out of elements of public school curricula that they find morally objectionable.
This opinion crossed many subgroups. Majorities of Democrat, Independent, and Republican respondents all sided with this opinion, though to varying degrees. Among Democrats, a slight majority, 52 percent, sided with this opinion, compared with 64 percent of Independents and 74 percent of Republicans. Whether respondents had children in the home or not had little impact on opinion—66 percent of those who had children in the home sided with this opinion compared to 61 percent of those without children.
Agreeing on the essentials, Americans prioritize houses of worship in a pandemic
Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, religious belief and government restrictions continue to find areas of tension and conflict. Last year’s debates focused heavily on whether houses of worship could be closed amidst lockdowns across the country. This year, opinions on houses of worship solidify, alongside emerging conversations about vaccine mandates.
When it comes to which activities are considered essential in a pandemic, respondents were most likely to include activities at houses of worship. Fifty-two percent of Americans said that worship at a house of worship should be considered essential, and 62 percent said that funerals at houses of worship should be considered essential. Of all activities listed, these were the only two that a majority of respondents said should be considered essential activities. Still, other religious activities at houses of worship were considered essential by more respondents than other, nonreligious activities. More than 40 percent of Americans considered weddings, community service, and other religious ceremonies at houses of worship as essential. Meanwhile, fewer than 40 percent considered graduations, protests, celebrations, exercise, sporting events, or concerts/performances at venues other than houses of worship as essential. Concerts/performances were considered essential by the lowest number of respondents—only 23 percent.
Responses differed significantly among respondents of different generations, political affiliations, and ethnicities. Among generations, the only generation to consider each of the religious activities to be essential was Generation X. A majority of Republican respondents considered each of the religious activities at houses of worship to be essential; the only religious activities considered essential by majorities of Democrats and Independents were funerals. Black and Hispanic respondents were more likely to say that religious activities were considered essential, in some cases exceeding the total sample by as much as eight or nine points.
On the question of exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine mandates, more Americans do than do not support vaccine mandate exemptions for religious reasons, and those who work with people of faith support religious exemptions in higher numbers.
Half of the sample was asked about vaccine mandates in employment when imposed by the employer, and the other half was asked about vaccine mandates in employment when imposed by the government. A majority of respondents, 51 percent, agreed that businesses should allow religious exemptions to vaccine mandates when imposed by the employer, and a plurality, 47 percent, supported religious exemptions when the mandate came from the government.
Majorities of respondents with coworkers who were people of faith agreed that businesses should not impose vaccine mandates on those with religious objections, regardless of whether the mandate came from the employer or the government. Among respondents who did not have coworkers who were people of faith, only a plurality agreed.
The Religious Freedom Index includes data gathered in an annual online poll in fall 2021 of a nationally representative sample of American adults (n=1,000) conducted by an independent research company, Heart+Mind Strategies. The poll includes 21 questions that contribute to the Index, asked with the same language and in the same order 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 late September and early October.
In the original year of Index polling, 2019, 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 of religious freedom at issue and 100 indicates robust support for the same principle.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty did not participate in the gathering or coding of responses, or in the scale construction. Rather, Becket contributed its broad expertise representing people of all faiths in religious liberty cases to ensure that the polling instrument broadly reflected America’s many diverse religious experiences 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.
2021 Index analysis
2021 Index Results
The Index rebounds to a new high after a year of intense polarization and division, with respondents expressing the highest level of support for religious freedom yet.
After a year of uncertainty and intense polarization, Americans in 2021 moved toward increased support across a wide range of religious liberty principles. The Index increased two points since last year to a new high of 68. Every individual dimension also increased since last year, and three of the six dimensions—Religion and Policy, Religion in Action, and Religion in Society—reached new three-year highs. Religious Pluralism continued to lead the dimensions with a score of 80, while Church and State maintained its place at the bottom with a score of 58. The hierarchy of dimensions between the top and bottom stayed the same as well.
Within individual questions, small changes added up to the increases seen in dimension scores. Underlying many of these small changes in the total amount of support, etc., were more significant increases in the intensity of support, with more respondents choosing the most definitive or intense response option, such as completely accept and support. The average change in those who completely accepted and supported 16 items that make up a significant portion of the Index, was a four-point increase from 2020. This year, in all but one of those 16 items, more respondents chose the most intense response option than the second most intense response option—an indication of confidence and stability in each of those positions.
This consistent increase across dimensions and in the portion of respondents choosing the highest intensity response option point to the potential for a continued upward trend in years to come. Though from year to year those changes may be slight, in the first three years of Index tracking, we have already seen shifts that merit conversation and exploration beyond popular headlines and talking points.
The Index dimensions and scaled scores are as follows:
- Religious Pluralism: 80. 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: 68. What is the proper place for religion when it intersects with law and policy? To what extent should the government be able to influence the religious practices of nonprofit organizations or businesses that partner with the government to provide public services?
- Religious Sharing: 71. When someone follows a religion, to what extent should they be free to share their religion and beliefs with others?
- Religion in Society: 65. 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: 58. What are the boundaries of interactions between government and religion?
- Religion in Action: 67. How free are individuals to practice their beliefs beyond the walls of their homes or places of worship?
2021 Index Findings
Americans show they are beginning to move forward after a whirlwind year by returning to and even exceeding pre-pandemic levels of support for
After a divisive year, Americans expressed newfound confidence in their support for a wide spectrum of religious freedom principles, pushing the Index to an all-time high.
As Americans look for long-term solutions to the problems raised by unprecedented changes and unrest of the past year, . Each dimension of the Index returned to or exceeded 2019 levels, pushing the overall composite score to a new high. None of the 21 questions that compose the Index decreased at a statistically significant level, but many increased at a statistically significant level.
Many of these small shifts in total support were accompanied by significant shifts in respondent confidence. Instead of choosing the second most intense response option of support, such as somewhat accept and support, or appreciate a good amount, respondents frequently shifted toward the most intense response option, such as completely accept and support, or appreciate completely. On a series of 16 questions asking the level of acceptance and support for various freedoms, not only did the total amount of acceptance and support increase on every question, but on all but one question more respondents chose completely accept and support than somewhat accept and support.
The responses to the Index questions, combined with the responses to the additional questions unique to this year’s survey, show Americans making room for religion and religious people as they move forward after a year of unpredictability and change.
This year’s survey asked respondents about new and fast-evolving religious liberty conflicts, like those related to the COVID-19
From the Index and additional questions, and across the total sample and individual demographics, we find evidence of three key findings from this year’s survey:
2021 Key Findings:
- Americans want a fair shake for faith-based organizations:
Americans value faith-based organizations and want the government to partner with them on fair and equal terms.
- Americans value religious voices in national conversation:
Even in heated national debates, Americans want faith-based opinions and worldviews to be heard.
- Agreeing on the essentials, Americans prioritize houses of worship in a pandemic:
Americans continue to value religion during the pandemic, with most saying houses of worship provide essential services.
As society continues to face acute and urgent problems—from the pandemic to economic hardships to the immigration crisis—religious belief pushes many Americans to form, participate in, and contribute to organizations aimed at improving other’s lives. This year’s Index saw an increase in support for equal treatment and opportunities for these organizations, especially as they partner with government. One potential driver of this trend could be an increasing appreciation for religion and people of faith. Not only do respondents show greater appreciation, but they also show desire for participation of religious people and organizations in some of the country’s biggest current challenges.
A level playing field is a preferred playing field
Exercising religious belief regularly moves people of faith out of their places of worship and congregations and into their communities and charitable organizations where they work on solutions ranging from poverty to healthcare to hunger and more. These faith-based organizations are a way for these individuals to live their beliefs. This year more Americans support equal opportunities for these organizations, wherever that motivation comes from. We saw an increase in support for government making funding available to religious organizations on equal footing with nonreligious organizations, as well as significant support for the benefits of these relationships overall.
In past years, 65 percent of respondents said that religious organizations helping their communities should be just as eligible to receive government funds as nonreligious organizations, but this year that level of support increased six points to 71 percent.
Support for equal funding opportunities for religious nonprofits has gradually increased across younger generations in the past three years. Portions of Gen Z, Millennial, and Gen X respondents supporting equal opportunity have all increased since 2019 by 5 points or more. Gen Z respondents have increased their support in this area by at least 6 points every year.
Recently, faith-based organizations working with the government have seen their long-standing partnerships at risk or completely ended not so much for being religious in nature but for their specific religious beliefs. Instead of choosing between nonreligious and religious partners, the government has made distinctions between religious partners based on beliefs that are in or out of the mainstream. However, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said that government should partner with faith-based organizations even if their beliefs differ from the mainstream.
Public support for faith-based partnerships crossed many unexpected demographic lines. Even 60 percent of respondents who said that faith was not very or not at all important said that government partnerships should be based on an organization’s results, not its individual beliefs. Although a greater portion of Republican respondents (69 percent) sided with government partnerships based on success, not beliefs, 64 percent of Independents and 60 percent of Democrats also shared this opinion. Similarly, a greater portion of Christian respondents took this position (68 percent), but so did 61 percent of non-Christian respondents, and 53 percent of religious None (Atheists, Agnostics, and nothing in particular) respondents.
This high level of support for government and faith-based partnerships comes just four months after a highly publicized, unanimous Supreme Court ruling on the issue. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia ended its partnership with an over-100-year-old Catholic foster-care ministry because of the ministry’s religious belief in traditional marriage. The Supreme Court, however, ruled 9-0 that Philadelphia’s actions were unconstitutional. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they support this Supreme Court decision, with nearly a third stating they strongly support. Only 21 percent said they opposed the decision and just over a quarter said they neither support nor opposed.
Religious private schools also see support
Religious private schools often find themselves caught up in conflicts about their relationship with the government and funding for students. The Supreme Court has faced this question multiple times in the past few terms and will do so again this year in Carson v. Makin. When asked about access to government funding programs, a majority of respondents (56 percent) said that religiously affiliated schools should have equal access to these programs regardless of whether they engage in religious activities or not. Only 25 percent said that religiously affiliated schools should have access if they are religious in name only and do not participate in religious activities, and 19 percent said religious schools should be excluded from such programs.
However, this was an area where partisan affiliation mattered significantly. Nearly a majority of Democrat respondents (49 percent) said religious schools should have equal access regardless of whether they engage in religious activities, compared to 53 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans.
Equal treatment fueled by increased appreciation
One would expect increases in support for policies benefitting faith-based organizations to be backed up by changes in feelings toward these groups and individuals. In this year’s Index, we saw just that.
Each year the Index asks how respondents value contributions of religion, people of faith, and religious organizations, both generally and in specific applications. This year, a majority of respondents said that they appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith, completely or a good amount, a seven-point increase from last year (47 to 54 percent). The portion of respondents who indicated the highest level of appreciation increased nearly eight points from 19 percent in 2020 to 27 percent in 2021.
Among respondents of different generations, Millennial (born 1981-1996) and Generation X (born 1965-1980) respondents showed the most significant increases in appreciation for religion and people of faith. Fifty-three percent of Millennial respondents said they appreciate religion and contributions of people of faith completely or a good amount, a 12-point increase from last year. Sixty-one percent, more than three fifths, of Generation X respondents said the same, a 16-point increase from last year. In both cases, this level of appreciation increased from 2019 as well, with Millennial respondents showing a seven-point bump, and Generation X respondents showing a 14-point bump. The portion of Gen Z respondents indicating they appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith completely or a good amount has dropped each year since 2019, but the change is not statistically significant.
Similar increases from 2020 were seen across respondents of different political affiliations as well. Levels of appreciation increased by eight points or more for Democrat, Independent, and Republican respondents. Just under a majority of Democrat respondents, 50 percent, a slight majority of Independent respondents, 51 percent, and a strong majority of Republican respondents, 68 percent said they appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith completely or a good amount.
Religious organizations, refugees, and immigrants
Beyond general appreciation, respondents indicated a desire for religious organizations’ involvement in challenges specific to this year. In two of the most pressing and fast-developing humanitarian crises of the past 12 months, the immigration crisis on the southern border and refugee crisis in Afghanistan, Americans want religious organizations to continue playing key roles. A majority of respondents said that religious organizations should play a significant or moderate role in helping both immigrants and refugees in the U.S.
Half of the total sample was asked about religious organizations helping immigrants, and the other half was asked about refugees. Respondents were more likely to say that religious organizations should play a significant or moderate role in helping refugees than immigrants—60 percent of those who were asked about refugees to 54 percent of those who were asked about immigrants. Nearly identical portions of respondents for either question said that religious organizations should have a moderate or small role, the middle position—those at the poles, no role at all or a significant role, were the difference. Twenty-four percent of respondents asked about refugees said religious organizations should have a significant role compared to 18 percent of those asked about immigrants. Twenty-three percent of respondents asked about immigrants said religious organizations should have no role compared to only 16 percent of respondents asked about refugees.
Respondents of differing levels of education viewed the question about religious organizations’ role in helping immigrants quite differently. Those with a bachelor’s degree or more were much more likely than those with some college, a high school diploma, or less than a high school diploma to say that religious organizations should play a significant or moderate role (64 percent).
Similar majorities of both Democrats and Republicans thought religious organizations should have a significant or moderate role in helping both immigrants and refugees. Independents, however, were much more likely to say that religious organizations should help refugees, 63 percent, than they were to say that they should help immigrants, 41 percent.
Responses to racial justice among faith communities
One area where respondents still want to see more action from faith communities is racial justice. Respondents who indicated that faith was an important part of their life were asked this year and last year to rate their faith community’s response to issues of racial equality and justice. This year a greater portion of respondents rated their faith community’s response as poor and a smaller portion rated their faith community’s response as excellent.
Since in both years a significant block of respondents rated their faith community’s response as neither good nor bad, this year we asked a follow-up question of this block. Of those who responded neither good nor bad, 29 percent said that issues of racial equality and justice had not been major issues in their area, 27 percent said that their faith community’s response had been mixed, and 25 percent said that their faith community simply had not addressed those issues. One positive sign was that 21 percent of those who rated their faith community’s response as neither good nor bad said that their faith community was doing just right. Only 8 percent said their faith community avoided the issues due to past failures.
As the country continues to face challenges often handled most effectively by local organizations, Americans seem to show increasing confidence that organizations motivated by faith can make significant societal contributions. When it comes to government partnerships with private organizations, Americans want to see faith-based groups treated equally.
Increasingly, it seems that just about any topic can quickly morph into an intensely polarizing national debate, with the loudest voices dominating media coverage. Concerns about media bias, social media “echo chambers,” and “cancel culture” raise the question of whether Americans welcome viewpoints different than their own. This year’s survey shows that Americans generally support broad freedom of religious expression and welcome religious viewpoints in the public square, even in conversations about controversial topics. Despite our heated national conversations, a majority of Americans still believe that we respect each other, including those with different religious beliefs.
A seat at the table for religious perspectives
Each year, more respondents said that people of faith and religion are part of the solution than the problem when dealing with the issues facing our country. The portion of respondents who said religion is part of the solution, not the problem, increased 5 points since 2019 to 61 percent. The increase among those who said people of faith are part of the solution was even greater, with a five-point increase to 64 percent.
In addition to questions about support for specific freedoms, the Index survey also asks about respondents’ definitions of what constitutes religious freedom. In 2021, 83 percent of respondents said that the freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others is an important or absolutely essential part of religious freedom. Within that group, there was an uptick in terms of how intensely Americans think this freedom should be included and protected as part of religious freedom. For those who answered that it was absolutely essential, the survey demonstrated a significant jump, from 48 percent in 2019 and 43 percent in 2020 to 52 percent in 2021.
There was also a jump in the portion of respondents who said the freedom for employees to practice their faith at work by wearing religious clothing or not working on certain days of the week is an absolutely essential part of religious freedom, from 39 percent in 2019 and 37 percent in 2020 to 43 percent in 2021.
A majority of Americans (62 percent) also agree or strongly agree that people with religiously based opinions about controversial topics should be free to voice them in public. Support for this freedom was strong whether or not faith is important in respondents’ own lives: Majorities of both respondents who indicated that faith was important (66 percent) and those who indicated that it was not (53 percent) agreed that religiously based opinions had a place in the public conversation.
Acceptance of religious opinions varies with setting and speaker
While Americans generally welcome holding and expressing religiously based opinions on controversial topics, this support can vary depending on who is speaking and in what context. This year’s survey looked at religious speech in contexts of public education, work, and healthcare.
Public education and parents’ voices
Public schools across the country face conflicts between parents’ and administrators’ views on what their children should learn. In these conflicts, Americans place higher priority on parents’ views than schools’ views when it comes to matters of appropriate curriculum. A majority (63 percent) of respondents said their opinion was reflected in the statement that parents are the primary educators of their children and should be free to opt their children out of elements of public school curriculum that they find morally objectionable.
Support for parents’ voices in public education remained high whether the respondents had children in the home or not—66 percent of respondents with children and 61 percent of those without said the parents should have the final say on what their children are taught. Support similarly remained strong across respondent education levels, with 65 percent of respondents with less than a high school education, a high school diploma, or some college saying that parents should have the final say, and 57 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher choosing this position.
Majorities of Democrat, Independent, and Republican respondents agreed that parents’ voices matter, but to different degrees. Republican respondents were the most supportive of parents’ voices, with 74 percent siding with the statement and 44 percent saying their view was exactly reflected. Nearly two-thirds of Independent respondents, 64 percent, sided with the statement that parents are primary educators. Democrats show the least alignment with this statement at 52 percent, with a third saying that their opinion was somewhat reflected.
Public universities and viewpoint diversity
On public university campuses, Americans appear to prioritize students’ religious rights over professors or institutions. Sixty-three percent agreed or strongly agreed that religious student groups should have a place on public university campuses, equal to other student organizations, and 60 percent strongly agree or somewhat agree that religious student groups should be free to choose leaders who adhere to the teachings of their faith.
A majority of respondents (58 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that public universities should ensure philosophical and religious diversity among students and professors on campus. When asked if professors should be free to share their religious beliefs on controversial issues inside or outside the classroom, a plurality (44 percent) agreed or strongly agreed. When asked, however, if professors should be free to share their religious beliefs on sexual orientation and gender identity, 34 percent agreed or strongly agreed, while 35 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Respondents from the generation most commonly in college right now, Generation Z, differed from other generations in surprising ways on this question. Half of the total sample was asked about professors sharing their religious beliefs generally, and the other half was asked about sharing religious beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity. Gen Z respondents were the most supportive of professors sharing their religious beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity (47 percent), and the second-most supportive of professors sharing their religious beliefs on controversial topics generally (47 percent).
They were also the most consistent in their responses between the two questions. Although a majority of Gen X respondents agreed that professors should be free to share their religious beliefs generally (55 percent), only a third said the same for sharing religious beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity—a 22-point difference. A plurality of Baby Boomer respondents disagreed that public university professors should be free to share their religious beliefs on controversial topics, both generally and about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Religious views in the workplace
When the workplace is the public space, and religion is the topic, respondents expressed mixed levels of both comfort and discomfort. Notably, those who indicated that faith was personally important appeared to report higher rates of comfort discussing religious topics at work. While a plurality (38 percent) of all respondents reported being very or somewhat comfortable discussing religious topics at work, among people of faith, this response rose to 47 percent. Those who actually worked with people of faith also expressed higher levels of comfort with discussing religious topics. A majority of respondents with coworkers who are people of faith said they were very or somewhat comfortable with discussing religious topics at work (55 percent) compared to only 34 percent among those who said they did not have coworkers of faith.
In healthcare settings, although respondents are much more split about the religious beliefs of healthcare providers, respondents showed strong consensus for respecting patients’ religious beliefs. More than two-thirds of respondents agreed that healthcare systems and practitioners should respect patients’ religious beliefs.
Respondents of different political affiliations found agreement on this principle with more than two-thirds of Democrat, Independent, and Republican respondents strongly or somewhat agreeing. Although strong majorities of Christian, non-Christian, and no faith affiliation respondents agreed that patients’ religious beliefs should be respected, a greater portion of religious Nones agreed (66 percent) than non-Christian respondents. Christian respondents agreed in the greatest portion at 72 percent.
Americans want pluralism but expect discord
Although respondents express personal support for others’ ability to share their opinions, they seem less confident in the ability of their fellow Americans to do so. Although a majority said there should be a place for religious opinions, only a plurality believes we do a good job respecting each other’s humanity (40 percent), and only 11 percent strongly agreed. A similar contingent thinks that religious voices respect nonreligious voices in controversial discussions (40 percent) and that nonreligious voices respect religious voices (39 percent). A greater plurality (44 percent) think that most people will discriminate against people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations if given the opportunity.
A much smaller portion of politically Independent respondents than Democrat or Republican respondents agreed that Americans do a good job of recognizing each other’s humanity. Just over a third of Independent respondents agreed compared to 43 percent of Democrat respondents and 48 percent of Republican respondents. Republican respondents showed the greatest difference in whether religious and nonreligious people respect each other’s opinions with 49 percent agreeing that religious people respect nonreligious voices but only 34 percent agreeing that nonreligious people do the same.
Despite this skepticism toward others’ levels of tolerance, those who indicated that faith was important in their lives increasingly report more feelings of acceptance in society. Fifty-five percent of people of faith responded that they felt completely or a good amount accepted in society as a person of faith, up from 45 percent in 2019.
Protecting religious speech and opinions in the national conversation will lead to stronger protections for religious exercise and action. Like other forms of free speech, Americans show support for principles of religious speech but occasionally struggle applying those principles to individual situations and controversies.
Agreeing on the essentials, Americans prioritize houses of worship in a pandemic
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold and dominate the news cycle, the areas where government restrictions and religious beliefs conflict also evolve. Last year, as lockdowns continued across the country, much of the debate focused on whether or not houses of worship could be closed. This year, as opinions on houses of worship solidify, new conversations about vaccine mandates and other restrictions emerge.
Majority say houses of worship provide essential services
A majority of respondents (52 percent) said that gathering for worship at houses of worship should be considered an essential activity during the pandemic. In addition to worship, respondents were asked whether or not a variety of other activities both at houses of worship and elsewhere should be considered essential. The greatest portion of respondents, 62 percent, said that gatherings for funerals at houses of worship should be considered essential activities. The smallest portion of respondents, 23 percent, said that gatherings for concerts, plays, or performances should be considered essential.
Nearly eight in ten (79 percent) respondents said that at least one of the types of gatherings at houses of worship for religious purposes should be considered essential. More than half also said that at least one of the types of gatherings at different venues for nonreligious purposes should be considered essential.
For each of the options listed, Baby Boomer and older respondents were more likely to say that the activity should be considered a nonessential activity. Within younger generations, as the respondents’ age increased, so did the portion who indicated that activities at houses of worship should be considered essential activities. Respondents of Generation X stick out for their frequency in considering activities at houses of worship as essential. A majority of Generation X respondents selected gathering for worship, weddings, funerals, community service, and other religious ceremonies at houses of worship as essential. They were the only generation of respondents where a majority marked each of these options as essential. No generation of respondents reached a majority selecting any of the nonreligious gatherings—for protests, graduations, celebrations, exercise, sporting events, or concerts—as essential.
Respondents of different political affiliations differed significantly on opinions of which activities should be considered essential or not. For each type of gatherings at houses of worship, a majority of Republicans said the activity should be considered essential. Only one type of gathering at houses of worship was considered essential by a majority of Democrats or Independents—funerals. None of the nonreligious gatherings were considered essential by a majority of respondents of any political affiliation.
Black and Hispanic respondents were also more supportive of gatherings at houses of worship. A majority of Black and Hispanic respondents said that gatherings at houses of worship for worship, funerals, community service, and other religious ceremonies (all religious gatherings listed except weddings), should be considered essential services.
Black and Hispanic respondents were more likely than white respondents to say that gatherings at houses of worship for worship, other religious ceremonies (baptisms, religious meals, coming of age rituals, etc.), and community service should be considered essential activities. For each of these types of gatherings at houses of worship, nearly equal portions of Black and Hispanic respondents indicated that the activity should be considered essential. Where 60 percent of Black and Hispanic respondents said that gatherings for worship should be considered essential, 50 percent of White respondents said the same—a 10-point difference. Black and Hispanic respondents were also 9 to 11 points more likely than White respondents to say gatherings for community service at houses of worship should be considered essential. Similarly, Black and Hispanic respondents were 12 points more likely than White respondents to say that gatherings for other religious ceremonies and rituals (baptisms, religious meals, coming of age rituals, etc.) at houses of worships should be considered essential. None of the nonreligious gatherings were considered essential by a majority of Black or Hispanic respondents.
This year’s survey also asked again whether houses of worship or businesses should be given higher priority to keep open. Last year a majority said that both businesses and houses of worship should be given equal priority, and near equal portions of respondents sided with either side. This year, just under a majority said that houses of worship and businesses should be given equal priority. Of those who chose one side or the other, however, more said houses of worship should be given higher priority.
Americans empathize with religious coworkers
Now that restrictions on houses of worship have lifted across the country, conflicts between religion and government now focus on religious exemptions, particularly to vaccine mandates.
Half of the sample was asked about vaccine mandates in employment when imposed by the employer, and the other half was asked about vaccine mandates in employment when imposed by the government. A majority of respondents, 51 percent, agreed that businesses should allow religious exemptions to vaccine mandates when imposed by the employer, but only a plurality, 47 percent, agreed when the mandate came from the government.
In cases when the employer offers exemptions for other reasons, 54 percent of respondents agreed that the employer should offer religious exemptions when the vaccine mandate comes from the employer, and 48 percent (a plurality) agreed when the mandate comes from the government.
In either situation, whether the mandate comes from the employer or the government, a greater portion of respondents said employees shouldn’t be terminated because they choose not to be vaccinated for religious reasons.
Having people of faith in social circles at work seemed to impact respondents’ opinions on vaccine mandates. Majorities of respondents with co-workers who were people of faith agreed that businesses should not impose vaccine mandates on those with religious objections, regardless of whether the mandate came from the employer or the government. Among respondents who did not have co-workers who were people of faith, only a plurality agreed. When an employer offered exemptions for reasons not tied to religion, respondents with co-workers of faith were 11 points more likely to say that the employer should offer religious exemptions when the employer imposed the mandate, and 11 points more likely when the government imposed the mandate.
Since the pandemic has led to many changes of opinion on broader issues, the survey also asked whether respondents’ opinion on religious exemptions in general had changed over the course of the pandemic. A plurality of respondents, 49 percent, said that they had become neither more nor less sympathetic to religious exemptions over the course of the pandemic. A greater portion of respondents said they had become less sympathetic to religious exemptions than those who said they had become more sympathetic—although this is within the survey’s margin of error.
Although among respondents of different political affiliations the greatest portion still said that their sympathy for religious exemptions had not changed, those who said their opinion had changed moved in different directions depending on their affiliation. More than a third of Democrat respondents said they became less sympathetic to religious exemptions over the course of the pandemic, compared to only a fifth who said they had become more sympathetic. Among Independent respondents, 29 percent said they became less sympathetic compared to 19 percent who said they became more sympathetic. Republicans who said their opinion changed moved in the opposite direction—37 percent became more sympathetic to religious exemptions and 17 percent became less sympathetic.
Dimension Score: 80
Americans value tolerance and acceptance of others’ religious beliefs, and they want a society that allows robust and broad religious freedoms. As in years past, in 2021, the items in the Religious Pluralism Dimension were the most widely and strongly supported across the dimensions. After a statistically significant dip in support in 2020—when the dimension was nonetheless still the most supported of Index dimensions, with a score of 77—the level of support for Religious Pluralism returned this year to its 2019 level of high support of 80. Moreover, several questions saw higher levels of support than in 2019, and we observed an increased intensity of support for several questions. Additional survey questions bolster a conclusion that Americans highly value religious pluralism.
While each of the dimension’s questions saw slight bumps in support, every question saw significant jumps of at least four points in support from 2020 to 2021 among the highest intensity response, “completely accept and support.” Complete acceptance and support of the freedom for people to choose a religion increased nine points to 66 percent, to practice a religion in daily life without facing discrimination or harm from others increased seven points to 60 percent, to pray or worship without fear of persecution increased five points to 63 percent, tolerance and respect of a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God increased five points to 50 percent, and to practice one’s religious beliefs even if they are contrary to accepted majority practices (such as not drinking alcohol, not eating pork/beef, or wearing a turban, burka, or hijab, etc.) increased four points to 45 percent. On the importance of tolerance and respect of a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God, 86 percent of respondents mostly or completely accepted and supported, up four points from 2020.
This year, we asked additional survey questions that probed levels of support for religious pluralism in real-world applications. When asked about public education, a strong majority of respondents said that they see parents as the primary educators of their children and that parents should be allowed to opt their children out of public school curriculum content that they object to on moral grounds. There was the most alignment with this statement among Republicans, at 74 percent, and the least alignment among Democrats, at 52 percent. However, it was notable that a majority of respondents among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents agreed with this statement, a principle which allows religiously based beliefs a place in public education.
When it comes to colleges and universities, Americans also favor viewpoint diversity. A majority of respondents, 58 percent, agreed or strongly agreed that public universities should strive for philosophical and religious diversity on campus among students and professors. Support for this viewpoint diversity crossed party lines: 57 percent of Independent, 60 percent of Democrat, and 63 percent of Republican respondents agreed or strongly agreed.
These survey responses, along with the Index data, suggest that Americans are strongly committed to tolerance of many religious beliefs. However, responses to one survey question suggest that Americans, while themselves committed to tolerance, do not have the same faith in wider society. A plurality, 44 percent, agree or strongly agree that most people will discriminate against people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations if given the opportunity. As questions included in other dimensions will reinforce, Americans appear to struggle with what they perceive as conflicts between religious beliefs and the threat of discrimination.
There are undoubtedly many factors that influence the way Americans view religious freedom and its various components, but it is clear from this year’s responses that Americans support a pluralistic society. Other changes in Index responses suggest that Americans are truly becoming more accepting of people of faith in the public square. Between 2019 and 2021, the Index showed a sizable increase of people of faith reporting fewer experiences of discrimination based on faith. In 2019, 63 percent of respondents who are people of faith reported never or almost never experiencing discrimination based on religion. In 2021, that percentage jumped to 77 percent. In addition, people of faith reported higher levels of feeling accepted in society this year: 55 percent reported feeling completely or a good amount accepted in society, up from 45 percent in 2019.
Dimension Score: 68
The Religion and Policy dimension asks about the interactions between religious beliefs and the practices of individuals, organizations, and the government. Often at the core of religious liberty debates, these principles include the freedom to run businesses and private organizations according to religious beliefs, the freedom for religious groups and organizations to make their own employment and leadership decisions, and the freedom to believe in the morality of certain behaviors like traditional marriage without facing government penalties.
This year, the Religion and Policy Dimension reached its highest score yet, 68, a two-point increase from 2020.
Several questions in the Religion and Policy Dimension drove this higher dimension score from 2020 to 2021. We saw a return to 2019 levels of support for the freedom to believe certain behaviors and activities are immoral, sinful, and should be avoided in our society. Seventy-one percent, the same as in 2019, mostly or completely accepted this freedom, up from 70 percent in 2020. Again, we saw a rise in intensity of support: a six-point increase in support among those who said they completely accept this freedom, from 35 percent in 2020 to 41 percent in 2021. Similarly, there was a three-point increase, from 75 percent in 2020 to 78 percent in 2021, in respondents who mostly or completely accepted the freedom for any individual or group to believe that marriage is the union of a man and woman without having to worry about facing discrimination, penalties, or fines from government. Support has risen four points since 2019 on this question.
A related question specific to 2021 asked whether respondents supported the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Fulton v. Philadelphia case, where the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the City of Philadelphia to shut down a religious foster-care ministry because of its belief in traditional marriage. A majority, 51 percent, supported the Court’s decision, and 32 percent strongly supported the decision. Only 21 percent opposed the decision, with just over a quarter neither supporting nor opposing. Along with the Index data from questions touching on the definition of marriage, this suggests that Americans support the freedom for people to hold religious beliefs about marriage and to operate their organizations in alignment with those beliefs.
In principle, Americans strongly support the freedom for people to run their business or private organizations according to their religious beliefs. In 2021, 76 percent said they completely or mostly accept and support this freedom, up from 72 percent in 2020. On a question not included in the Index, 57 percent said they completely or mostly accept and support the freedom for religious employers to require their employees to live in accordance with the organization’s religious beliefs.
When it comes to seeing this freedom in practice, specifically in healthcare organizations, however, that support decreases. An additional question found that a plurality of 44 percent strongly or somewhat agree that hospitals and healthcare systems run by religious organizations should be allowed to set policies and standards of care that reflect the organization’s religious beliefs. Fewer, 33 percent, strongly or somewhat agree that religious healthcare providers should be able to terminate an employee who violates policy with regard to the organization’s religious beliefs—39 percent strongly or somewhat disagreed. This tension, however, might be more of a reflection of American attitudes toward employer/employee relationships than toward religion—an equal plurality, 39 percent, also strongly or somewhat disagreed that healthcare providers should be able to terminate an employee who refuses to participate in a medical practice or procedure due to religious beliefs.
How the religious beliefs of individuals and organizations interact with the government is inevitably connected with who holds government power. The Index asks about voting practices and how much freedom religious leaders should have to discuss politics or candidates. Seventy-nine percent mostly or completely accepted the freedom for people to rely on their personal religious beliefs to guide their voting decisions—which candidates to vote for and how to vote on different issues. Seventy percent also mostly or completely accepted the freedom for religious organizations and leaders to discuss political topics and to endorse or oppose political candidates, a three-point increase from 2020.
Heightened tensions during a presidential election year may have impacted the support for voting practices as they relate to religious beliefs and organizations. It will be interesting to follow these trends to see how support for or against religious organizations discussing political issues fares, as elections come and go.
Dimension Score: 71
Taken as a whole, the Religious Sharing dimension provides a picture of how Americans view interactions between people of different religious beliefs or of no religious belief at all. As in past years, answers to questions in this dimension demonstrated that Americans are very supportive of expressive religious freedoms in principle, including the freedom to share religious beliefs with others and the freedom to preach religious doctrine to others. This year’s Index shows Americans returning to their previous levels of high support for religious sharing, indicating that 2020’s struggles may have impacted responses from that year.
A strong majority of Americans support the freedom of individuals to preach the doctrine of their faith to others. Seventy-five percent mostly or completely accept and support this freedom. Thirty-eight percent completely accept and support this freedom, up three points from 2020, a return to 2019 levels of complete support. An even larger majority of 81 percent of respondents said they completely or mostly accept the freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others, including 45 percent who completely accept it, a four-point increase from 2020 and another return to 2019 levels of complete support.
This broad support for free speech when it comes to religious views, however, has its tensions. This year, we asked about several real-world applications of the principle of religious sharing. A majority, 58 percent of Americans, believed public colleges and universities should have philosophical and religious diversity on campus. But only 44 percent strongly agreed or agreed that professors at these universities should have the freedom to share their religious beliefs on controversial issues inside and outside of the classroom, and still fewer, only 34 percent, strongly agreed or agreed that professors at public universities should have the freedom to share their religious beliefs on sexual orientation and gender identity inside and outside of the classroom.
Interestingly, older respondents were significantly more likely to support professors sharing their religious beliefs on controversial issues in general than on sexual orientation and gender identity specifically. Half the total sample was asked the question about professors’ religious beliefs in general and half was asked about professors’ religious beliefs pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity. Among Gen Z respondents, support was highest and uniform between the two questions—47 percent, a plurality, strongly agreed or agreed for both. Millennial respondents supported professors’ freedom to share their beliefs at 43 percent, with a small dip to 39 percent when it came to sharing beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity. Among Gen X respondents, however, while 55 percent supported professors’ freedom to share their beliefs on controversial issues, only 33 percent supported them when it comes to talking about sexual orientation and gender identity. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation showed similarly disparate levels of support between the two questions.
The tension shows in public schools, as well. Though Americans broadly support parents’ authority when it comes to educating their children (also discussed in the Religious Pluralism Dimension), it is not clear how strongly Americans support parents’ influence on specific school practices. A majority of respondents, 54 percent, shared the opinion that public schools should be able to require students and staff to use a person’s preferred gender pronouns.
The tension between principles and their real-world applications indicates that Americans have a bit of “catching up” to do—the ideals are there, but the execution could use some work. Forty percent think that Americans do a pretty good job of recognizing each other’s humanity when it comes to controversial topics; 40 percent think religious people respect nonreligious voices in controversial topic discussions, and 39 percent think nonreligious people respect religious voices in these discussions. While not majorities, still more respondents chose these positive responses than negative ones. Moreover, a majority, 62 percent, strongly agree or agree that people with religiously based opinions in controversial topic discussions should be free to voice them in public. Perhaps Americans would benefit from knowing that their fellow Americans generally share their commitment to freedom of religious expression.
Dimension Score: 65
The results in the Religion in Society dimension seem to underlie the increased support for religious freedom applications found elsewhere in the Index. These questions ask about feelings of acceptance, appreciation, and contributions that show both how much investment Americans feel comfortable placing in religion and how much they feel society receives in turn.
The Religion in Society Dimension increased three points from 2020, driven mainly by increases in personal acceptance and appreciation of people of faith. At 65, this year’s score is the highest yet and puts the score closer to the Religion in Action and Religion and Policy dimensions.
One of the largest year-over-year increases across dimensions occurred on the question asking respondents to what degree they personally appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith to our country and society. Those who said they appreciate religion and people of faith’s contributions completely or a good amount jumped seven points to 54 percent. This was the highest level of the Index’s three years. This question also saw significant movement in those who indicated that they completely appreciate these contributions; an eight-point jump moved this response to more than a quarter of all respondents.
When it comes to acceptance of people of faith and their ability to live their beliefs, a similar jump of six points brought this question nearly back to its 2019 high. Again, there was a sizable jump on the most intense response option; a seven-point increase brought the portion of respondents who completely accept people of faith living according to their beliefs to more than a third (35 percent).
Much of the increase in acceptance of people of faith stemmed from respondents younger than Baby Boomers. Each of these age groups, Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z, saw a nearly 10-point increase in those who accepted people of faith’s ability to live according to their beliefs. Millennial and Gen X respondents showed a significant increase in appreciation for people of faith, but appreciation was down among Gen Z respondents.
Respondents who indicated that faith was important to them were asked how accepted they feel in society. Since 2019, the portion of respondents who said they feel accepted completely or a good amount has steadily increased to 55 percent. This represents a 10-point increase in feelings of acceptance since the Index’s first year.
Agreement with people of faith and religion being part of society’s solutions maintained or slightly increased from last year’s gains. On this question, respondents were randomly assigned to one of three subgroups and asked whether (1) people of faith, (2) religion, or (3) people of faith and religion are part of the solution or problem for issues in our country. Since the Index’s first year, the portion of respondents who see people of faith as part of the solution increased five percent, those who see religion as part of the solution increased five percent, and those who see religion and people of faith together as part of the solution increased one percent. Last year we noted significant gains in the portion of respondents who indicated the most intense response option (definitely part of the solution) when asked about people of faith. This year a similar increase of six points was seen for the most intense response option for those asked about religion.
One area where respondents want people of faith to feel especially welcome is in healthcare. More than two-thirds of respondents agreed that healthcare systems and practitioners should respect patients’ religious beliefs. This high degree of agreement stood regardless of the importance of faith in the respondents’ life and whether they affiliated with a religious tradition or not. Two thirds of those who were either atheist or agnostic agreed that religious beliefs should be respected in healthcare. Interestingly, more than a third of respondents said religion played no role at all in their healthcare decisions.
Another indication that people of faith and religion might hold a place of greater acceptance and appreciation than one might otherwise expect can be seen in opinions on vaccine mandates. As noted in the Key Findings, Americans are divided about religious exemptions to vaccine mandates in employment. However, respondents who work with people of faith do not experience this same division and are much more likely to support religious exemptions. Among all respondents, 54 percent said that employers should offer religious exemptions to an employer-imposed vaccine mandate if other exemptions exist, and 48 percent say the same for government-imposed mandates. Among respondents who have coworkers who are people of faith, support for religious exemptions jumps 11 points, to 65 percent for employer mandates and 59 for government mandates.
On controversial matters of current debate, Americans also hope that religious people will find their voices welcome. Sixty-two percent of respondents said that people with religiously based opinions in controversial topic discussions should be free to voice them in public. And nearly equal portions said that religious people respect nonreligious opinions on controversial topics (40 percent) as said that nonreligious people respect religious voices (39 percent).
The results of the Religion in Society dimension, along with related questions outside the Index, indicate a positive trend for making room for religious people in society. The small year-over-year shifts, strengthened by shifts to the most supportive response options, point to continued increases in years to come.
Dimension Score: 58
A government meant to reflect the people it represents, and one large enough to work with its citizens to improve their lives, inevitably interacts with the religion and religious organizations. The balancing test of healthy church-and-state separation seems to be an area where Americans opinions are starting to slightly diverge depending on context. When it comes to government funding, respondents increasingly want religious organizations to have equal access. But respondents remain more divided on the government’s use of religious symbols or language.
The most significant shift among Index questions this year happened on the question asking whether or not respondents thought religious organizations providing services to help the community should be eligible for government funding on an equal basis with nonreligious organizations. The six-point jump to 71 percent saying that religious organizations should be eligible for government funding opportunities came with a five-point increase in those choosing the highest intensity response option, that the statement exactly reflected their opinion.
With this large change, one might expect to see similar shifts in the dimension’s other question regarding whether or not religious symbols or language should be allowed in public displays. Instead, opinion remained relatively stable from last year, with a majority (54 percent) saying their opinion was most reflected in the statement that the government should be able to use religious symbols and language in public displays.
Some of the changes in opinion on these two questions came from a surprising subgroup—respondents who did not indicate that faith was personally important, and those with no religious affiliation. Over the last three years, respondents of faith maintained strong and largely unchanged support for equal access to government funds and for religious symbols in public displays. By contrast, respondents who did not indicate that faith was personally important increased their support for equal access to government funds by ten points since 2019. Among the same group, support for religious symbols in public displays decreased nine points over the same period. Respondents with no religious affiliation showed similar changes since 2019 on these two questions, with support for equal access to government funds increasing nine points, and support for religious symbols decreasing seven points.
Beyond striking the proper balance as government interacts with religion, each branch and level of government is charged with upholding the Constitution and its protections for religious freedom. This year we asked respondents who in government should lead the way in protecting religious freedom. Respondents were most likely to say that the president or the courts should play the leading role in protecting religious freedom. A slightly smaller portion said that Congress should play the leading role, and the smallest portions said state governments or others.
Democrats were most likely to say that the president should play the leading role in defending religious freedom, while Independents and Republicans were most likely to choose the courts. Independent respondents were least likely to choose state governments. Notably, Independents’ second least-likely choice was the president.
Dimension Score: 67
As work, school, and home life continue to blend in unique ways during the pandemic, the way that religious experience and exercise influence Americans’ actions in the workplace and public settings takes on new meaning and raises new questions. The three questions that form the Religion in Action dimension saw slight upticks from the past year, which pushed the overall dimension score slightly higher.
On each of the three questions in this dimension, strong majorities support freedom of expression of religious belief in the workplace or other public settings. The highest level of support, a slight increase from last year and the year before, was for the freedom of people or groups not to participate in actions or work that violate their sincere religious beliefs and conscience.
This year we also asked whether healthcare workers with religious objections should be free to decline to participate in abortion procedures. Three quarters of respondents said they accept and support the freedom for conscientious objection in the abortion context. Although Republicans were the most supportive in this area, more than 70 percent of Democrat and Independent respondents also accepted and supported the freedom not to participate in abortion procedures.
One unique workplace experiencing significant change regarding accommodations for religious exercise is the military. This year we asked respondents whether the military should grant accommodations for service members whose faith requires them to practice personal grooming standards or wear clothing that differs from military requirements. Seventy six percent of respondents agreed that at least some religious accommodations to dress and grooming standards should be granted, including 58 percent who supported accommodations that would not affect military effectiveness or in situations where the military granted accommodations for other nonreligious reasons, and an additional 18 percent who said religious accommodations for all reasons should be granted. Only 24 percent said that the military should deny all accommodation requests.
The inherently restrictive prison setting presents its own unique questions about balancing religious exercise with other government interests. Because some of the highest profile litigation of the past few years has centered around prisoners’ access to clergy during executions, we asked respondents about clergy access in this year’s survey. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that a prisoner’s clergy member should be allowed to be physically present during an execution, either inside or outside the execution chamber. Equal portions (44 percent) said that clergy should also be allowed to pray out loud or to have nondisruptive physical contact, such as holding the prisoner’s hand or laying hands on the prisoner’s head. Only 15 percent of respondents said that none of these forms of clergy participation should be allowed.
Gen Z and Millennial respondents were more likely than older respondents to support some form of prisoners’ access to clergy. Only 12 and 11 percent, respectively, of respondents from these generations said that no clergy access should be allowed, compared to 19 percent of Gen X respondents and 18 percent of Baby Boomer and older respondents.
Although they differed on which forms of accommodation they thought should be allowed, similar portions of Democrat and Republican respondents (86 and 88 percent respectively) said that some form clergy access should be allowed.
Support for religious liberty in America in 2021 is alive and well. This year’s Index showed the highest overall composite score of any year. Notably, we observed a shift to higher-intensity support across many Index questions, indicating that Americans are stronger and more confident in their support of religious liberty. After a tumultuous 2020, when the Index saw a small but consistent dip in support, this return to 2019 levels—and in some cases, record highs—is a welcome observation.
Americans increasingly see the value of religious organizations and people of faith. More Americans said that they appreciate the contributions of people of faith this year, an attitude that extended into practical implications about the government’s relationship with faith-based organizations. Overall, respondents support equal treatment and funding opportunities for faith-based organizations, and they support government partnering with effective faith-based organizations even when those organizations’ religious beliefs do not completely align with government or mainstream ideas.
This open attitude toward faith-based organizations was accompanied by strong support for religious voices in public, national conversations. A majority of Americans think that people with religious opinions on controversial topics should be free to voice them in public. The majority of respondents also support viewpoint diversity on college campuses, as well as parents’ rights as the primary educators of their children. There are tensions with religious pluralism, however. While Americans support broad expressive religious freedoms in principle, they are less comfortable with certain real-world applications of this freedom, especially in circumstances relating to sexual orientation and gender identity.
More familiarity with religion and people of faith seems to increase support for religious freedom in certain situations. While only a plurality of Americans said they were comfortable discussing religious topics at work, respondents who said they had coworkers who were people of faith reported much higher levels of comfort when discussing religious topics at work. Those who worked with people of faith were also more supportive of religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.
Finally, an area where we saw significant differences among Americans of different demographics was in questions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. While more of the total sample rated religious activities as essential compared to nonreligious activities, those who most consistently and strongly rated religious activities as essential were Republicans, Generation X, and Black and Hispanic respondents—a noteworthy observation, considering the disparate impact the pandemic has had on minority communities.
A pandemic, an election year, and social unrest no doubt contributed to last year’s dip in support for religious liberty. This year’s Index findings bring us to overall higher levels of support and are encouraging, especially as we see more people of faith reporting higher levels of acceptance in society and lower rates of religiously based discrimination. Next year’s Index findings will show whether this high support for religious liberty increases. Additionally, we will consider how to ask supplemental questions to better assess Americans’ attitudes toward religion and religious freedom, including the impact of interactions with religion and people of faith.