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Survey: Most pastors say religious liberty on decline

NASHVILLE (BP) — Most Americans say religious liberty is important, but they don’t always agree on how much liberty is enough or too much.

Religious liberty is the issue at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate. It’s a dispute that is unlikely to go away, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

American preachers, it turns out, are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days, according to a survey by LifeWay Research, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The survey found that seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches said religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also said Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. The telephone survey of Protestant senior pastors was taken Sept. 4-19, 2013.

Seventy percent agree with the statement, “Religious liberty is on the decline in America.” Twenty-seven percent disagree. Self-identified evangelical pastors (81 percent) are more likely to agree than mainline pastors (47 percent).

Researchers also asked pastors to respond to this question: “Many Christian leaders have talked about society being in a culture war. Regardless of how you feel about that terminology, how would you explain the current situation?”

Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) say Christians are losing. One in 10 (11 percent) say the culture war is already lost. Few (10 percent) say Christians are winning the culture war.

Evangelical pastors (79 percent) are more likely than mainline pastors (60 percent) to say Christians are losing or have lost the culture war.

Mainline pastors (30 percent) are also most likely to say they “don’t know” when asked about the culture war. By contrast, 13 percent of evangelicals said they don’t know. Overall, one in five pastors (19 percent) said they don’t know.

Culture shifts

Some of the unease about religious liberty is due to shifts in American culture and church practice, said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research.

In the 1960s, nearly two-thirds of Americans were Protestants. Today, they make up less than half of the population, according to the General Social Survey.

Fewer Protestants means less cultural power, Stetzer said.

In the past, he said, Christians — and Protestants in particular — took it for granted that Americans would look to the church for guidance on moral issues. Churches, he said, were seen as being good for society and so they were given special privileges — like exemptions from taxes and other laws. “Even if people did not go to church, they looked to the church,” Stetzer explained.

That’s no longer the case, as the government and culture no longer defer to Protestant Christians, which makes pastors and their congregations nervous.

“They feel like in some ways there was a pact made at the founding of the country — between God and America,” he said. “That pact has been broken.”

That’s not all bad news, Stetzer said.

“The fact that ‘Christian’ is not just a demographic category can have a positive side,” Stetzer said, as it means that Protestants and other Christians have to be more active in living out their faith.

But it also has political and social consequences, as a sizable number of Protestants and other Christians run into conflicts with societal norms on issues like sexuality and marriage and other issues.

Protestants (and like-minded religious people) have to think through a new strategy that defends their religious liberty but also acknowledges that conflict, Stetzer said.

Several recent court battles also may play a role, said Thomas Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University, and author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.

Kidd pointed to the Hobby Lobby case as well as the Supreme Court’s 2012 Hosanna-Tabor ruling. Both involve disputes between the government and religious groups over exemptions from federal law.

In both cases, religious liberty was seen as less important than other issues — like nondiscrimination or healthcare, Kidd said.

“There’s a real sense that something has changed dramatically,” he said. “Some questions about the meaning of religious liberty are now in play.”

Those court battles, as well as the decline in Protestant cultural power, can make pastors nervous. “Less clout plus more aggressive policy creates a sense of crisis,” he said.

Most Americans concerned about religious liberty

LifeWay researchers found similar concerns about religious liberty in a telephone survey of 1,001 Americans, conducted Sept. 6-10, 2013.

More than half (54 percent) agree with the statement, “Religious liberty is on the decline in America.” About four in 10 (38 percent) disagree.

Half (50 percent) also agree with the statement: “Christians increasingly are confronted by intolerance in America today.” Thirty nine percent disagree.

Researchers also found about a third of Americans (34 percent) say Christians complain too much about how they are treated.

Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research, said concerns about religious liberty have become widespread.

“Half of Americans say that religious liberty is on the decline,” he said. “That’s a lot of people.”

Many of the new freedoms Americans want are less compatible with religion, McConnell said. Freedoms always have limits, he added, and Americans disagree about how to weigh religious liberty against other concerns.

“It’s not that people don’t care about religious liberty,” he said. “It’s that other values are seen as more important.”

Methodology: The telephone survey of 1,007 Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 4-19, 2013. The calling list was randomly drawn from a stratified list of Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted to reflect the geographic distribution and denominational groups of Protestant churches. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

The telephone survey of 1,001 adult Americans was conducted Sept. 6-10, 2013. Interviews were conducted in either English or Spanish. Both listed and unlisted numbers were called and approximately 20 percent of the sample was reached by cell phone. Responses were weighted by age, gender, education, race/Hispanic ethnicity, region and CBSA market size to more accurately reflect the population. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Bob Smietana is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp)