None of this quite explains why many Christians believe they face discrimination, though. Suspicion of those who are different, along with a yearning for an idyllic past, are different from the perception that American Christians are penalized for their faith.
Many Christians seem to worry about their future religious liberty in the face of changing cultural and legal standards. When Donald Trump met with more than 1,000 predominantly evangelical leaders in New York City in June, religious liberty was apparently the number one topic of interest for the audience, out of tens of thousands of question submissions. This topic has consistently come up in statehouses around the country, especially in the last year; legislators feel the need to pass protections for business owners and individuals who object to gay marriage, abortion, and other acts that raise their religious concerns.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have no doubt added to that feeling of urgency. The same-sex marriage decision last summer set off a wave of state-level religious-freedom bills, and decisions just this week on abortion and birth control have raised objections from conservative Christians.
While it’s undeniably true that the country is becoming more accepting of cultural mores that are at odds with many conservative Christians’ teachings, it’s also not exactly right to say that conservative Christians are losing. The Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Hobby Lobby was a strong defense of private business owners’ right of conscience, and state legislatures have successfully passed protections for religious people in recent sessions. The more important point is that these questions are now in play: More and more cases, legislation, and trends in public opinion are challenging the religious teachings and practices of conservative Christians.
In all of this, the standard caveats about polling apply. No single identity factor can explain why people answer surveys the way they do. Education, for example, makes a huge difference in how people responded to the question about discrimination against Christians: Only 38 percent of college-educated whites agreed that discrimination against Christians is a problem, compared to 62 percent of their working-class peers.
Shorthand about religious groups can also be misleading. While it’s useful to look at trends and patterns among one denomination or population subset, there’s enormous diversity in how even conservative Christians approach questions of cultural change and religious disaffiliation. Surveys are a blunt instrument for understanding changes in culture—more of a weather vane than a Doppler radar.
And yet, these results are a reminder that people’s beliefs matter. Religious convictions shape people’s specific fears about cultural change and newcomers, and they have those fears partly because they care about being able to practice their faith freely. Those who disagree with these Americans might offer easy explanations, from bigotry to xenophobia to stupidity, to explain their feelings of fear, but those reasons don’t seem sufficient. America is not just changing demographically—it’s becoming more religiously and ideologically diverse. Some Christians seem to feel that change acutely, and wonder whether the new era of diversity will leave room for what was once assumed to be the standard of American belief.