July 14, 1999

Study finds conservatives
support liberty more in abstract

___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___LAS VEGAS--Doctrinally conservative Christians appear to like the concept of religious liberty for all Americans more than they do the specific application of it, according to a new study reported in the Review of Religious Research.
___This means that the across-the-board religious coalitions formed in recent years to promote the Religious Freedom Restoration Act nationally and in states are not likely to be a trend, says Ted Jelen of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
___Such coalitions have spanned from the far left to the far right of the Christian community, both nationally and more recently in Texas, where a state version of RFRA this year was adopted by the Legislature. They have brought together some of the nation's most conservative Christian activists with mainline Protestants, Catholics and others.
___"The elite-level combination of interest groups which formed to support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not appear to be replicated at the level of mass opinion," Jelen writes. "While conservative Christians are generally drawn to the principle of religious liberty, they appear to be far less committed to its application."
___Ironically, this finding for the attitudes of conservative Christians runs counter to the attitudes of the larger population, he says. The study found the population at large less supportive of religious liberty as a general concept but more supportive of it in specific applications.
___Jelen reached these conclusions after conducting telephone surveys of about 600 people in the Washington, D.C., area. The results of his survey are reported in the June issue of the Review of Religious Research.
___He cautions that residents of the D.C. area may not represent the attitudes of all Americans but suggests that the basic findings of his study should have application.
___In the survey, Jelen first asked respondents about religious liberty in a non-specific situation. They were asked to describe their level of agreement with this statement: "It is important for people to obey the law, even if it means limiting their religious freedom."
___In the overall sample, nearly three-fourths (71 percent ) of those surveyed affirmed this position, with only 21 percent disagreeing.
___Jelen associates this as the public's general support for the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Employment Division vs. Smith, the case that sparked the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a remedy. In Smith, the court ruled that government did not have to show a "compelling interest" before limiting a citizen's free exercise of religion. The case specifically involved the rights of Native Americans to use the hallucinogenic drug peyote in their religious ceremonies.
___The group most likely to buck this attitude in the survey, though, was conservative evangelical Christians. Members of this group were much more likely than the general population to believe citizens should be allowed to break some laws in order to exercise their religion freely.
___Jelen then asked the survey group to indicate their support for specific cases of free exercise of religion that run counter to established law.
___Here, he found the overall sample to be more supportive than they had been when confronted with the abstract notion of free exercise of religion. Majorities affirmed the right of native Americans to use peyote in religious ceremonies (57 percent) and of excusing from military service those whose religious beliefs forbid them from killing (54 percent). And a large minority (44 percent) disagreed with forcing school children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag if doing so ran counter to their religious beliefs.
___The only specific application in which the general population overwhelmingly rejected such a free exercise claim was for Christian Scientists to withhold medical treatment from their children out of religious conviction.
___However, conservative evangelical Christians were less likely than the general population to accept any of the specific claims of free exercise of religion posed in the questions.
___"While support for the general principle of religious freedom is positively related to evangelicalism, the relationships between evangelical Protestantism and support for particular instances of religious free exercise are consistently negative," he writes. "For example, support for conscientious objection to military service is less common among respondents holding 'high' views of Scripture than among other respondents. Evangelical doctrine, self-identification and denominational affiliation are all related to restrictive attitudes toward the ritual use of hallucinogenic drugs, and church attendance and self-identification as Pentecostal are negatively related to support for the religious rights of those who might seek exemption from the Pledge of Allegiance.
___These findings have significance for the future, Jelen says, because the Religious Right--made up largely of conservative evangelical Protestants--increasingly is presenting its own cause as an appeal for free exercise of religion.
___To do so may put leaders of this group in alliance with strange bedfellows who want to stake similar claims, Jelen suggests. "At the level of public opinion or interest-group mobilization, it may prove difficult for religious conservatives to utilize a symbol which is publicly associated with the rights of unconventional and unpopular religious minorities."


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