Selective Worry: Poll Shows Americans Have Greater Concern For The Rights Of Christians

A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll reports that Americans overwhelmingly prioritize the religious freedom rights of Christians over other faith groups.

The results, released early this morning, suggest that 82 percent of Americans believe that it’s important for the U.S. government to protect Christians. Seventy percent said the same for Jews.

Muslims and atheists ranked dead last overall, with 61 percent of all respondents saying the government should uphold their religious freedom rights.

And the numbers don’t split significantly on partisan lines. Eighty-eight percent of Republicans said the government needed to protect Christian religious liberty; 60 percent said the same principle applied to Islam. Compare that to self-reported Democrats, and there’s not much of a difference. Only 67 percent professed a concern for the religious freedom rights of Muslims. Eighty-three percent said the same for Christians.

In a statement to the AP, the First Amendment Center’s Charles Haynes expressed little surprise over the results. “Religious freedom is now in the eye of the beholder,” Haynes said. “People in different traditions, with different ideological commitments, define religious freedom differently.”

Greg Scott, a spokesman for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), told the AP that the numbers “makes sense in that Christians today are facing mounting threats to their religious liberty by acts of state officials and bureaucrats.”

The AP further notes that AP-NORC polls have demonstrated a steady decline in public confidence in the government’s approach to religious liberty. Fifty-five percent now believe the government is doing a “good job.” That’s down from a rate of 75 percent in 2011.

It’s likely tempting for supporters of Kim Davis, Hobby Lobby and others to see this as evidence that the public supports their approach to religious freedom—and shares their concern that it’s being eroded by the state. Scott certainly seemed to think so.

But there’s evidence that Americans don’t actually buy the ADF’s party line. In September, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 63 percent of Americans believed Davis should issue marriage licenses despite her religious objections. In October, 60 percent thought businesses shouldn’t be allowed to refuse to serve LGBT customers. And in 2014, a mere 35 percent agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s verdict in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell.

Americans may broadly embrace religious freedom for Christians, but Haynes is right: That doesn’t mean they define it the way ADF and its cohort believe they should. Americans, when questioned on specifics, don’t seem to accept individual assertions of Christian persecution.

Nevertheless, today’s report should still trouble First Amendment advocates. The AP reports that it conducted the poll with NORC not long after horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino; it seems reasonable to assume that this influenced public opinion about the rights of Muslims.

And low public opinion doesn’t simply exist in a void: It corresponds to an uptick in violence against Muslims. That includes threats and the vandalization and arson of mosques, in addition to verbal harassment.

That violence has begun to affect members of other minority faiths as well. Sikh men wear beards and turbans to honor central tenets of their faith; as a result they are frequently mistaken for Muslims. Thanks to a rancid combination of ignorance and malicious prejudice, several Sikh men have recently been beaten by assailants who intended to target Muslims.

That’s what persecution actually looks like. It looks nothing like a county clerk who goes to jail because she won’t do the job voters elected her to do – and refuses to allow others to do their jobs. It looks nothing like the mega-rich owners of Hobby Lobby or small business owners who raise a half million dollars off their decision to discriminate against a same-sex couple.

It’s reasonable to see the horrors of Paris and San Bernardino and fear the future. But the unavoidable truth is that these attacks, as terrible as they are, did not fundamentally change the status of American Christians. They are as much at risk from terrorism as their non-Christian neighbors. And it’s time they remember that a few of those neighbors face substantially greater threats to their religious freedom.  

Follow Sarah Jones online at @onesarahjones.