April 10, 2001

Faith-Based Funding Backed, But Church-State Doubts Abound

Section II. Religion and Culture: The Limits of Tolerance

In general, the public is not unduly concerned over the nation’s growing religious diversity. However, certain groups are worried about a rise of secularism. More generally, there is fairly broad dissatisfaction with the way the news media and Hollywood treat religion and religious people.

Less than half of Americans (45%) say the news media is fair in its portrayal of people who share their religious faith. Even fewer (35%) say Hollywood and the entertainment industry are fair in this regard.

White evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to feel that they are mistreated by major media outlets. More than half of white evangelicals (53%) think that the news media is unfair in its portrayal of people who share their religious faith, compared to less than one-third of white Catholics and white mainline Protestants. This view is especially prevalent among highly-committed evangelicals; 62% say they are portrayed unfairly.

An even bigger concern among white evangelicals is how they are portrayed in movies and entertainment television programs. More than two-thirds (68%) think Hollywood and the entertainment industry are unfair to them. By comparison, white mainline Protestants and Catholics are significantly less concerned, though a substantial 46% of Catholics also feel their religion is portrayed unfairly by the entertainment industry. Black Protestants fall somewhere in the middle, with 58% saying they are portrayed unfairly in movies and on TV.

It is the most committed membership within all of these major religious traditions who are most likely to feel they are misrepresented by Hollywood. Two-thirds (65%) of the most highly religious Americans — those who go to church and pray regularly and for whom religion is an important part of their life — believe that the way their religion is portrayed by Hollywood and the entertainment industry is unfair. Just one-third of those with relatively weak religious ties feel the same. Nearly three-quarters of highly committed white evangelicals think Hollywood portrays them unfairly.

Few Feel Marginalized

Americans may be critical of the news and entertainment industries’ treatment of religion, but very few consider themselves members of a religious minority. Only 19% think of themselves as a member of a minority because of their religious beliefs; fully 78% don’t think of themselves this way.

Clearly, some groups are more likely than others to feel marginalized because of their faith. And the survey does not include large enough numbers of members of non-Christian faiths to provide insight into their feelings on this issue.1 Nonetheless, among most major demographic and religious groups, no fewer than seven-in-ten say they do not feel like a member of a minority.

White evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, and those with the strongest religious attachments are more likely to think of themselves as in the minority because of their religious beliefs. Roughly a quarter of each of these groups say they think of themselves as members of a minority group because of their religious beliefs.

Diversity Not a Major Concern

A plurality of the public acknowledges the increasing religious diversity of America, and most are not bothered by it. More than four-in-ten Americans (44%) say the number of people in the U.S. who practice religions other than Christianity and Judaism is increasing. Only 11% see it decreasing, and 34% say it’s staying about the same. Among those who see the country becoming more religiously diverse, the overwhelming majority (70%) say they are not bothered by this.

College graduates are among the most likely to say the number of non-Judeo-Christians is increasing. Nearly six-in-ten say this, compared to only 37% of those who never attended college. College graduates are also among the least likely to be bothered by this. By a wide margin (45%-12%) they say this trend does not bother them.

Republicans are somewhat more bothered than Democrats and independents by the increasing numbers of non-Judeo-Christians in this country. White evangelical Protestants and those who are highly religious also express higher levels of concern over growing religious diversity. Not surprisingly, seculars are not at all concerned about this.

Over a third of Americans believe that the number of people in the U.S. who don’t believe in God is increasing, and, by a more than two-to-one margin, most who hold this view say they are sometimes bothered by such a trend. One-in-three white evangelical Protestants express concern about a growing number of non-believers in this country, compared to just 17% of mainline Protestants and 15% of Catholics.

Not surprisingly, concern about an increasingly secular society tends to be greatest among those who are the most religious. One-third of those most committed to their religious practices say they are sometimes bothered by what they see as a growth in the number of non-believers, compared to barely one-in-ten of those with relatively weak religious ties. This pattern does not hold among white evangelical Protestants who express relatively high concern about an increase in the number of non-believers regardless of how important a role religion plays in their lives.

Minorities appear to be more concerned about secularization than whites in general. Nearly a third of black respondents, and 43% of Hispanics, say they are sometimes bothered by what they see as a growing number of non-believers in the U.S., compared to just 22% of whites.

Is Fundamentalism Growing?

Over a quarter of Americans think the number of people who are fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. is increasing, just 11% think the number is decreasing. A plurality (44%) sees the number as relatively stable. White evangelicals are among the most likely to see a growth in fundamentalism in America; over a third say the numbers are increasing, compared to 21% of mainline Protestants and 22% of Catholics.

Just 9% of the public is bothered by an increase in fundamentalist Christianity in America, a proportion that remains relatively consistent across most religious traditions. Not surprisingly, non-religious people stand out as an exception. More than three-in-ten seculars think the number of fundamentalist Christians is on the rise, and more than half of those who do (19% of seculars overall) say this sometimes bothers them.

Moderates Troubled by Secularism

Worries about the changing religious landscape also vary by party and political ideology. In general, conservative Republicans are more concerned about the dilution of Judeo-Christian majorities, and less concerned about any growth in fundamentalist Christianity, than are liberal Democrats. What may be more intriguing are the views of moderates, who are far more concerned about growing secularism than growing religious diversity.

When it comes to rising secularism in American society, moderate members of both parties tend to look fairly conservative. Over a quarter of conservative Republicans say they are sometimes bothered by what they see as a growing number of people who don’t believe in God, and virtually identical proportions of moderates in both parties agree with that assessment. Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, are significantly less likely to hold this view. And this group stands out as the only one expressing any level of concern about a growing number of fundamentalist Christians in America.

But when it comes to the question of religious diversity — whether a growing number of people who practice religions other than Christianity and Judaism is a concern — it is the conservative Republicans whose views are not widely shared. Nearly a quarter of conservative Republicans say they are sometimes bothered by growing religious diversity, but only half as many moderates in either party agree, placing their views on this issue much closer to those of liberal Democrats.

Rating Religious Groups

Americans hold largely positive views about the nation’s major religious denominations. Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Catholics are viewed favorably by more than 80% of those able to rate them. Ratings for evangelical Christians are also relatively high at 76% favorable. These ratings are up significantly from 1996, when only 51% viewed evangelicals favorably.

Non-Christian religions receive much lower marks from the American public. Roughly two-thirds of those who can rate Muslim Americans give them a favorable rating (65%), while 35% have an unfavorable opinion. American Buddhists are viewed favorably by 60% of the public, 40% have an unfavorable view of this group.

Atheists receive the lowest ratings of all. Only 34% of those who can rate atheists view them favorably; fully 66% have an unfavorable view. Non-believers are particularly unpopular among the less educated, more conservative, and older segments of society. Nearly three quarters of those who did not finish high school say they feel unfavorably toward people who don’t believe in God, compared to just 37% of those with college degrees.

Aside from Jews, who are generally viewed favorably, there is a diversity of opinion surrounding members of non-Christian religions. The main fault lines appear to be age, education, party and ideology, and religion itself. Young people express more favorable opinions of both Muslims and Buddhists than do older Americans. While 66% of those under age 30 hold a favorable view of American Buddhists, only 46% of those age 65 and older feel the same way.

College graduates have much more favorable views of these groups than do those who never attended college. More than three-quarters of colleges graduates (76%) have a favorable opinion of Muslim Americans, compared to only 57% of those who never attended college.

Republicans are less likely than Democrats or independents to express favorable views of either Muslims or Buddhists. And these differences sharpen when ideology is factored in. While only 47% of conservative Republicans view Muslims in a favorable light, fully 77% of liberal Democrats view them favorably.

White evangelical Protestants are the only religious group in which a majority gives Muslim Americans an unfavorable rating. Majorities of white mainline Protestants, white Catholics, black Protestants and secular Americans all give favorable ratings to Muslim Americans. Both white and black evangelical Protestants view American Buddhists less favorably than do other religious groups, with about six-in-ten offering unfavorable opinions. Majorities of other religious groups offer favorable views.

Low Ratings for Hollywood

But two groups who are often at loggerheads — the Christian conservative movement and the entertainment industry — get relatively low ratings from the public. The Christian conservative movement is viewed favorably by 58% of those who can rate it; 42% have an unfavorable view. The entertainment industry earns a favorable rating from a slim majority (53%) of the public.

Not surprisingly, the Christian conservative movement is viewed much more favorably by evangelicals than it is by mainline Protestants and Catholics. Fully 79% of white evangelical Protestants and 73% of black evangelicals have a favorable view of Christian conservatives. This compares with only 48% of white mainline Protestants, 53% of white Catholics and 58% of black mainline Protestants. There is a major split among Catholics on this issue: 72% of traditional Catholics have a favorable view of the Christian conservative movement, compared to only 38% of liberal Catholics.

White evangelical Protestants are among the least likely to rate the motion picture and entertainment industry favorably. Only 37% of white evangelicals hold a favorable view of the industry, compared to 53% of white mainline Protestants, 54% of Catholics and 60% of black Protestants.

  1. Among the 52 people in the poll who classified themselves as Muslim or "other non-Christian, such as Buddhist or Hindu," 44% said they do think of themselves as a member of a minority.