Divided on Religious Liberty

A new poll finds Americans are sharply divided on the question of religious liberty. The Public Religion Research Institute reports:

Nearly half (46%) of Americans say they are more concerned about the government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion, while an equal number (46%) say they are more concerned about religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others.

Despite the U.S. Catholic bishops' campaign to highlight religious liberty as an issue, a majority of Catholics (51 percent) fall into the latter camp, while 42 percent said they were more concerned that the government was trying to interfere with the practice of religion. The poll highlights generational and gender differences among Catholics.

Millenials, aged 18 to 34, are far more likely to be concerned about religious groups tyring to impose thier beliefs on others, while those 69 and older are much more likely to be concerned about government interference. Catholic men were evenly divided on this issue, but women were more likely to be concerned about religious groups (55 percent) than they were about government interference with religion (36 percent).

 

The poll does not indicate a trend over time, so it doesn't allow a conclusion on whether the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is gaining or losing ground in persuading Catholics that their religious liberty in America is endangered. It does show that the bishops who are pursuing this issue have a long way to go, since Catholics are somewhat less likely than the general U.S. population to share their concerns.

I do think there are alarming instances in which freedom of conscience is not being respected. These issues do need to be addressed. But too many of the bishops facilitated the effort to use religious liberty as a wedge issue during the 2012 presidential campaign. That leads people to feel that the church is not looking so much to protect freedom of conscience as to advance a religious or political agenda. Perhaps under Pope Francis and the bishops he will appoint over time, a new approach to this issue will develop--less angry, less political, and more apt to show respect for the conscience of those who hold opinions that conflict with church teaching. That might be more effective.

 

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Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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