Thursday, August 19, 2010

Do Americans Really Believe in Religious Freedom and Equality? (UPDATED)

After President Obama defended the right of the planners of the Cordoba House (the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque") to locate their religious center near the site of the former World Trade Center, he received criticism from progressives and conservatives. Both sides argued that he should comment on the wisdom of the project -- rather than limiting his position to a discussion of religious freedom and equality.

Is Religious Tolerance A "Nonissue"?
Many of Obama's critics cited a Fox News poll, which shows that 61% of Americans believe that the Cordoba House proponents have the "right" to locate the building near Ground Zero. Although the poll shows that more than 1/3 of Americans do not recognize the constitutional rights of the Cordoba House proponents, Obama's critics argue that this poll proves that religious freedom is a nonissue.

According to Obama's critics, he had taken a safe and cowardly position (yet again). Sarah Palin, via Facebook, demanded that Obama state what he believed "should" occur. Ben Smith of Politico described the rights question as a "trivial" point.

The assumption of these commentators is plain: Americans widely support religious freedom and equality, but they split on the wisdom of the Cordoba House. The rhetoric of opponents of the religious center, however, reveals that many of them actually do not support religious freedom.

People Do Not Like To Reveal Bias in Polls
Critics who cite polling data which purport to show that Cordoba House opponents support religious freedom surprisingly view the polls uncritically. A wealth of analysis establishes that people feel uncomfortable revealing their personal biases and bigotry in polls. Accordingly, when pollsters ask respondents whether they generally support "equality" or whether they oppose "discrimination," overwhelmingly, the respondents favor equal treatment. Yet, when pollsters ask them more specific questions related to equality, the numbers change.

For example, polls show that a large majority of Americans do not believe that sexual orientation alone should justify discrimination. Nevertheless, many of these same respondents disagree with same-sex marriage or believe that gays and lesbians should not teach children.

There is nothing unique about religion that would preclude a similar pattern in polls related to religious tolerance. Indeed, a new Time Magazine survey suggests that on specific questions regarding religious tolerance and Muslims, many Americans support unequal treatment.

Here are some results from the survey:
Twenty-eight percent of voters do not believe Muslims should be eligible to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly one third of the country thinks adherents of Islam should be barred from running for President — slightly higher than the 24% who mistakenly believe that the current occupant of the Oval Office is himself a Muslim. . . .

And while more Americans are open to the idea of having a mosque built in their neighborhoods than near Ground Zero, it's still not an overwhelming majority; 55% of respondents say they would favor the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from their own homes, and an equal number say they believe most Muslims are "Patriotic Americans."
The poll results belie the assumption that Americans consistently support religious freedom and equality. Instead, significant numbers of Americans harbor biases against Muslims (including a growing number who wrongfully believe Obama himself is a Muslim).

Cordoba House Opponents Stereotype Muslims As Terrorists
Cordoba House opponents also contradict their own message of religious tolerance by stereotyping Muslims as terrorists -- and in particular, the 9/11 attackers. According to the Time Magazine survey, 70% of Americans believe that building the Cordoba House near Ground Zero "would be an insult to the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center."

There is absolutely no evidence that links planners of the Cordoba House with the World Trade Center or terrorism. Indeed, the proponents say that they want to construct the center as a gesture of goodwill.

Nonetheless, large numbers of Americans believe that the mere presence of a center dedicated to Islam would constitute further harm to the victims of 9/11. Only a prejudicial view that associates Muslims with terrorism could explain this belief. Many people who claim that they support the rights of the Cordoba House planners, but who feel that the project should not go forward, likely harbor biases against Muslims.

Final Take
Critical readers should not take general polling data on religious tolerance at face value. Instead, they should analyze the public's views on specific questions related to tolerance. Emerging polling data suggest that while large numbers of Americans claim to support religious freedom, they also hold stereotypical views of Muslims.

President Obama entered this political thicket by expressing support for religious freedom and equality. Yet, liberals and conservatives criticized his approach as moderate and evasive. They also treated religious freedom as a nonissue. Both sides need to reevaluate their arguments.

When liberals dismiss religious freedom as an irrelevant issue, they trivialize the manifestation of anti-Muslim bigotry, which they claim to oppose. When conservatives, moderates and liberals associate a Muslim community center with the harm of 9/11, they betray their own stated commitment to religious tolerance.

UPDATE: The Time Magazine and Fox News polls both confirm that around 1/3 of Americans seemingly would deny many rights to Muslims. The same amount profess religious tolerance and have no problem with the Cordoba House. Another one third profess religious tolerance but disagree with the Cordoba House. Progressives have accepted at face value the religious tolerance of the latter group. Uncritical acceptance of this group's professed religious tolerance is a foolhardy way to approach to the issue.

UPDATE II: A new poll by The Economist provides even stronger evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment among Americans.


AngelaD said...

Thanks Professor Hutchinson. Well done.

Alafair said...

Great post!

I wonder what you think about a new poll suggesting that nearly a quarter of Americans think Obama is Muslim, and fewer than half know that he's Christian. Did false perceptions about his own religion help fuel the outrage over his comments?

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Alafair: I suspect that for a portion of the population, the wrongful belief that he is Muslim fueled some of the outrage. What's even more interesting - I believe the polling data reflects views of people BEFORE he made those comments. I wonder whether the number gets even larger.

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