Religion and Intolerance in Contemporary American Politics

A leading political scientist finds that intolerance of opposing political views is stronger among people with the strongest religious views.
Publish date:
Social count:
A leading political scientist finds that intolerance of opposing political views is stronger among people with the strongest religious views.

Ed note: This article is drawn from work conducted as part of a task force on religion and American politics created by the American Political Science Association. A book will be published in 2010 containing a variety of academic analyses of various aspects of the interplay between religion and the American political system. The article is based in part on the chapter Dr. Gibson wrote for that book.

In a 2008 report from the Pew Research Center on religion in American life, one of the principal findings had to do with the tolerance believers extend to those affiliated with other religious denominations and sects. The New York Times hailed these findings with the headline, “Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance.” The article goes on to note that 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion agree that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” From this frame of reference, tolerance seems to predominate in the contemporary United States.

While the conclusions of that study are on their own terms believable, they ought not be taken to mean that religionists have a propensity toward tolerance more generally.

Instead, a reasonably well-established finding from decades of social science research is that those professing religious affiliation and beliefs tend to be more politically intolerant; that is, specifically, to be less willing to extend political rights to those whom they view as their political foes. Religion seems to be a breeding ground not for putting up with those with generally different views, but rather for encouraging condemnation of those whose political views are different. Religionists may tolerate other religionists, but the evidence from the social scientists is that religionists are loath to tolerate those who are threatening to them.

Questioning the Religious
A nationally representative survey I conducted in 2007 provides an illustration of this propensity toward intolerance among religionists. That research begins by constructing an index of “religious traditionalism.”

The survey asked a number of questions about respondents’ religious attachments, attitudes and beliefs. In addition to nominal denominational affiliation, we also asked about the importance to the respondent of membership in their religious group.

Responses to questions such as these will always be interpreted in light of expectations. From one perspective, these data seem to indicate relatively weak attachments. For about roughly 20 percent of the respondents, the declared religious affiliation is only nominal; identification with the religion is minimal. At the other extreme, something less than one-third of the respondents claim their religious affiliation is extremely important to them. Even among those who call themselves “born again” (or evangelical Christians), that identity is extremely important to only 45 percent of the respondents.

For most Americans, their religious affiliation seems to be associated with a fairly strong, but not overwhelming, identification with the group.

We also asked the respondents three questions about their religious beliefs. The questions included measures of belief in God and the devil. Earlier research found that, while belief in God is not a particularly strong predictor of intolerance, belief in the devil is. Belief in the devil seems to be associated with the view that evil exists, that it represents an omnipresent threat and that one must be ever vigilant against it. Under such conditions, intolerance is perhaps a natural response. Among these respondents, belief in God is quite widespread: Seventy percent assert that “God really exists and I have no doubts about it.” Belief in the devil is less widespread, with only 52 percent expressing certainty that the devil exists.

Finally, we asked the respondents to indicate their degree of agreement or disagreement with the following statement: “Most of the problems of this world result from the fact that more and more people are moving away from God.” A substantial majority of Americans (61 percent) agree with this statement. By the criterion of the attitudes held, most Americans seem to be at least moderately strongly religious, but are not religious zealots.

In order to simplify the analysis of the interplay of religious beliefs and political intolerance, I created an index of religious traditionalism. Traditionalists are those who attend religious services frequently, who believe in God and the devil, and especially who assert “moving away from God” has caused many contemporary social problems. I will refer to this as “religious traditionalism.” According to this indicator, 31 percent of the American people score high on traditionalism, while 34.7 percent score low. Religious traditionalists are primarily Protestants, but can be found among all of the major religions.

The most important finding emerging from the survey data is that that traditionalists are considerably more politically intolerant than those who do not espouse such views.


Intolerance Toward Atheists and Respondent Religious Traditionalism
The graph illustrates this relationship. Depicted on the horizontal axis of this graph is the index of religious traditionalism, which varies from low (“0”) to high (“6”). The vertical axis is an indicator of political intolerance: the willingness — expressed as the percentages expressing intolerance of the rights of atheists — to deny one or more political rights to those “who are against all religion and churches” (typically referred to as “atheists”). The political activities on which we queried the respondents include the rights to give speeches and hold demonstrations, as well as the right to run as a candidate for public office. As the graph makes plain, as religious traditionalism increases so too does political intolerance. For instance, among the least religious, 17 percent are intolerant of the political rights of atheists, in comparison to 47 percent who express intolerance among the most religious. This relationship is statistically significant and politically potent.

One might reasonably expect some religionists to be intolerant of their principal foes, those who are against all religion and churches. But the evidence of my research is that the intolerance of religionists is not confined to intolerance of atheists. Those who are religious are more intolerant than those who are not even when we confine the analysis to highly disliked groups of any sort. Religious traditionalism seems to be associated with a generalized propensity toward intolerance, not just intolerance of anti-religionists.

But is religion really the “active ingredient” in this relationship? It is conceivable that some third characteristic gives rise to both religious beliefs and intolerance, and the connection between intolerance and religion is “spurious” in the classical sense (i.e., both stem from a common antecedent cause, but neither causes one another — just as storks do not cause babies, in the classical exposition of spuriousness). It is easy to imagine that those with a propensity toward dogmatism — the tendency to see the world as sharply and rigidly defined forces of good and evil (sort of like God and the devil) — give rise to religious beliefs and political intolerance simultaneously. It is important that this alternative hypothesis be ruled out in order to conclude that religious beliefs tend to create and/or sustain political intolerance.

The statistical analysis from the 2007 surveys reveals that, all other things being equal, religious traditionalism makes an independent contribution to political intolerance. The data indicate that dogmatism certainly underlies intolerance and religious traditionalism. But even holding dogmatism and other variables constant, those holding traditional religious beliefs are more likely to be politically intolerant.

Perhaps not all aspects of religious beliefs contribute to intolerance. Those subscribing to “pie in the sky” religious ideologies may not be more intolerant owing to their acceptance of the world as it is and their belief in rewards in the hereafter, especially for those who have suffered. Perhaps the greatest danger of religious-based intolerance only materializes when religionists feel obligated to try to conform the world to their ideologies. All too often, this results in political struggles seen as pitting good versus evil, not merely left versus right. The need for, or utility of, tolerating evil is a difficult idea for many to accept.

These findings are particularly ominous for atheists in America. The survey indicates that atheists are widely disliked and that antipathy readily translates into political intolerance. Other highly disliked groups might be characterized as “extremists” (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan), but it is difficult to imagine how those who are against all religions and churches could be viewed as outside the boundaries of legitimate debate in the United States. Nonetheless, atheists are the objects of intolerance for a large percentage of the American people.

Those who casually admit their atheism in discussions over public policy (e.g., scientists who deny the existence of God) ought to heed these findings and be cautious in revealing their true beliefs (or lack thereof). Some seem to wear the badge of atheism proudly, but they should be advised that nearly a majority of Americans would, if they had their way, deny freedom of speech to those who are against all religions and churches. For many Americans, atheism is an illegitimate political position and must therefore be prohibited from entering the marketplace of ideas.

Can Anything Be Done to Mitigate Religious Intolerance?
As I have noted, research findings of this sort are not new to the academic literature on political intolerance within the mass public. Consequently, the question of whether empirical trends such as these have any specific consequences for contemporary American politics is legitimate and requires an answer.

It might be argued that the political intolerance of religionists is inconsequential. Political scientists rely upon a handful of stock solutions to the problem of citizens subscribing to anti-democratic views like political intolerance. Typical palliatives include institutional design, citizen re-education, efforts to mitigate perceptions of inter-group threat, and enhancing pluralism and crosscutting cleavages.

Within this context, the intolerance of religionists might be neutralized by building institutional barriers to their participation in politics, by attempting to persuade religionists of the importance of democratic values (even by appealing to traditions of liberalism and tolerance within some religious ideologies), by trying to enhance feelings of political security (particularly so that the down-and-out do not turn to the opiates of religious xenophobia out of their despair), and by highlighting multiple group memberships, especially in groups that are heterogeneous in their ideologies and values.

Each of these possible solutions has been tried at various points within American politics, and each has most likely contributed to the diminution of intolerance among religionists. Whether there is any traction left in these various schemes is at present unclear.

On the other hand, it seems at least possible that the consequences of this connection between religious traditionalism and political intolerance will become more serious for American politics in the future. There are several elements to this argument.
Scholars have long argued that barriers to political participation tend to screen out those holding less democratic predispositions from the political process (the elitist theory of democracy). Since higher levels of education, political interest and knowledge and other political resources typically accompany political tolerance, the tolerant tend to be more engaged in the political process, the intolerant less so. Consequently, anything that widens participation within the mass public poses at least some threat to the democratic process; the elitist theory therefore does not encourage participation-enhancing policies such as Election Day voter registration.

Historically, religious traditionalists tended to be disengaged from the political process. But this is likely changing, and changing substantially, as religionists are increasingly seen as an untapped resource capable of having a substantial influence on American politics (e.g., the strong efforts made to mobilize the “religious right,” which is most likely dominated by what I have referred to as religious traditionalists). To the extent that those with weaker commitments to democratic institutions and processes acquire influence in the political process, key democratic values such as political tolerance may be threatened.

A counter to this line of argument is that political participation tends to contribute to the development of democratic values. However, voting is not a very participatory type of political action, and even deliberation in the United States tends to involve discussions primarily among like-minded people. It is not clear, therefore, that enhanced political participation will inculcate tolerant values among religionists, especially those subscribing to the view that religious tenets and ideologies should guide secular affairs.

What is clear, however, is that democratic politics requires that the marketplace of ideas in the United States must be vigilantly protected against those who would define some viewpoints as unacceptable. Pernicious proposals for speech restriction typically percolate throughout American politics — from proposals to ban Holocaust deniers, to criminalize hate speech, to penalize incitement and disloyalty, to constrain academic freedom to acceptable viewpoints, and to protect cherished values such as religion from the critiques and challenges of their opponents.

A citizenry strongly committed political tolerance may not be a sufficient condition for the protection of individual liberty, but it is most likely necessary, and it certainly contributes to strengthening democracy in the United States. It seems clear that religion will never wither away in the United States, so means by which its anti-democratic influences can be neutralized and constrained must be found and perfected. Future research should therefore focus on methods by which all citizens — religionists included — can be persuaded to value tolerance more highly.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Add our news to your site.