Evangelical Clergy Perceptions of Religious Discrimination

I’m attending the Association for the Sociology of Religion meetings in Philadelphia. It’s been a great time connecting with old friends and meeting twitter friends in real life. Yesterday I presented on some data I gathered as part of my book project. Here’s a summary of the presentation.

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions held an event announcing a new task force on religious freedom in front of representatives from the Little Sisters of the Poor, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, and the Alliance for Defending Freedom. As the Religion New Service reported Sessions said that “he is creating a religious liberty task force to challenge what he called a dangerous movement ‘eroding our great tradition of religious freedom.'”

Such a reference to “a dangerous movement” is confusing in light of other indicators. Consider that a week later, Vice President Pence made remarks about the creation of the Space Force and closed those remarks by referring to God’s protections and paraphrased several passages of scripture.

And yet the notion of religious discrimination remains strong. Last year PRRI conducted a poll asking various groups their perceptions of who were victims of discrimination in America. White Evangelicals stood apart from other religious groups in the belief that Christians face more discrimination than Muslims (57% to 44%). But what does that really mean?

As part of my current book project, I conducted a pair of online surveys of evangelical clergy. While not the focus of the book, there were a pair of questions that allowed me to look at the religious discrimination issue more directly.

First, respondents gave their reaction to the item, “Society regularly discriminates against people with Christian beliefs.” Their answers are shown in the following chart.

Soc Disc

My surveys focused on Millennials and Boomers. As the data demonstrates, there are very different views based on generation. One way to see this is to subtract the D/SD percentages from the A/SA. For all respondents, this gives a +16.3 (46.7 to 30.1) but when you separate the generations, different patterns emerge. Boomers have a +47% (64.3 to 17.3) while Millennials have a minus 6.1% (33.4 to 39.5).

Respondents were then asked if they personally had been a victim of discrimination based on their beliefs and, if so, how. Only 29% of them said yes — slightly lower for Millenials and slightly higher for Boomers.  (I think of this as equivalent to people hating congress but liking their representative — Christians face discrimination but I don’t.)

For those who did claim some experience of discrimination, I was able to code their responses around five common themes. There are roughly equivalent to the various ways we think about discrimination in race or ethnicity. First, there is a Loss of Social Capital — feeling excluded, marginalized, or isolated. A second category is Bias — assumptions made about one’s character on the basis of stereotype or the expectation that you should defend others’ behaviors or opinions.  Then we have actual Discrimination — loss of a job, limitations on work conditions, being graded down at school because of Christian beliefs. Fourth is the category I call Church and State — disagreements over the public square, public prayers, use of schools and the like. Finally, there was a catch-all Other category which dealt with international, gender, or ethnicity treatments.

When you break down these categories among those who reported perceived discrimination, you get the following chart.

Disc Type

Over six in 10 of the 29% reported as discrimination feelings of marginalization by friends, family, neighbors or being thought stupid or judgmental because one is a Christian. These are important to be sure, but don’t reflect the “dangerous movement” the Attorney General warned about.

There were about a quarter of the 29% whose experiences as they saw them fit definitions of some type of direct limitation on behavior by other groups. It should be noted that all I have is the respondent’s version of events. If they said they lost their (non clergy) job for reading the Bible on break, I take that as given even though it might not have been the employer’s rationale. Someone who reports being limited in sharing faith at the food pantry because it received government funds may be responding to actual policy or maybe be misperceiving limitations.

So what does this tell us about perceptions of religious discrimination? First, most respondents haven’t experienced prejudice or discrimination directly. Second, some have clearly felt some form of micro-aggression as Christians which would be an interesting opportunity for future research. Third, there is an organized attempt by many in the evangelical subculture to promote stories that heighten fears of religious discrimination which is especially effective in a social media outrage environment.

One final point of analysis — there is a relationship between views of social change and perceptions of religious discrimination. Respondents were asked to rate the changes in US society over the last 50 years on a scale of 0 to 100. I compared the responses using a 95% confidence interval for the four conditions present (generation by discrimination). Millennials who did not report feeling discriminated against stood apart from the other three conditions Nearly all of that segment saw the changes in American society as more positive than negative.

Perhaps the fears about religious discrimination in the broader society might be a transitional moment and not a dangerous movement. If millennials are seeing social changes as positive and figuring out how to live their faith within those changes, maybe evangelicals can work from a position of what John Inazu calls Confident Pluralism and not from fear.

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