Americans are painfully aware of the political polarization ripping the country apart, but the religious polarization might prove even more sinister and effective. A new survey from Baylor University found that three in ten non-religious people fear conservative Christians are a threat to their physical safety. Evangelicals, meanwhile, viewed Muslims and atheists as such a threat. Even without the threat of physical danger, Americans often saw members of other religions as hostile or inferior to themselves.
The Baylor study delved into the opinions of seven different religious groups: evangelicals, mainline Protestants, black Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of other religions, and those who identify with no religion (nones).
According to the Baylor study, 30.9 percent of nones identified conservative Christians as a “danger to our safety.” Only 14.9 percent said the same of Muslims. Small minorities of nones (4.3 percent and 5.3 percent) said the same of atheists and Jews, respectively.
While no more than 6 percent of any religious group saw Jews as a threat to safety, at least 9 percent of every group identified both conservative Christians and Muslims as a threat.
Evangelicals proved the least trusting of Muslims, with 44.1 percent saying members of the Islamic faith represented a “danger to our physical safety.” Almost a quarter of evangelicals (24.9 percent) also identified atheists as such a threat.
Nearly as many black Protestants (23.7 percent) agreed that atheists were a clear and present danger, while only 17.8 percent said the same of Muslims. Fewer black Protestants (9.2 percent) viewed conservative Christians as a threat than did evangelicals (9.9 percent).
Interestingly, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics shared similar attitudes toward other religious groups. Nearly a quarter of mainliners (22.3 percent) and even more Catholics (22.7 percent) identified Muslims as a threat, while a substantial number of both mainliners (14.2 percent) and Catholics (15.6 percent) said atheists were a safety concern. About one in ten mainliners (13.7 percent) and one in ten Catholics (10.3 percent) said the same of conservative Christians, while a tiny minority were afraid of Jews (2.5 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively).
Jews and members of other religions proved less frightened of danger from other religious groups. Those who identified as Jewish were actually the least likely to fear danger from Muslims (13.1 percent) and the second most likely (after nones) to fear conservative Christians (20.7 percent).
Members of other religions were also most afraid of conservative Christians (19.9 percent), while some also expressed fears of Muslims (14.1 percent), atheists (8.7 percent), and Jews (2.1 percent).
Overall, Americans proved most afraid of Muslims (25.6 percent), but large numbers also listed atheists (15.6 percent) and conservative Christians (15.5 percent) as dangers to safety.
But Americans also expressed suspicion that various faith groups “want to limit freedom.” Conservative Christians seemed to cause the most alarm in this category, with 36.2 percent of Americans saying the religious Right wants to limit freedom. Muslims came in a close second, with 35 percent of Americans suspecting their commitment to liberty. Nearly a quarter (26.9 percent) suspected atheists, while the smallest number (7.9 percent) suggested Jews were enemies of freedom.
The fears of a secret (or explicit) anti-freedom agenda followed a familiar pattern. A full 66.3 percent of nones suspected conservative Christians, while 52.5 percent of evangelicals suspected Muslims (and 46.4 percent of evangelicals suspected atheists).
Every faith group said that conservative Christians “want to limit freedom.” While only 23.7 percent of evangelicals and 24.2 percent of Catholics said so, other groups proved even more suspicious. Three in ten black Protestants (30.5 percent) also said conservative Christians were anti-freedom, and 40.7 percent of mainliners, along with 43.2 percent of those from other religions, agreed. More than half of Jews (50.6 percent) also suspected conservative Christians as anti-freedom.
These high numbers seem staggering, but many liberals see efforts against abortion as restrictive of liberty, and perhaps LGBT issues also lead nones and Jews to suspect Christians. (Many of the Jews in the survey may have been atheists in belief.)
At least one-fifth of each religious group (19 percent of black Protestants) viewed Muslims as anti-freedom. Besides evangelicals (52.5 percent), Catholics viewed Muslims with most suspicion (33.6 percent), but even mainliners (28.9 percent), nones (25.5 percent), and those of other religions (23.9 percent) mistrusted Muslims.
The mistrust of Muslims likely traces back to reports about sharia law, honor killings, female genital mutilation (also a problem among Christian communities in Africa), and restrictive rules about women wearing veils and having little freedom of movement outside the home. While many Muslims do advocate for western-style freedoms, they seem to be a small minority of those in the Islamic faith.
As for atheists, large numbers of Americans mistrusted them as well, and not just evangelicals (46.4 percent). A surprisingly large number of black Protestants (31.9 percent), Catholics (25.1 percent), and mainliners (25 percent) viewed atheists as intending to limit freedom. Even one fifth of those of other religions (19.5 percent) agreed. Only Jews (8 percent) and nones (5.3 percent) proved markedly more trusting of atheists.
This mistrust likely stems from efforts to remove religious symbols from the public square. Liberal groups like the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) are notorious for suing to remove public displays of religion (even attacking Sen. Marco Rubio for tweeting Bible verses), and it seems religious Americans of all stripes do not appreciate these efforts.
Along these lines, most Americans told Baylor researchers that America was founded as a Christian nation. The largest group (32.2 percent) said the U.S. was a Christian nation in the past, but is not one now, while 26.2 percent said the U.S. has always been a Christian nation. Only 20.3 percent said the U.S. has never been a Christian nation, and 21.3 percent said they frankly did not know.
Interestingly, while Republicans were much more likely to think of America as being founded a Christian nation (81.2 percent), independents and Democrats were evenly split on the issue. Just over half of independents (51.2 percent) and just under half of Democrats (48.5 percent) agreed America was founded as a Christian nation, while only 25.2 percent of independents and 27.6 percent of Democrats insisted it has always been secular.
The most common response among nearly all parties was that America was founded a Christian nation, but is so no longer (41.4 percent of Republicans, 30.3 percent of independents, and 27.3 percent of Democrats opted for this view).
Americans also proved likely to judge those of other faiths as having inferior values. More than half of evangelicals (50.4 percent) said so of atheists, while 40.2 percent of nones said so of conservative Christians.
Evangelicals were not alone in saying atheists lacked good values. Almost a third of black Protestants (32.9 percent) agreed, along with large numbers of mainliners (29.8 percent) and Catholics (27.7 percent). Even 7.7 percent of nones said atheists had inferior values, joining 17.6 percent of those of other religions and 13.1 percent of Jews in that assessment.
Nearly every group judged Muslims to have inferior values. This view proved most common among evangelicals (44 percent), but also had a strong following among black Protestants (21.5 percent), Catholics (21 percent), nones (20.9 percent), and mainline Protestants (20.2 percent). Only Jews (11.1 percent) and those of other religions (11.5 percent) proved less likely to judge Islamic values as inferior.
Overall, the survey suggested evangelicals had deep distrust for both Muslims and atheists, while nones had deep distrust for conservative Christians.
One extremely positive result from the Baylor survey was the low fear, distrust, and judgment upon Jews. Every single religious group distrusted, feared, and judged other groups more than Jews, demonstrating that whatever Americans’ flaws, they are rather unlikely to be anti-Semitic.
As for physical dangers, the high number of Americans who fear conservative Christians (15.5 percent) and atheists (15.6 percent) seems alarming. While a trepidation about Muslims (25.6 percent) might be understandable, given the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism, the fear of conservative Christians and atheists is harder to explain.
Perhaps the sparse abortion clinic bombings in earlier decades inspire fear of Christians, while fears of hatred toward LGBT people (with Christian groups being labeled “hate groups“) and propagandistic suggestions that evangelicals secretly wish to bring about “The Handmaid’s Tale” stoke further fears that Christians would be a danger to physical safety. If so, these fears are extremely misplaced.
As for atheists, perhaps Americans remember the devastating history of atheistic ideologies like communism, which killed millions of people in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia in the last century. Most atheists today, however, even the angry advocates of unbelief, are unlikely to reject Western moral values like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — even if their philosophy makes these values less tenable.
Religion is a central part of life, and it may never be possible for Christians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, and others to fully trust one another. While judging the views of others and even suspecting that they wish to limit some forms of freedom may be rational, fears that members of other religions pose a danger to physical safety seem overblown and can be dangerous.
In some isolated cases, people of other faiths can be dangerous. But it is important for Americans to get to know people of other religions, and to dialogue with them. Radical Islamic terrorism is real, but most of the people most of the time are not a danger to physical safety, and it is unhealthy to live in a constant state of fear.