What's Missing from Religious Liberty Polling

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I'm normally a glass-part-full kinda guy. A clear-eyed optimism is a more productive approach to a difficult world than the alternative. But reporting over the past few days about a religion-related poll gives me pause.

You may have seen the headlines. The Daily Beast had it "Poll: Majority Don't See Loss of Liberty in Obama Contraception Rules." The Huffington Post weighed in with "Contraception Mandate Not A Threat To Religious Freedom According To Catholics." From USA Today's Faith and Reason blog: "Religious liberty cry fails to rally Catholics, survey says." And the Christian Post offered "Majority of Americans Do Not Believe Religious Liberty Is Under Attack."

The poll in question was done by the Public Religion Research Institute, in cooperation with the Religion News Service. Here's the top of the topline: When Americans were asked whether "the right of religious liberty is being threatened," 56 percent said "no."

Which justifies those headlines, yes? I suppose. But is it really good news that almost four in 10 say they do feel that religious liberty is being threatened? Unless we want to live forever without anything remotely like a national, cultural consensus on pretty much anything, that's a half-empty glass.

Some of the other results were interesting. For those who see a threat, here were the top aggressors: Removing religion from the public square and general government interference in religion each picked up about two votes in 10. Hostility toward Christians/Religion was cited by about 1 in ten. Neither contraception nor other sexuality issues got as many votes as any of those. And the all-encompassing "other" was selected about as many times as any other answer.

One reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that people who hold a particular sort of faith -- and who happen to be in the minority in the United States -- feel threatened by where the larger culture is going. The rest of the poll confirms that fear.

Majorities ranging from slim to significant said that religiously affiliated colleges, social service agencies, universities, and hospitals should be required to provide health care plans that cover contraception. About four in 10 even said that churches and other places of worship should follow the mandate. (And self-described Catholics were a bit more likely to be in favor of the mandate than the general population.)

More than six in ten said that adoption agencies that get federal money should not be allowed to use religious beliefs to decide who is eligible to adopt. Half took the same position even for agencies that don't take federal money. A slight majority was in favor of same-sex marriage.

The drill-down had no surprises. Self-described Republicans, Tea Party members, and white evangelical Protestants were the only large groups where majorities perceived a threat to their religious liberty.

PRRI describes itself as "a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization dedicated to work at the intersection of religion, values, and public life." RNS is the national only major secular news service devoted to religion coverage. Nobody would call either of them conservative, but I think it's fair to say they aren't liberal, either.

The poling methodology seems unremarkable and the numbers are the numbers. (You can read all the data for yourself here.)

From a strictly political point of view, the results should give the Democrats some comfort. If the demographic of actual voters matches the folks who were surveyed (anything but a slam-dunk), then the contraception mandate seems not to be a winning issue for the GOP. Ditto for other social issues.

But for those of us worried about the overall health of the nation, these numbers are not good news. Politics, even bitter politics, can be resolved though compromise. But if one side steadfastly believes its positions represent the will of the Almighty, that leaves precious little room for accommodation. And if that side is large enough, then there's the terrible possibility of a glass neither partially filled nor empty, but shattered.

This poll is only the latest to make a case for that terrible possibility.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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