We’re all afraid of everyone else. That’s pretty much what I take away from a new survey on the intersection of religion and politics in America – along with the affirmation that the so-called intersection is getting increasingly congested and prone to ugly collisions.
Baylor University’s latest Baylor Religion Survey, titled “American Values, Mental Health, and Using Technology in the Age of Trump,” queried Americans’ views on religion, particularly our perceptions of religions other than our own, how religion factored into Trump’s election, whether America is a “Christian nation” and how connected church and state should be.
“We collected our data during the first few months of Donald Trump’s presidency. This was an ideal time to capture the uneasy tenor of American public opinion, especially with regard to the intersection of religion, politics and mental health,” said researcher Paul Froese, professor of sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences and director of Baylor Religion Surveys. “Today, divisions in the American public are stark, and we can trace many of our deep differences to how people understand traditional morality, theology and the purpose of our nation.”
One section of the survey, which was the topic of a Washington Post article, dealt with “Fear of the ‘Other’” and asked people their feelings about four groups – atheists, conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims – and whether the respondents felt those groups were a threat to either personal freedoms or physical safety.
Most Christian respondents – evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics – said Muslims posed the greatest physical danger. Black Protestants said they feared atheists the most. Jews, atheists and people who identified with the “other religion” category said conservative Christians were the most dangerous.
Atheists, Jews and people of other religions, this time joined by mainline Protestants, identified conservative Christians as the biggest threat to personal freedoms. Evangelicals and Catholics along with black Protestants said Muslims most want to limit their freedoms, although these groups felt atheists are a close second in terms of the threat they pose.
“Overall, the most feared religious groups in the United States are Muslims, atheists, and conservative Christians, in that order,” wrote Jerry Park and James Davidson, authors of this part of the study. “While Jews are publicly derided by anti-Semitic groups, most Americans do not feel threatened in any way by Jewish people. …Interestingly, a third of Americans believe that conservative Christians want to limit their freedoms.”
The so-called intersection of religion and politics is getting increasingly congested and prone to ugly collisions.
To me, these results say two things: First, we really need to get to know each other better because we apparently have a lot in common – namely, we’re all afraid of each other. But on a more serious note, we so easily fall into an “us vs. them” mentality that I’d argue is at least partially derived from lack of knowledge about faiths other than our own. I wonder how many of those Christians who said they fear Muslims actually have had much personal interaction with Muslims, and vice versa? (Earlier this year, we teamed up with Kristin Garrity Şekerci from Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative to offer resources for learning more about America’s Muslim community.)
The second point the survey affirms for me is why separation of church and state is so vital. We clearly have strong feelings about religious beliefs – our own and others’. America’s fundamental principle of religious freedom grants us all the right to believe, or not, as we see fit – as long as we don’t harm others. Keeping government and religion separate is the only surefire way to protect that freedom.
Religious freedom for all Americans is a key point to remember when considering another section of the Baylor survey titled “The Sacred Values of Trumpism.”
“This collection of values and attitudes form the core ethos of what we might call Trumpism,” authors Froese, Jeremy Uecker and Kenneth Vaughan wrote. “It is a new form of nationalism which merges pro-Christian rhetoric with anti-Islam, anti-feminist, anti-globalist, and anti-government attitudes.”
As has been well documented already, evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported Trump. (This is the only religious group in which a majority of members voted for him, according to the survey.) It’s also been well documented the influence this group has on Trump and his inner circle. And the influence of “Trumpism” is being felt in any number of harmful ways – the unconstitutional Muslim ban that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court next month; the regulations under consideration that would attack women’s access to birth control; the transgender military ban; attempts to weaken the Johnson Amendment’s protections; and so much more.
Religious freedom is about fairness – we don’t treat people differently because their beliefs are different than ours. And the best way to protect religious freedom is with a firm wall between church and state. Properly maintained, that wall helps us stay away from those tricky “religion and politics” intersections altogether.