Hot off the presses, a new survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, asked Americans about a popular news subject – religious liberty. Despite the recent non-stop religious and political messaging, most Americans (including Catholics) don’t think their religious liberty is under attack. This week Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, fills us in on their surprising findings and gives us great new insight into the state of religious liberty in America.

Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. Click here to download it. Scroll down to read the transcript. Click here to listen to Dr. Jones’ previous appearances on State of Belief Radio.



[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Hot off the presses, a new Public Religion Research Institute survey, conducted in partnership with Religion News Service, asked respondents about a topic that’s been in the headlines a lot lately – you hardly ever hear about it on this show – religious liberty. Yes, religious liberty. I think the findings are going to surprise you, and here to talk about those findings is PRRI CEO and founder, Dr. Robert P. Jones, whom you know. Robby, welcome back to State of Belief Radio.

[DR. ROBERT P. JONES, GUEST]: Hi Welton. I’m happy to be here.

[WG]: Man, listen, I’m looking forward to this. The Conference of Catholic Bishops this week reasserted that defending religious liberty in the context of the birth control coverage mandate is their top priority. It’s perfect timing, then, that you have been asking Americans about the topic of religious liberty, and the just-released results of this survey hold some surprises. So what’s the bold-faced headline?

[RJ]: Well as you say, this is the context that we’ve been living with for a couple of months now; and most prominently the Catholic Bishops, as you say, have been attempting to define the debate on the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate as a question of religious liberty. So we decided, you know, well, we’ll ask Americans: what do they think about that? Is that really how they see this issue; is it something – particularly when we asked them an open-ended question, unprompted – is it something that really comes to mind as driving their concerns?

So, a couple of things we found: first of all, most Americans do not believe that religious liberty is under attack, including most Catholics. Nearly 6 in 10 Catholics say that religious liberty is not under attack, or not threatened in America today. And when we asked Americans to name – even those who say it was under attack, we asked them: “OK, well, tell us in your own words, what is it that you’re concerned about? How do you see it being threatened today?” only 6% percent of those – even among those who said it’s being threatened – only 6% named anything remotely near to the contraception coverage debate. In fact, it ranked 6th of 7 categories of concerns on the list.

[WG]: So that really is the big headline: that people are not worried about what’s happening religiously.

[RJ]: Right. Even among those who, again, among the minority of Americans – it’s about 4 in 10 – who say that they see religious liberty being threatened in the country – they don’t see this contraception mandate coverage as the thing that’s driving that threat.

[WG]: Did you get – implicitly, if not explicitly – a sense of what people understand religious liberty to be?

[RJ]: Well, you know, clearly, if you look at what people say the perceived threats are, you get some sense of this; and I brought in some verbatims, and one of the nice things about this survey is, we actually asked people in their own words to tell us. We had a thousand Americans, and we said, you know, tell us what it is, what you’re concerned about And, you know, we hear, really, older themes; not these, sort of, newer themes. We didn’t hear much about sexuality issues like same-sex marriage or this contraception debate; we didn’t hear much about that. What we heard are these older themes like removing prayer in school, removing the Ten Commandments from public spaces, working people not being able to say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays – those were the kinds of things that we heard: really, about removing religion from public space in some way were most of the concerns that people were bringing to the table.

[WG]: It seems to me that, in terms of messaging, the appeal of Catholic Rick Santorum that – we’re dealing with the religious liberty issue here works better with Evangelical Protestants and Catholic Bishops – better than with anyone else. Is that reflected in your survey?

[RJ]: Well this is a really interesting – I think we see this, actually, in the election campaign, where Rick Santorum, who’s a Catholic candidate, has really had the strongest appeal not among Catholics but among White Evangelical Protestant voters. In particular, we saw his performance in Mississippi and Alabama, most recently – very strong among those voters.

You know, in this poll we see, really, White Evangelical Protestants are the only major religious group that believes that religious liberty is threatened in America today. So that’s the group for whom these issues are really resonating strongly, not Catholics. So again, 6 in 10 Catholics say religious liberty is not being threatened in the country today.

[WG]: And tell me again the group that tends to say that it’s threatened.

[RJ]: Yeah, it’s White Evangelical Protestants.

[WG]: It’s White Evangelical Protestants. So does that mean that mainline Protestants in America think we’re alright?

[RJ]: Right. Every other major religious group – White Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Minority Protestants – all of those groups say that religious liberty is not being threatened in the country today. It really is just this one group of White Evangelical Protestants where, you know, 61% say that they do believe religious liberty is being threatened in the country today. But, you know, as you and I sort of know, this fits, actually, with a, kind of, long profile that Evangelicals have in the country of, sort of, feeling at odds with the culture abroad. There’s lots of, sort of, biblical tropes about, sort of, being in the world but not of it and, sort of, being persecuted. And I think those tropes are still alive and well in the White Evangelical Protestant world.

[WG]: As a matter of fact, I think that is a mindset that some people don’t understand about Evangelicals; is that criticism is welcomed, because it means they’re really doing – they’re walking the narrow way. They’re doing the right thing.

You did this open-ended question, you’ve already mentioned, about threats to religious liberty. I’m curious as to what some of the common answers were.

[RJ]: Yeah. Well the biggest two categories, really, 23% say something about removing religion from the public square – again, prayer in school probably the most frequently mentioned thing in that category. There was another category of, kind of, general government interference in religion; sort of meddling with what churches can and can’t do, those kinds of issues. And then, sort of, further behind that, at only about 10%, really, was a, kind of, general sense of, or perception, that there’s a hostility toward Christians or religion in the culture. But those were really the top 3, and again, with the contraception mandate is down, you know, at number 6 or 7, 6% citing the contraception mandate.

[WG]: Hmm. Well it’s interesting that you also ask about LGBT family rights in terms of religious liberty. What did your study find in this regard?

[RJ]: Yeah. Well, we did want to ask about other areas where religious liberty has been playing a role; and, for example, because the Catholic Bishops have been very clear that this religious liberty theme connects, really, for them, as one of the ways that we’ll be talking about same-sex marriage and adoption by religiously-affiliated social service agencies, so we decided to ask a couple questions about how Americans connected the dots there. What’s interesting about, take adoption by Gay and Lesbian couples: that 63% of Americans – so, more than six in ten – say that religiously-affiliated agencies that receive federal funding should not be able to refuse to place children with Gay and Lesbian couples. So that’s a pretty strong majority. And the key there is federal funding: those who receive federal funding. And we also asked about those agencies who do not receive any federal funding: and there, the country’s basically divided about whether they should be able to refuse or not to refuse to place children with Gay and Lesbian couples. But it’s very clear that the country is, you know, in solid majority territory – 63% saying that any agency – religiously affiliated or not – that receives federal money should not be able to refuse to place children with Gay and Lesbian couples.

[WG]: You know what’s really interesting about that – because I was going to circle back and ask this anyway – it’s strange that in the examples that you gave of people’s primary concerns, federal funding was not one of those.

[RJ]: Right, yeah.

[WG]: And that’s one of the key concerns, I think, with religious liberty organizations today; it plays out in the LGBT question, but not in the more general.

[RJ]: Yeah, there wasn’t something that people, sort of, brought to mind when we just asked them in an open-ended way. But you know, we do see a pattern when we asked more detailed questions about the contraception coverage. Because we also asked, in this survey, a whole range of organizations, like, should these be required to provide contraception coverage at no cost for their employees? And Americans really do make a distinction between churches, on the one hand, where virtually every group says: “No, those groups should be exempt,” and other kinds of religiously-affiliated agencies. But they tend to make a distinction between those who have broader missions and receive federal money, have a broader range of employees, and those who are more tightly tied to, kind of, churches and church missions. They’re more willing to let churches, sort of, have their own way here, and they’re more willing to say – Americans overall, most Americans say – whether it’s religiously-affiliated social services agencies, colleges, religiously-affiliated hospitals – all are in majority territory, with all Americans saying those should be required to provide health care coverage that include contraception at no cost.

[WG]: Robby, at least on State of Belief, you and I are “out” as Baptists – I mean, we’ve identified ourselves in that way – so people know that there is a long tradition of interest in religious freedom for us. Given that fact, did this survey surprise you, or did it confirm what you already thought?

[RJ]: Well, you know, I think it was surprising to me, actually, how few people cited the contraception mandate, given how much coverage this has gotten over the last couple months. It is clearly the thing at the top of the news cycle. So to me, one of the surprising things was just how low it ranks – and how much these older themes, really, that are forty years old, about, you know, kind of, court cases over teacher-led prayer in school and the Ten Commandments and where they can or can’t be placed, those are still the resonating issues animating this debate. So, I mean, I would say, like, what we have here is not something new. We have these very old themes carrying through; the contraception mandate debate really hasn’t moved the needle on this.

[WG]: So that really is an overall conclusion that we need to be aware of as to where people are in their understanding of it, and around what issues. Just as important, what can you say about the relentless use of that phrase, “religious freedom,” by conservative religious and political leaders in recent months to attack President Obama?

[RJ]: Well, you know, we asked about this to see whether – in general, without attaching it to an issue, you know, and I would say that, so far, it seems to be falling flat, really, among Americans. Again, we don’t have majorities of Americans – we don’t even have majorities of Catholics, who have been, really, most, I think, hit with this message from the bishops and through church letters that have been circulated through the churches – and again, there we just don’t see, you know, Catholics getting up at arms about this; we don’t see the public again – it really is, you know, the same groups that we would have expected before any of this new controversy: White Evangelical Protestants have the most concerns here; Catholics, you  know, look about like the general population on this question.

[WG]: I don’t know that I’m going to say this right, I hope I do, but isn’t it ironic that – I’m thinking of mainline Protestants, mainline Protestants would tend to be scared to death of Santorum – but they’re not worried about religious freedom, according to your polling. On the other hand, you’ve got Santorum wanting to do all this stuff that would violate religious freedom as we’ve traditionally understood it, but Evangelicals are satisfied that he could do that, because they’re concerned that religious freedom doesn’t exist.

[RJ]: Right, right.

[WG]: Now that’s ironic to me.

[RJ]: Yeah, I mean there’s lots of ironies, especially around the Santorum campaign, you know, given we’ve dialed back 40, 50 years – I mean, the antipathy between Evangelicals and Catholics was pretty powerful prior to Kennedy.

[WG]: Absolutely.

[RJ]: You know, and what we see today is really Santorum, you know, is the Catholic candidate who is about as Catholic as they come, he talks about his Catholic faith all the time, he refers to his Catholic faith – and yet, he really is the candidate, right now, giving voice to, really, what are Evangelical concerns in the country and in the Republican primaries.

[WG]: And the voters in Alabama and Mississippi, in the days when President Kennedy – prior to that, Senator Kennedy – was campaigning, would have had no part of him on any issue because of a fear…

[RJ]: Well, absolutely. Certainly, you go back to that speech that Kennedy gave in Houston to the Protestant Ministers’ Association, and particularly – I actually went back and looked at the Q and A questions that followed the speech, the speech was only five-ten minutes long, very short speech actually – but if you look at, actually, the questions and answers that were coming from, actually, all corners of Protestantism in the South down there – high suspicion, you know, really worried about him taking commands from the Pope – all the questions were from that angle – really worried about, primarily, not his policies, but really about his Catholicism, and really pushing him on that question. And you really don’t hear any of that with Santorum today.

[WG]: Dr. Robert P. Jones is CEO and founder of Public Religion Research Institute; always, always a source of thoughtful and insightful data regarding key issues in our society today. The new PRRI/Religion News Service Survey of American Views on Religious Liberty is available at

Robby, it is always good, and today is no exception – thanks for briefing us on these new findings.

[RJ]: Thanks Welton, I’m always honored to be here.


State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.

Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.


The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.

While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.

Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.

Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.


Recent Posts