Americans Like Religious Freedom, Except When It Comes to Muslims

The most powerful predictor of mistrusting Muslims: trusting Fox News

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Freedom of religion--embedded right there as the first protection in the First Amendment--is popular among Americans; 88 percent of them say that the country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, according to study published this week. Americans are clearly committed to the concept of religious tolerance in the abstract. It's when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of particular religions that things change.

According to that study (PDF), jointly published by the Brookings Institute and Public Religion Research Institution, while Americans say that religious tolerance is a cornerstone in the country's founding, they showed reluctance toward accepting Muslims. Nearly half--47 percent--believe Muslim and American values are incompatible. Similar percentages of Americans reports being irked by Muslims in specific ways, saying they feel uncomfortable with mosques being built close to their homes, with Muslim women wearing burqas, and with Muslim men praying in an airport.

"I think what we're seeing is a replaying of a very old story," said Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute. These attitudes mirrors negative sentiments held by Americans of previous generations toward Jews and Catholics, according to Jones. Americans "are trying to deal with, if I can put it this way, a different kind of difference."

The researchers found a variety of factors underlining this skepticism. Consider the question that asked if the values of Islam are at odds with the American way of life. Republicans in general (63 percent) and Tea Partiers in particular (66 percent) answered in the affirmative--though a not insubstantial minority of Democrats (40 percent) did as well. Among religious groups, majorities of white evangelicals (59 percent) and black Protestants (51 percent) saw a clash between American and Muslim values. A majority of senior citizens (52 percent) perceived a clash as well.

But perhaps the most interesting correlation found was the one between tolerance of Muslim and most trusted news source. According to Jones, "the most powerful independent predictor" of viewing American and Muslim values at odds is indicating that one trusts Fox News the most among TV news outlets. Fox Newsies are at least 50 percent more likely than supporters of any other outlet to find a clash in values--an effect independent of other potential intermediary factors, such as political affiliation. The data analysis, though, can't tease out the exact cause-and-effect relationship: watching Fox News may make viewers more leery of Muslims, or those leery in the first place may simply tend to tune into the network.

Ultimately, though, the report paints a positive picture, at least in the aggregate. American show a willingness to tolerate other religions, yet still are slower in accepting Muslims as their numbers grow in the U.S. But consider that Jews and Catholics were once in similar positions. Today the two groups are widely accepted--eight-in-10 Americans say they hold favorable views of the two. As older generations pass on, the American public may well become more tolerant of Muslims as well. And also, keep in mind: anti-Muslim sentiment sometimes seems a whole lot worse in Europe.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.