March 22, 2006

Prospects for Inter-Religious Understanding

Although tolerance is an American ideal and freedom of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, American history has often been characterized by inter-religious conflict. Without question, however, much progress has been made in overcoming blatant forms of institutionalized religious discrimination. But historic tensions among American religious groups, not to mention heightened concerns in the post-9/11 world about a clash of civilizations, ensure that the question of inter-religious relations will remain an important issue for the public as well as for religious and political leaders.

Public opinion polls conducted by the Pew Research Center shed some light on inter-religious relations and the prospects for inter-religious cooperation and understanding. The findings confirm that certain historical religious divisions and tensions have largely been put aside. Catholics and Jews, for example, once the objects of widespread and often institutionalized discrimination, are now viewed favorably by a sizable majority of Americans. But the poll findings also suggest that other religious groups, including evangelical Christians and especially Muslims, are not fully accepted by many Americans.

American society and politics were once characterized by bitter religious divisions, often pitting well-established, well-educated and well-off Protestants against newly arrived, less-educated and less well-off Roman Catholics and Jews. Today, however, these divisions seem to have been largely overcome. In recent polling, approximately three-in four Americans express favorable opinions of Catholics and Jews. Even among white Protestants and seculars, large majorities hold positive views of these groups.

Evangelical Protestants also are viewed favorably by a majority of the public, though substantially fewer Americans express favorable views of evangelicals compared with Jews or Catholics. Seculars, in particular, stand out for their wariness of evangelicals.

In short, this analysis suggests that the tensions that once existed between Protestants and Catholics, and the hostility that Jews faced from both groups, have largely diminished. Though evangelicals are viewed less positively than Catholics or Jews, all three groups are viewed favorably by majorities of the public. These findings strongly suggest that the United States has the capacity to overcome historical religious divisions and prejudices.