Kim Davis, the elected clerk who recently made national headlines over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, has become just the latest figure in the debate over same-sex marriage and religious liberty. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that same-sex marriage must be made legal in all 50 states, millions of Americans were eager to know the potential impacts of the decision on religious liberty.
A new study from Barna Group reveals the tension many Americans are feeling on the topic of religious freedom. Overall, the research reveals a significant rise in Americans’ belief that religious freedom is worse today than 10 years ago (up from 33% in 2012 to 41% today). The research was conducted between August 7 and September 6, 2015, which places the findings after the Supreme Court decision and before Kim Davis was released from jail; in fact, most of the interviewing was done before the Davis story made headlines. Barna Group’s 2015 research was commissioned by Alliance Defending Freedom and the study repeated the same survey questions as Barna’s 2012 study on religious freedom. Here are some observations based on the key findings of the study:
Concerns Over Religious Freedom Have Grown Across the Board
Concern about religious freedom in the U.S. has grown among every segment since the 2012 study. The growth from one-third of the general population (33%) expressing concern over religious freedom in 2012 to the more than four in 10 adults today (41%) is mirrored among the generations as well. Among Millennials, there’s been a nine percentage point increase in those who say that religious freedom is worse today than it was 10 years ago (25% to 34%); the increase is even more marked among Gen-Xers (29% to 42%) and Boomers (38% to 46%).
As might be expected, religious Americans are more likely to express anxiety over the state of religious freedom in the United States than other segments. Evangelicals (see the definition below in the “About the Research” section) are the group most likely to feel the squeeze on religious freedom. More than three-quarters (77%) say religious liberty is worse off today than 10 years ago, compared to six in 10 (60%) in 2012. This 2015 figure is the highest among all segments by 18 percentage points.
Evangelicals are also the group with the highest amount of concern for religious freedoms becoming more restricted in the next five years at seven in 10 (68%). These high numbers are a theme across the study, as evangelicals consistently rank the highest on almost every response. Barna’s research shows evangelicals to be the most opposed to the Supreme Court decision, so this may come as no surprise.
In addition to evangelicals, Barna studies a broader group of Christians called practicing Christians (definitions below). Even among this broader audience, more practicing Christians in 2015 than in 2012 say religious freedoms have grown worse in the past 10 years (up from 44% in 2012 to 52% today). Additionally, practicing Christians have grown more concerned since 2012 about the future of religious freedom—nearly half of them today say they are very concerned about religious freedoms becoming more restricted in the next five years (48%, up from 42% in 2012).
There is also growing concern about religious freedom among Americans of other faiths—nearly one-third today (32%) say that religious freedom has grown worse, up from just one in five (19%) in 2012; and nearly one-quarter (23%) believe that religious freedom will grow worse in the next five years (up from 15% in 2012). Even among atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated, there is an upsurge in those who believe religious freedom has grown worse in the past 10 years (23% in 2012 to 32% in 2015).
Americans Remain Divided About the Causes and Future of Religious Freedom
Although there continues to be widespread agreement on the definition of religious freedom, with nine out of 10 adults agreeing with the statement: “True religious freedom means all citizens must have freedom of conscience,” (90% in 2012 and 87% in 2015), there remains significant division among Americans on both the cause of religious freedom woes and the path forward.
Though around half of the general population (down from 57% in 2012 to 51% in 2015) agree that “religious freedom has become more restricted in the U.S. because some groups have actively tried to move society away from traditional Christian values,” there remains significant disagreement about whether the “gay and lesbian community is the most active group trying to remove Christian values from the country.” Among the general population in 2015, only 30 percent agree, and among those who have no faith, the figure is a low 13 percent. But half of all practicing Christians (49%), and 68 percent of evangelicals say otherwise. These numbers have remained somewhat consistent between 2012 and 2015.
In addition, although almost three-quarters of Americans (72%) believe that “no one set of values should dominate the country,” the deep divisions between Christian groups and others are stark. For example, only a quarter of evangelicals (25%) agree that no one set of values should dominate the country but that figure is almost nine in 10 among those who claim no faith (89%).
The same division is true when asked whether “traditional Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in the U.S.” A quarter of the general population agrees with this statement, but the difference between them and practicing Christians is significant. For example, only one in five Millennials (21%) agree with prioritizing Judeo-Christian values, but this number almost triples among practicing Christian Millennials (55% of whom agree with the statement). This trend continues with Gen-Xers (26% among the general population compared to 51% of Gen-X practicing Christians), and Boomers (29% compared to 46%).
Younger Generations Are Growing Concerned About Religious Freedoms
Perhaps the biggest story to emerge from the research is the growth of concern over religious freedom among the younger generations. Millennial and Gen-X practicing Christians are the two generational segments showing the largest jump since 2012. Three years ago, one-third of Millennial practicing Christians (32%) and four in 10 Gen-X (40%) practicing Christians said religious freedom had worsened. Today, 55 percent of practicing Christian Millennials—a jump of more than 20 percentage points from 2012—and six in 10 practicing Christian Gen-Xers (59%) say so.
Millennial practicing Christians also express the highest level of concern about the future of religious freedom. More than half say they are concerned about it (56%), compared to just one in five in 2012 (19%). This is a significant increase in just a few years, particularly considering the fact that in 2012, the youngest generation of practicing Christians was far less concerned than older generations about religious liberty. This is no longer the case. Among practicing Christian Boomers, the percentage concerned about the future of religious freedom has remained the same since 2012 (48%).
What The Research Means
David Kinnaman, president of Barna, directed the research and comments on the findings:
“In addition to the overall growth in concern about religious liberty, the big headline of this study is the massive shift in the views of younger practicing Christians, especially Millennials (18 to 31 years old). Just three years ago, these young adults expressed relatively little concern about issues related to religious freedom. Today, they are at least as concerned as their older counterparts—and on some issues, even more so.”
“Over the last three years, younger Christians seem to have realized the incredible tension involved in issues of religious liberty. Perhaps they are more aware of this tension because of their presence on social media, where things can get personal. They see the debates about things like same-sex marriage and Kim Davis happening in real time. Younger Christians are recognizing the implications for their future—what perhaps once felt like something that would only affect clergy and Christian leaders, now feels like it could have a bearing on life for ordinary citizens.”
“Based upon the fact that millions of Americans see an escalating threat to religious freedom, we anticipate that more people will feel the need to stand up for their religious convictions in a public manner. So, we likely haven’t seen the last of events like Kim Davis. Christian leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to help coach people toward a biblical response to the faith challenges of an increasingly post-Christian society.”