A new AP-NORC poll, released Wednesday, confirms that in the eyes of Americans, the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion does not apply equally to all religions. In fact, most believe it applies to Christians but when it comes to Jews, Mormons, and Muslims, not so much. Political affiliation plays a major role in how American view religious freedom and whether it applies equally to all. This poll may explain why Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s numbers went up when he advocated closing some mosques.
The poll found that 82 percent of Americans believe that it is extremely or very important to protect the religious freedom of Christians. When asked about other religions, it was a different story. Only 72 percent say it is important to protect the religious freedoms of Jews; 67 percent feel that way about Mormons; and when it comes to Muslims, only 61 percent feel they deserve religious freedom. Is the anti-Muslim rhetoric of some Republican candidates, particularly Donald Trump, responsible for this disparity? Or is this disparity the reason for their Islamophobic rhetoric?
The poll also revealed that political affiliation influences the view of Americans on freedom of religion. Eighty eight percent of Republicans believe that it is important to protect the religious freedom of Christians whereas 83 percent of Democrats felt that way. When asked if it is important to protect Muslims sixty seven percent of Democrats favor protecting the rights of Muslims but only 60 percent of Republicans feel they should be honored.
Looking at other religions, slightly more Republicans than Democrats (78%-74%) support religious freedom for Jews. Seventy two percent of Republicans feel that way about Mormons but surprisingly only 67 percent of Democrats believe their rights should be protected. This may have something to do with the church’s position on same sex marriage and its view on women.
One surprising bit of data in the poll is that voters who describe themselves as Independents are only moderate supporters of religious freedom at all. Only 69 percent feel it is important to protect religious freedom for Christians versus 88 percent of all voters. When it comes to Jews and Mormons, only 57 percent and 56 percent of Independents feel their rights should be protected. Fewer than half—49 percent—believe the rights of Muslims should be protected. This bodes well for Donald Trump in a general election. It means that his anti-Muslim rhetoric might resonate with many Independents as well as most Republicans.
This same partisan disparity applies to how Americans view the job the government is doing to protect religious freedom. The poll found that 55 percent of all Americans feel the government is doing a very good or good job protecting religious freedom. Breaking it down by political affiliation, 64 percent of Democrats feel the government is doing a good job but only 49 percent of Republicans agree. Only 43 percent of Independent voters think the government is doing a good job protecting freedom of religion.
The very term religious freedom has become a dog whistle in many cases. Many religious leaders, including Catholic Bishops, believe that government policies on contraception, same-sex marriage, and Obamacare violate their religious freedom. They say this even though the government does not force churches to marry same sex couples or force men and women to use contraceptives just because they are free under the Affordable Care Act.
The Bishops are using the term “religious freedom” to get Catholics to oppose politicians—mostly Democrats—who support marriage equality and access to contraception. The same is true with many Evangelical preachers. They have are using “religious freedom” as justification to impose their religious beliefs on others. This certainly goes against the intent of the Founding Fathers when they adopted the First Amendment.
The First Amendment applies equally to all religions and gives equal protection to freedom from religion. If the poll is accurate, it seems that today religious freedom is in the eye of the beholder. Jefferson and Madison are probably spinning in their graves.