Explainer: Survey shows Americans agree about religious freedom

February 7, 2022

The amount of disarray in American public life — from the ongoing waves of COVID-19 to our miserable political disunity — doesn’t exactly paint a picture of national consensus on much of anything. And, the last thing we might imagine Americans would ever agree on, especially at this cultural moment, is the place religion holds in our society. But that’s exactly what the results of a recent survey show: agreement on the topic of religious freedom.

For the last three years, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has partnered with the Association of Religious Data Archives and the research firm Heart + Mind Strategies to produce the annual Religious Freedom Index: American Perspectives on the First Amendment. At its core, the Religious Freedom Index aims to provide “a unique look into American public opinion on First Amendment freedoms” and to “help inform discussions about religion’s role in America’s shifting cultural dynamics.” In an era of rapid change, the index is the thermometer Becket uses to periodically take the country’s religious temperature — and this year’s reading may surprise you.

Index methodology

Taking place each year between mid-September and mid-October, the Religious Freedom Index consists of 21 standard questions (asked with the same phrasing every year) and a group of additional questions that change from year to year based on current events. Index data is gathered “in an online poll of a nationally representative sample of [one thousand] American adults conducted by independent research company, Heart + Mind Strategies.” 

Once the data is gathered, results are analyzed, categorized, and then calculated and scored using a scale from 0 to 100, “where 0 indicates complete opposition for the principle of religious freedom at issue and 100 indicates complete support for the same principle.” For more information on Index methodology, follow this link.

Three key findings

According to Becket’s analysis, “In 2021, Americans [bounced] back from an especially divisive year with newfound confidence in their support for a wide spectrum of religious freedom principles.” Within that “wide spectrum of religious freedom principles,” three key findings emerged: “Americans want a level playing field for faith-based organizations,” “Americans value religious voices in national conversations,” and “Americans [continue to] prioritize houses of worship, [even] in a pandemic.” 

  1. Americans want a level playing field for faith-based organizations

The COVID-19 pandemic has been horrible in many ways, there is no denying it. But, in some ways, it seems to have awakened us to the realization that communities of faith and religious organizations play an integral role in society, namely when catastrophes like a pandemic strike. So, in the midst of literal pandemonium, Americans agreed that faith-based organizations should be given a level playing field, even when it comes to government funding opportunities and partnerships. 

“In the past,” for example, “65 percent of respondents said that religious organizations helping their communities should be just as eligible to receive government funds as nonreligious organizations, but this year that level of support increased six points to 71 percent.” Regardless of the pros and cons of religious organizations receiving government funds, this is an indication that general support for religious organizations — and recognition of their importance — is not waning, but strengthening. 

By and large, Americans recognize and “appreciate the contributions of religion and people of faith,” which is a survey marker that increased by seven points since 2020. This growing support is something to note.

  1. Americans value religious voices in national conversations

There is no shortage of national conversations being had right now. To vaccinate or not, to send kids back to school in person or not, to recognize the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection attempt as an act of terror or not — all of these (and more) are controversial and consequential discussions, and the consensus among Americans, contrary to what we may assume, is that “people with religiously based opinions” should be included in them. 

The public square is sometimes assumed to be off-limits for those in religious communities. But, as the Index outlines, the majority of Americans (62%) “agree that people with religiously based opinions on controversial topics should be free to voice them in public,” which was true even among respondents to whom faith is not personally important (53%). 

Overwhelmingly (83% of respondents), Americans understand that the “freedom to express or share religious beliefs with others is . . . an essential part of religious freedom.” So, whether in the public square, at the workplace, or in our schools, Americans agree that religious voices deserve a seat at the table.

  1. Americans prioritize houses of worship in a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a lot of discussion around best practices and a lot of questions around what services and activities ought to be deemed essential. Often the church found itself in the crosshairs of these discussions.

But once again, Americans landed on the side of religious freedom, agreeing that houses of worship do provide essential services. Though the level of consensus is less remarkable here, respondents affirmed that many activities that take place at houses of worship, like funerals (62%) and worship (52%), are absolutely essential. 

One surprising takeaway

The opening sentence of the report’s Executive Summary says the following: “After a uniquely divisive year, Americans rebuil[t] consensus around support for religious freedom pushing the Index score to a new high.” Interestingly, despite all the divisive and combative language making constant headlines, Americans agree now more than anytime in the last three years that religious freedom is essential. 

What does it all mean?

There are a number of conclusions we could arrive at based on what we find in this most recent Religious Freedom Index. Certainly, there’s more to analyze than the few takeaways mentioned here, but the consistent note being struck in these findings is one of optimism. 

While the index is not a commentary on the state of religion itself — the religious makeup in America is different than it’s ever been, after all — it does give insight into the importance the American people place on the free exercise of religion that’s enshrined in our country’s founding documents. As the 2021 Religious Freedom Index clearly shows, this first freedom continues to maintain strong and confident support among the body politic.

For Christians, this means that we should gladly and confidently exercise our religious freedom. Of course, the practice of the Christian faith doesn’t depend on a government’s recognition of our God-given freedom to follow him. But when a government, like ours, declares in its foundational documents that we may lawfully exercise our religion with no fear of retribution, we ought to do just that. So, wherever God has placed us — in the public square, in the academy, in the political arena, in the neighborhood where we live —may we freely live out the faith that he has planted in us. 

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24