Many Americans no longer regard Christian persecution and diminishing religious freedom as problems that only exist beyond the borders of the United States.
Heightened fears in recent years have been monitored by the Barna Group, which recently published a study that highlights how the political climate and justice system in America have given citizens reason to question whether they are still safe to live out their faith.
“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,” Barna points out. “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.”
Statistics show that Americans believe that religious freedom is worse today than it was a decade ago, with 33 percent agreeing with the statement in 2012, compared to 41 percent saying yes to it today. The study was commissioned by Alliance Defending Freedom and performed between early August and early September — after the United States Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex “marriage” across the country and before Davis was released from prison.
For a number of reasons, Americans’ concern about threats to the religious freedom has escalated in every segment since Barna conducted its original study back in 2012.
“The growth from one-third of the general population (33 percent) expressing concern over religious freedom in 2012 to the more than four in 10 adults today (41 percent) is mirrored among the generations as well,” Barna researchers revealed. “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 percent to 34 percent); the increase is even more marked among Gen-Xers (29 percent to 42 percent) and Boomers (38 percent to 46 percent).
Evangelicals very concerned
Those with sincerely held religious beliefs were found to fear the loss of religious freedom more than any other population group in America. Barna describes this group as Evangelicals who are “self-identified Christians who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.”
“Evangelicals are the group most likely to feel the squeeze on religious freedom,” Barna maintained. “More than three-quarters (77 percent) say religious liberty is worse off today than 10 years ago, compared to six in 10 (60 percent) in 2012. This 2015 figure is the highest among all segments by 18 percentage points.”
And Evangelicals don’t believe things are getting better for believers anytime soon.
“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 percent),” the research divulged. “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.”
Barna also found distinct results from a broader group of believers, known as “practicing Christians,” who are described as “self-identified Christians who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.”
“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 percent in 2012 to 52 percent today),” the Ventura, California-based research group informed. “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 percent, up from 42 percent in 2012).”
Numerous faiths fearful
Christians aren’t the only religious group worried about their ability to practice their faith.
“There is also growing concern about religious freedom among Americans of other faiths — nearly one-third today (32 percent) say that religious freedom has grown worse, up from just one in five (19 percent) in 2012; and nearly one-quarter (23 percent) believe that religious freedom will grow worse in the next five years (up from 15 percent in 2012),” researchers pointed out. “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 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2015).”
Despite the common consensus that religious freedom has plummeted of late, there is less consistency when it comes to notionss about why Americans believe this liberty is diminishing.
“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 percent in 2012 and 87 percent in 2015), there remains significant division among Americans on both the cause of religious freedom woes and the path forward.”
What’s to blame?
The blame for dwindling religious freedom varies widely between different groups of Americans.
“Though around half of the general population (down from 57 percent in 2012 to 51 percent 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,’” the Barna Group asserts. “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 percent), and 68 percent of Evangelicals say otherwise. These numbers have remained somewhat consistent between 2012 and 2015.”
Whose values should we follow?
The dichotomy between believers and non-believers is pronounced when questions about values were raised.
“In addition, although almost three-quarters of Americans (72 percent) believe that ‘no one set of values should dominate the country,’ the deep divisions between Christian groups and others are stark,” researchers found. “For example, only a quarter of Evangelicals (25 percent) 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 percent).”
When specifically asked about the standard for morality in the nation, a predictable rift in responses surfaced again.
“The same division is true when asked whether ‘traditional Judeo-Christian values should be given preference in the U.S,’” the study revealed. 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 percent) agree with prioritizing Judeo-Christian values, but this number almost triples among practicing Christian Millennials (55 percent of whom agree with the statement). This trend continues with Gen-Xers (26 percent among the general population compared to 51 percent of Gen-X practicing Christians), and Boomers (29 percent compared to 46 percent).”
A growing trend of the younger generation’s fear for their faith
Barna researchers insist that the most notable finding from their study is how younger generations are increasingly concerned over losing their religious freedom.
“Millennial and Gen-X practicing Christians are the two generational segments showing the largest jump since 2012,” Barna declared. “Three years ago, one-third of Millennial practicing Christians (32 percent) and four in 10 Gen-X (40 percent) 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 percent) say so.”
And younger Americans sharing biblical beliefs are even less optimistic when it comes to their religious liberty years down the road — showing more fear than any other group.
“More than half [of Millennials] say they are concerned about [their religious freedom in the future (56 percent), compared to just one in five in 2012 (19 percent),” the research shows. “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 percent).”
Barna Group President David Kinnaman, who oversaw this research project, voiced his key takeaways from the study.
“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),” Kinnaman insisted. “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.”
The head of the Christian research group also ventured why he thought violations to Americans’ religious liberty hit so close to home with them over the past few years.
“Over the last three years, younger Christians seem to have realized the incredible tension involved in issues of religious liberty,” Kinnaman posed. “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.”
The research lead explained that America can expect to see more believers aggressively fighting for their constitutional right to live out their faith.
“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,” concluded Kinnaman. “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.”