The fifth edition of the Religious Freedom Index provides an opportunity to reflect on half a decade of Index results, gauge how American attitudes towards religion have shifted in response to changing concerns, and analyze the return to normalcy after a worldwide pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. This year, our findings indicate that American support for religious freedom is coming back strong after a COVID-era slump. This year’s results also show ways in which younger Americans’ ideas of religious freedom are different—both in ways that are positive and more concerning. And as the discourse over the past year has put a spotlight on education in America, our results show that Americans strongly support the right of parents to raise their children according to the teachings of their faith.
The Index is designed to give a holistic view of American attitudes toward religious freedom by surveying a nationally representative sample of approximately 1,000 American adults each year. The survey consists of 21 annually repeating questions that cover a broad range of topics, from the rights of religious people to practice their respective faiths to the role of government in protecting and promoting religious beliefs. The responses to these questions are broken down 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 calculated by taking the average of these six dimensions, with a score of 0 representing complete opposition and a score of 100 representing complete support.
In addition to the 21 repeating Index questions, the survey contains additional questions that differ from year to year and ask Americans about timely or special topics. This year, the Index asked questions about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its passage), religion and parental rights in education, and the proper standard for religious accommodations on issues like abortion and Native American sacred sites.
2023 Key Findings:
- Americans rally in support of parental rights: Across a broad variety of questions, Americans favor the view that parents have the right to guide the upbringing of their children, including in matters touching on faith and religion.
- Bouncing back after a slump: The Index score for 2020 hit an all-time low, while in contrast, 2023 achieved the highest score on record, and American trust in both religion and people of faith as part of the solution to our problems has increased.
- New generation, different focus: In prior years, the Index has highlighted generational differences. This year, we look in-depth at how Gen Z’s beliefs are pushing a new idea of religious liberty and what that means for America, for better or worse.
Americans rally in support of parental rights:
Across a variety of questions, this year’s Index shows that Americans are deeply committed to the rights of parents to educate and raise their children in accordance with their faith and values.
Most dramatically, this year American perspectives about “pronoun policies” reversed since 2021. Today, a strong majority of 58% of respondents oppose school policies mandating preferred pronoun usage. That is a stark change from just two years ago, when only 46% of respondents opposed such policies in the 2021 survey.
In addition, 67% of Americans agreed that parents should be able to opt their children out of school content that parents found morally objectionable (a 4 percentage-point bump since 2021) and 74% agreed with curriculum opt outs for reasons of faith or age-appropriateness concerns. On the flip side, less than a quarter of Americans supported schools encouraging children to transition their gender (24%). And barely one-fifth thought schools should be able to hide information from parents about a child’s decision to transition or take up a new name (21%).
Similarly, 54% of Americans agreed that students attending private religious schools should have access to federal funds provided by the Individuals with Education Disabilities Act (IDEA), putting students with disabilities who wish to attend qualified religious schools on even footing with other students who use their IDEA funds to receive the education they need at private schools.
These results show that Americans strongly value parental rights and theAmerican tradition of respecting the needs of religious families, letting them choose educational options that reflect their traditional faith values and practices – a far cry from an earlier, less tolerant era of American history where bigoted politicians passed laws to ensure that Catholic schools would receive no state funding to compete with public Protestant-oriented curriculums. While some of those laws are still on the books, this year’s polling shows they have little hold on American opinion.
Bouncing back after a slump
In 2022, Americans were evenly split on the question of whether religion was part of America’s problems – or part of the solution to those problems. But this year, the percentage of Americans who considered religion part of the solution rose to 59%.
Interestingly, corresponding questions—about whether people of faith are “part of the solution,” or about whether respondents personally appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith to our society—only showed small bumps of 2 and 3 percentage points, rising to 57% and 53% respectively. However, all three questions showed that Americans’ perspectives on people of faith and religion have improved from last year’s slump.
These rebounds suggest that relatively high confidence in religion and people of faith to be part of the solution to America’s problems is a historical norm, and 2022’s low numbers were an outlier.
In another rebound, the Index’s lowest year on record was in 2020, with five of the dimensions reaching their lowest score ever—but its numbers have since risen, with those same dimensions reaching their all-time high score in 2023. The optimism about religion’s role in our society and overall upwards trend in the Index are promising signs for religious freedom in America.
New generation, different focus
Gen Z is the most supportive generation of religious accommodations in the workplace, but also the least accepting of the rights of religious organizations to make their own leadership decisions. This seems paradoxical, but Gen Z’s generational perspective may be informed by a desire to give voice to the voiceless. For example, Gen Z’s skepticism of traditional ways of thinking may be why 48% of the generation completely accepts and supports the freedom to express and share religious beliefs, but only 36% similarly embrace freedom of individuals to preach the teachings of their faith – the largest gap of any generation.
Similarly, Gen Z is twice as supportive of religious clothing in the workplace as Baby Boomers, with 58% completely accepting and supporting that freedom, versus only 28% of Boomers. On the flip side, 37% of Boomers said they felt personally that they completely accept and support people of faith’s ability to believe and live according to their beliefs, versus only 23% of Gen Z.
Taken as a whole, Gen Z can be seen as more accepting of some religious expression (such as wearing religious clothing in the workplace) at the expense of others, such as sharing one’s faith in public or running a faith-based charity.
The Religious Freedom Index includes data gathered in an annual online poll in fall 2023 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 has 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 to the principle of religious freedom at issue and 100 indicates complete 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. Instead, Becket contributed its broad expertise representing people of all faiths in religious freedom cases to ensure that the polling instrument broadly reflected America’s diverse religious experiences and the full spectrum of religious freedom issues. Becket produces the final report, disseminates the findings, and engages the public in discussions on the Index and religious freedom.
2023 Index analysis
2023 Index Results
Slightly improving on last year’s score of 68 to a new high score of 69, this year’s Index saw past growth in Religious Pluralism, Religious Sharing, and Religion in Action solidify, maintaining last year’s dimension scores of 84, 72, and 68 respectively. For Religious Pluralism – which is up 4 points over 2019 and 7 points over 2020 – this year’s Index suggests that the gains observed last year are more than a temporary fluctuation. Regression analysis finds that the gains Religious Pluralism has made since 2019 are statistically significant, with about one and a half points of movement on the dimension per year. Religious Sharing and Religion in Action have seen gains of 1 and 2 points respectively since 2019. Although Religion in Action’s overall movement is small, it is also statistically significant, showing movement of about half a point per year since 2019.
Meanwhile, Religion in Society returned to its all-time high score of 65 from 2021, while Religion and Policy also saw an increase of one point from last year to 66, returning to its 2020 score and two points lower than its all-time high of 68 in 2021. Finally, Church and State rose from 56 last year to an all-time high of 59 this year. The fact that every dimension except Religion and Policy either set a new high or tied an old one suggests that American faith in religion is strong. It also stands in stark contrast to 2020, where every dimension except Religion and Policy set an all-time low.
Although the dimensions show that American public opinion has remained relatively the same in most areas for the first five years, regression analysis of the Index as a whole shows statistically significant growth of about half a point in its score per year. This is good news for religious freedom, as it confirms that Americans’ attitudes towards it are steadily improving.
Index Dimension Scores
- Religious Pluralism: 84 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?
- Religion Sharing: 72 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: 59 What are the boundaries of interactions between government and religion?
- Religion in Action: 68 How free are individuals to practice their beliefs beyond the walls of their homes or places of worship?
2023 Dimension Analysis
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.
Americans continue to enthusiastically support religious pluralism. The Religious Pluralism dimension reached a new overall high score of 84 in 2022, a rise of four points from 2021, and in 2023 it remained the same. This confirms that American support for pluralism remains strong.
Pluralism is the one factor that consistently attracts the most support from year to year, generation to generation, and across different demographics. Each year there is broad support for Pluralism, with it scoring far above any other Index factor (this year, a total of 12 points higher than the next highest factor and 25 points from the lowest scoring factor.) The strong support for religious pluralism may stem from our human nature and our innate desire to seek the truth according to the dictates of conscience, not by force of government.
Throughout the dimension, Americans who said that religion was not very or at all important to them (not people of faith) and Americans who say that religion is at least somewhat important (people of faith) scored highly, with both groups completely or mostly accepting and supporting the freedoms in this dimension by at least 90% in most cases. Even the outlying questions demonstrated strong support for religious pluralism: 87% of Americans who were not people of faith completely or mostly accepted tolerance and respect of a broad array of ideas and beliefs about God. And 88% of people of faith and 82% of respondents who were not people of faith completely or mostly accepted freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs even if they are contrary to accepted majority practices.
Exposure to faith proved to be predictive – personal relationships matter. Those who identified that: 1) they had a religious affiliation, but religion was not very/not at all important to them (not people of faith), 2) they had no people of faith in their social circle or 3) those who were not people of faith and had no people of faith in their social circle scored well below the mean. These groups scored anywhere from 7-11 points lower than the average. Those who are not people of faith who nevertheless had people of faith in their social circles scored eleven points higher on the Religious Pluralism dimension than those who are not people of faith who had no religious people in their social circles.
The Index shows that there has been an increase in American support for basic religious rights, but a drop in support for the religious freedoms that impact others or rights that enter the public square. More than any other dimension, Americans have consistently unified around religious pluralism. Even though other aspects of religious freedom attract less support, there is a broad and deep consensus that people should have the right to both follow the religion of their choice and live it out in their daily lives.
Religion and Policy
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 covers where religious beliefs and practices meet law, regulation, and public policy. This section asks respondents about their acceptance of religious freedom, even in areas where it might be difficult or controversial, such as the freedom of people to rely on their personal beliefs to make voting decisions or run their business according to their religious beliefs. This year, the Religion and Policy dimension rose slightly to 66, up 1 point since last year – its lowest year on record. This year’s rise is part of a general bounce back across the board this year, and in fact, the Religion and Policy dimension is the only dimension not to achieve or tie its five-year high score.
Given the political relevance of these questions, it can be insightful to compare political groups’ performance on this dimension. Democrats scored 57 on this section, whereas Republicans scored 76. Independents scored 66, putting them right in line with the average respondent. Ideological measurement was similar, with Liberals scoring 54, Conservatives scoring 77, and Moderates scoring 65. Registered voters scored 67, nearly in line with the average American and higher than those not registered to vote, who scored only 59 on this dimension.
Among other demographic groups analyzed, Americans who attended worship at least once per week are the most likely to have a high score in this dimension, scoring 83. Others with high scores on this dimension are those who say religion is extremely or very important to them (77), are members of a religious institution (75), attend worship almost weekly or are members of the Silent Generation (74), or who identify as a Christian (72).
Those who identified as black were more likely to have a high score in this dimension (72) while Asians were more likely to have a low score (57). White and Hispanic Americans scored 66, in line with the average dimension score. Those who seldom or never attended worship or are not members of a religious institution (60), are religious but not Christian (59), non-religious (52) or LGBT+ (44) scored lower.
Given the variation among Americans, it is no surprise that these issues are often politically heated. However, the scores of Republicans and Democrats are both above 50, representing a shared commitment to at least some degree of freedom for even politically contentious beliefs.
This year’s Index asked additional questions that give insight into some of the most important topics of the day, which include the rights of parents to educate their children in their religious tradition, pronoun mandates, and court battles over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Following last year’s encouraging findings that nearly 90% of Americans support protecting Native American sacred sites on federal land, this year the Index ran a follow-up question, focused on the facts of Becket’s ongoing case Apache Stronghold v. United States. Given that many supporters of the mining site say that it is necessary to transition the United States to clean electric vehicles, this year’s Index sought to discover how highly Americans valued Native Americans’ need for sacred sites when weighed against a competing good in the form of electric vehicles and the creation of new jobs. Ultimately, around three-quarters of all Americans support protecting Native American sacred sites even when presented with the alternative view.
While Democrats and liberals scored worse on the Religion and Policy Dimension, they scored better on the question of Native American sacred sites, with 80% of Democrats and 79% of liberals supporting protecting the sites, against 67% of Republicans and 69% of conservatives supporting protecting the sites. 73% of Independents and 74% of moderates supported protecting the sites, in line with Americans as a whole. This may seem counterintuitive, considering that according to an April 2023 poll by Gallup, only 1% of Republicans own an electric vehicle and only 27% would consider buying one, compared to 6% and 76% of Democrats, respectively. Still, the solid results on both sides of the political aisle on this question show principled commitment to religious freedom, even among those demographics who might benefit most from expanded copper mining.
Finally, this year’s Index asked respondents about the nation’s premiere religious liberty statute, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Signed into law in 1993 after the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith limited the protections of the First Amendment, RFRA was originally passed with strong bipartisan support. However, in recent years state-level versions of RFRA have been accused of undermining protections for LGBT+ people. Since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act celebrated its 30th birthday in 2023, this year’s Index was the perfect opportunity to ask Americans their views on the RFRA standard, which bars the government from burdening religious freedom unless there is a compelling governmental interest, and requires the government to use the least burdensome means when it does restrict religious practice.
When presented with a Goldilocks-type question asking them to say if they thought the standard was too protective, not protective enough, or just about right, 62% of Americans said that the RFRA standard was “just about right,” while only 12% said they thought it was too protective. Surprisingly, more than a quarter of respondents indicated that they thought the RFRA standard was not protective enough. Republicans were less likely to favor the standard and more likely (40%) to say that the standard was not protective enough, possibly reflecting perceptions on the political right that federal civil rights laws that protect the free expression of faith are not strong enough. On the flip side, Democrats were more likely than all Americans (15%) to say that the standard is too protective, although a slightly larger number of Democrats (18%) believed that the standard was not protective enough than too protective.
LGBT+ individuals were slightly more likely than all Americans (65%) to say that the RFRA standard is correct, despite recent suggestions that RFRA laws are anti-LGBT; however, they are also more likely than average Americans (19%) to think that the standard is too protective. This result (and the broad support for the RFRA standard generally) suggests that there is more room for common ground on religious protections than is sometimes recognized.
Several other questions that touch on areas of policy are covered in depth elsewhere in the Index. For an examination of Americans’ attitudes toward allowing students with special needs to use federal funding at religious schools and other data on questions surrounding education and religious freedom and expression, consult the Key Findings section.
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 measures how Americans with different perspectives on religion interact with each other and how strongly they support the right of religious expression. The 2023 Index found that Americans still believe that religious people are welcome in the public square. However, there is a steady decline in the belief that the right to engage in religious sharing is “absolutely essential.”
People of faith were overall more supportive of religious sharing, possibly because faith makes them more likely to value religious expression. In comparison to the average Index dimension factor of 72, religious persons of all ages are consistently higher in every generation, excluding those 65+ at 72. Conversely, every generation is more likely to oppose religious sharing if they identify as non-religious. The lowest score is from ages 35-44, with a score of 55, 17 points below the average.
As in previous years, nearly half of the respondents completely supported the rights of religious people to express and share religious beliefs with others. A slight decrease from last year, 44 percent of respondents were completely accepting and supportive, while 40 percent of respondents were mostly accepting and supportive (thus 84 percent of respondents were at least mostly accepting and supportive). Complete acceptance and support for the freedom of individuals to preach the doctrine of their faith to others has remained only slightly lower, dropping from 38% in 2019 to 37% today, with those who completely or mostly support actually rising one point since 2019 to 74%. The belief that the freedom to preach faith doctrines is an absolutely essential part of religious freedom has decreased steadily over time to only 35%, 5 points below the average in 2019. Belief that it is at least somewhat important started at 72% in 2019 and peaked at 76% in 2021 before returning to 72% in 2023.
This year’s Index contained a question inspired by Becket’s case in Vitagliano v. County of Westchester, asking whether a local government could ban individuals from approaching women outside of an abortion clinic. 62% of Americans sided against the government and in favor of allowing women to receive information and offers of assistance – which might involve the sharing of (and is often motivated by) religious beliefs.
A breakdown along political lines is instructive, showing that 51% of Democrats, 68% of Republicans, and 66% of Independents supported the right of an individual to speak to women outside of an abortion clinic. Independents scored close to Republicans and further away from the national average on this question, which is dragged towards the middle by the relative split on the part of Democrats. But even for Democrats, a slim majority say they are in favor of free speech and religious freedom concerns even on such a polarized issue. On the flip side, nearly a third (32%) of Republicans agreed with a local government ban – slightly less than the number of Republicans who believe abortions should be legal in all or most cases (38%) according to Pew polling in June 2022.
Religion in Society
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.
Unlike the Religion and Policy score, which measures Americans’ attitudes towards the law, Religion in Society measures Americans’ attitude towards their neighbors. Specifically, it asks how individuals feel about people of faith, whether they personally accept them, and whether or not religion is a net good in society. This year it is up 3 points over last year, where the score was tied with 2020 as the lowest on record for the dimension.
In some ways, this is one of the most important dimensions, as a culture that does not value or accept religious people or believe that religion is a benefit to society is less likely to treat religious people with respect or prioritize accommodations for the faithful. For the first question in this dimension, we randomly assign respondents to one of three subgroups. One subgroup was asked if people of faith and religion are part of the solution or part of the problem for issues in our county. The other two groups were asked the same question, but about only religion or only people of faith.
This dimension’s recovery from this last year’s low score can be partially attributed to the 9-point rise in Americans saying that religion was part of the solution, and 2-point rise in those saying that people of faith are part of the solution. As discussed later in the key findings section, the relative lack of scandals among institutional religious groups and search for unifying forces in a time of division might explain some of this rise. Likewise, this year those who declared high amounts of appreciation for people of faith rose by 3 points, and those who admitted to low amounts of appreciation dropped by 5.
Unsurprisingly, people of faith are often the critical ingredient in such questions – even if they are not the respondents. For instance, Americans who are not people of faith and had no people of faith in their social circle were far more likely to report little appreciation for people of faith, 39 points below average. That changed when non-religious Americans had people of faith in their social circles. Those respondents scored 21 points higher on this question.
Those who attended services weekly, or said religion was extremely or very important to them, were 33 and 26 points more likely to be completely or a good amount appreciative of the contributions of people of faith. Those who worshipped weekly were 24 points more likely to say that religion is part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and 32 points more likely to say the same about people of faith.
Among religiously affiliated Americans, the importance of religion is at the highest level in our five years of tracking the Index, with 83% of Americans who report religious affiliation saying that religion was at least somewhat important in their lives – up 4 points since last year.
Respondents who were people of faith were also asked how accepted they felt in society. This year, there was a decline of 5 points in those who perceived complete or a good amount of acceptance, driven largely by a change in attitude among non-Catholic Christians. Although the greatest change in perceived feelings of acceptance is among Christians, religious non-Christians report much lower levels of perceived acceptance, 8 points lower than people of faith as a whole and 12 points lower than non-Catholic Christians.
Interestingly, women of faith between the ages of 18 – 24 are the group most likely to report feeling only a moderate or small amount accepted in society. Women of faith in this age bracket are more likely to be different from their peers; women ages 18 – 24 are less likely than women in other age groups to say that religion is at least somewhat important.
Church and State
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.
Up 3 points since 2022, this dimension covers government use of religious symbols in public displays and the government’s role in funding religious organizations that provide aid and community services. Perhaps because these issues have been recently litigated before the Supreme Court, Church and State is the most polarizing dimension.
Nevertheless, this year’s Church and State dimension score, at 59, is the highest since the inception of the Index. 73% of Americans (slightly up from last year’s 72%) agreed that “religious organizations that provide services to help in the community (e.g., soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc.) should be just as eligible to receive government funds as non-religious organizations.”
However, when asked if “the government should be able to use religious symbols or language in public displays (statues, murals, etc.), because religion has played an important role in our country’s history and culture” Americans were more evenly split, with 52% agreeing and 48% disagreeing. This is a higher level of agreement than last year’s 50-50 split, but lower than 54%, 53%, and 56% agreement in 2021, 2020, and 2019 respectively.
Unsurprisingly, religious Americans are more comfortable with displays of a religious nature in government or in a public context and with equal government funding for religious groups. On this dimension, those who attend worship at least once per week score a 72, while non-religious respondents score a 45.
It seems clear even younger religious Americans are less comfortable with public displays of a religious nature on government property – however, this is not a purely linear trend. Although the youngest religious Americans display the least amount of comfort, the religious Americans 65 and up display almost the same amount of antipathy. Meanwhile, among Americans without religious affiliation, we see that Americans 45 – 54 are less open to public religious displays on government property than Americans 24 and below. It seems that less religious Americans share roughly the same attitude across generations, but among religious Americans, there may be subtle generational differences.
Religion In Action
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.
COVID-19 and government lockdowns reframed the way that people thought about work, as meetings morphed into videoconferences and business casual into merely casual. Into this strange new world of Zoom backgrounds and relocating remote workers walked religion: in October of 2022, in the case of Groff v. DeJoy, the Supreme Court found that a federal civil rights law required an employer to demonstrate a significant burden on their business before denying religious accommodations to their employees. The Index shows that this ruling came during a period of rising popularity for religious accommodations in the workplace. The Religion in Action score hit an all-time low two years before the ruling, in 2020, but rose steadily in 2021 and 2022. This year, the dimension stayed consistent with the 2022’s score, solidifying the upward shift following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interestingly, younger respondents scored higher for Religion in Action than their older counterparts, perhaps reflecting a shift from old-fashioned workplace norms towards a “bring your whole self to work” mentality. Gen Z scored the highest for all three rights included in this dimension, 7 points above the dimension total, while the Silent Generation scored the lowest, 6 points below the dimension total. This dimension’s score may increase with time, as younger generations make up a larger share of the population.
From the Index results, it seems clear that Americans value religious freedom at an individual level. However, when religious freedom starts to impact work or the public square, a gap between belief and action appears in the polling results. The right to choose—or not choose—a religion is popular among the general electorate, but an instinct on the part of some Americans that religion is a purely personal matter may depress results in questions about religion in the workplace or public sphere. Despite that, support for Religion in Action is still strong, and shows that most Americans think their fellow citizens should be free to practice their religions beyond the walls of their homes or their places of worship.
2023 Key Findings
Americans rally in support of parental rights
In perhaps our most dramatic finding this year, the Index found a reversal in American attitudes towards school “pronoun policies” that require students to address others by their preferred pronouns. As noted previously, in 2021, 54% of Americans believed that schools should require preferred pronoun usage, but in 2023 the numbers have more than flipped, with 58% of Americans believing schools should not require preferred pronoun usage. The driving cause behind this reversal came from Americans 25–44, a demographic likely to have children in school, which flipped from supporting to opposing pronoun policies. Interestingly, those aged 65 and up also reversed their prior support. The only remaining age group that supports pronoun policies in schools is age 18–24.
This year, we also asked a question first asked in 2021, gauging support for parental opt-outs from content parents found morally objectionable. In 2021, a solid 63% of Americans agreed with the opt-outs. This year, support increased to 67%. Strong support (“exactly like Smith”) increased 9 percentage points (moderate support from respondents actually dropped 3%) while slight and strong opposition only decreased by 3 and 2 points respectively. This suggests a hardening of support on this question for parental rights greater than the movement of the less decisive from one camp to the other.
Other questions on education and parental rights told a similar story. When asked directly about parents opting children out of curriculum on gender and sexuality for reasons of faith or concerns over whether the curriculum is age-appropriate, respondents overwhelmingly (74%) tended to support parental rights, with strong support for opt outs (42%) four times as strong as strong opposition. Only around a quarter (24%) of Americans showed any level of support for allowing schools to encourage children to transition genders, with nearly 60% (57%) strongly opposed and another 19% somewhat opposed. Barely one-in-five Americans (21%) supported schools hiding from parents information about their child’s decision to take on a new name or pronouns, or begin a gender transition.
When asked at what age students should learn about human sexuality and gender identity in school, nearly a third of Americans (31%) said never. Another 30% said middle school, with around a quarter of Americans believing it was appropriate to start instruction earlier and 15% of Americans believing that high school was the right time to introduce such topics to students. It seems plausible that the inclusion of “gender identity” pushed respondents away from believing the topic was appropriate for the schoolroom – for instance, Pew polling published in October 2022 found that only 18% of parents of K-12 students believed that sex education of some kind should not be taught in schools, but 37% believed that learning about gender should not be taught in school.
2023 Index polling also reveals a positive vision for parental rights. Polling found that more than half (54%) of Americans support allowing private religious schools to use IDEA funds. This question, taken from another Becket case (Loffman v. California Department of Education) concerns federal funds provided through the Individuals with Education Disabilities Act (IDEA). The goal of IDEA is to ensure that children with disabilities receive the education and care they need. These funds are allocated to each state to administer, and unfortunately California law does not permit these funds to follow students to private religious schools, even if those schools are best suited to meet the child’s needs.
Similarly, polling on a question taken from another Becket case (Loe v. Jett) asks about a Minnesota law that helps high school students to earn college credits by providing college tuition. Minnesota recently amended its law to exclude religious schools that require a statement of faith from their students. Half of respondents were asked a question that referred to another case, Carson v. Makin, that held that excluding groups from public programs due to their religious status was unconstitutional, while another half were asked a version of the question without reference to Carson, but in both cases only about a quarter of Americans supported Minnesota’s decision to exclude religious schools. Around 4 in 10 Americans are opposed to it, with the remainder—about a third of Americans—neither supporting nor opposing Minnesota’s policy. A lack of familiarity with the issue is likely driving indecisiveness on the question.
Taken together, these questions paint a picture of Americans as broadly supportive of parental rights, including the right to private religious education and the right of parents to opt their children out of controversial content. Although hot-button culture-war clashes over questions of pronoun use and parental concerns over teaching children about sexual and gender identity take the headlines, it is important to remember that these concerns have gone mainstream after the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government lockdowns, which led to dissatisfaction on the part of many parents at the slow speed of school reopenings and the learning difficulties some students faced. While there is no doubt that parental curriculum concerns are real, the increasing dissatisfaction with public education might also have been impacted by the controversial actions of some schools during 2020 and 2021. It is plausible that controversies about school closures and remote learning opened the door for concerns about curriculum to go mainstream.
Bouncing back after a slump
One of the most notable findings of this year’s Index was the spike in Americans who believe religion is part of the solution. Last year Americans were evenly split on the question of whether religion was part of America’s problems or part of the solution to those problems – this year we’ve seen a sharp rise of 9 points in Americans who believe that religion is part of the solution. This is mostly driven by the 8 point increase in Americans who agree that it is somewhat part of the solution.
Americans who believe religion is definitely part of the solution to our country’s problems remained a solid 24%, within the margin of error of last year’s 23%. This group has remained relatively consistent, rising to a high of 31% in 2021 but registering at only 25% and 28% of Americans in 2020 and 2019, suggesting that a solid core of about one in four Americans consistently sees religion as definitely part of the solution to America’s problems.
However, a corresponding question, asking about Americans’ belief in whether people of faith were part of America’s solution or part of its problem, found only a 2 percentage point increase. And a question about the degree to which Americans personally appreciate the contributions of people of faith and religion to our society tells a similar tale—while Americans who said they personally appreciate the contributions of people of faith and religion completely rose 3 points, those who self-reported little or no appreciation dropped 5 percentage points. It seems plausible, then, that the renewal of American faith in religion has as much to do with decreasing hostility towards religion as it does with newfound appreciation for the benefits of religion in our society. In a year marked by many scandals and controversies, it is possible that Americans see religion as a source of unity and have forgotten—or forgiven—past controversies that may have polarized responses to these questions in prior years.
It is also worth noting that 2022’s numbers were unusually low: in 2021 and 2020, 61% and 59% of Americans agreed that religion was part of the solution, with similar numbers for people of faith (64% and 62%) and for people of faith and religion (58% and 61%). From that perspective, 2022 might represent an anomaly, with 2023’s numbers being a return to a historical norm. From a broader perspective, 2023’s new highs can be compared to the lows of 2020 – the Index’s lowest year on record—suggesting that whatever anomalies happened then have been overcome.
New Generation, Different Focus
Gen Z has made its mark as the generation that strays the most from its predecessors. In some ways this is a positive change: Gen Z is the most supportive generation of religious clothing in the workplace (58%), more than double the percentage of Boomers (28%). However, there are also downsides. For example, Gen Z is less accepting of religious organizations making their own employment and leadership decisions.
In past years, Millennials have been stable, high supporters of religious pluralism with Gen Z being less supportive on most questions. This year those trendlines crossed, with Gen Z being generally more accepting than Millennials. Millennials have lagging support for the freedom of people to choose a religion (66% “completely accept or support”, 8 points below average and 6 points below Gen Z). Exactly half of Millennials answered that they “completely accept and support” tolerance and respect of different ideas and beliefs about God, making Millennials less supportive of religion overall than the broader population, but just as supportive as Gen Z. Gen Z scored higher than Millennials on more than half the questions in the Religious Pluralism dimension, with their top result being for the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs even if they are contrary to the majority practiced. Sixty-three percent of Gen Z completely accept and support this, 12 points higher than the average of 51%.
As was the case last year, Gen Z’s support for the six freedoms in the dimension of Religion and Policy is lower than the American average: while all Americans score 66 on this dimension of the Index, Gen Z scores 59. This is a marked drop-off from Millennials, Gen X and Boomers, who scored 66, 67, 68 respectively: a perfect progression with little variation. Silent Generation respondents showed a marked increase in support in this dimension (scoring 74) but this must be taken with some caution due to a low base size.
Why is Gen Z willing to support some aspects of religious liberty and not others? Research and reporting suggest that Gen Z values supporting and giving voice to populations that have not previously had a place on the stage, which dovetails with Gen Z’s strong support for religious pluralism. This year’s Index found that Gen Z is five points more likely (44%) to say that people of faith are part of the solution to our problems as a nation than they are to say the same of religion (39%). Other generations are equally or more likely to say that religion is part of the solution. This may suggest that Gen Z is more skeptical of religious institutions, but trusts individuals to have good moral instincts.
Gen Z values the right to individual spirituality over the right to share one’s faith with others. Gen Z largely supports the right to choose a religion, (72% completely accept and support) but shows far less strong support for the freedom of individuals to preach the doctrine of their faith. Gen Z also has the largest gap between supporting sharing religious beliefs versus preaching religious beliefs. 48% of Gen Z said that they completely accept and support the freedom to express or share religion but only 36% completely accept and support the same freedom of individuals to preach the doctrine of their faith to others. This could be because the generation associates preaching with traditional ways of thinking. These results could also be a sign that Gen Z is more uncomfortable with heated conversations about religion. Gen Z grew up in an era of public discourse that often depicted religion as controversial or pitted it against other interests – a narrative that Gen Z may wish to avoid participating in.
Although much ink has been spilled on claims of declining religiosity and the crisis of American institutions, this year’s data shows that Americans still value their religious liberty, despite divisions over important issues. This year’s increasing Index score and rebounding confidence in faith and religion as the solution to America’s problems should dispel sky-is-falling narratives about American culture.
With nearly two-thirds of Americans believing that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act sets the right standard and nearly three-quarters of them backing an example of RFRA in action when it comes to the question of Native American sacred sites, it seems clear that Americans are not as divided on the issue of religious freedom as some might think. This is true even on hot-button questions: we found that more than 60% of Americans believe that otherwise lawful speech should not be prohibited around abortion clinics, and that most Americans support the rights of religious Americans to raise their children in their faith tradition.
At the same time, there are still areas of concern. 41% of Americans say that religion is “extremely” or “very” important to them, down from 43% in 2019 and a high of 47% in 2021. Sixty-seven percent of Americans find religion at least somewhat important, down from the Index high of 70% in 2019. While these are marginal losses, all five years of Index results show convincingly that people of faith are an important component of a healthy, pluralistic culture. Even among people who are not themselves religious, the presence of religious people inspires greater confidence in people of faith.
Generationally, it is true that younger Americans have a different view of religious liberty. Older generations have a healthier appreciation for the need for strong religious protections against government action, but they also have ideas about workplace accommodations that might not take into account the needs of people of faith, especially as our society grows more religiously diverse. Gen Z, on the other hand, is more attuned to the needs of people to live out their faith at work as well as at home and chosen place of worship – but could use an appreciation of how people of faith need legal protections that extend beyond words and clothing to actions and deeds. Young and old, Americans have a better appreciation of what religious people need when they are taken together as a nation instead of split apart as generational cross-sections.
And that is the story of the United States in many ways, not just generationally. E pluribus unum – “out of many, one” – these Index findings show that is true time and time again. Any dissection of the findings can reveal some unpleasant truths, but taken together, our nation values religion and people of faith, approves of strong protections for religious liberty, and supports a healthy, diverse and pluralistic society where Americans of all faiths (or none at all) can live together in harmony, supporting each other’s right to live and practice their faith freely.