These are extraordinary proportions for a core question in democratic societies: Are citizens willing to extend rights to groups they dislike? If not, the political process can no longer fairly resolve disputes and the nation may turn to violence — just as far-right commentators and public officials are predicting.
Would Democrats and atheists strip away conservative Christians’ rights and liberties if they could? To find out, I turned to survey data I gathered with political scientists Amanda Friesen and Anand Sokhey from September 20-26, 2016, conducted with a large national sample of 2,517 Americans online through Qualtrics Panels and weighted to resemble the national adult population. This survey asked respondents about their feelings toward various groups and whether they would extend civil liberties to those groups.
It is no secret that, in general, these groups do not like each other. On a “feeling thermometer” ranging from zero (cold, negative) to 100 (warm, positive), white evangelicals on average rated atheists a 25 — a level of dislike mirrored by how atheists and agnostics rated Christian fundamentalists at 24. That dislike didn’t hold true by political party. Democrats rated Christian fundamentalists a 45, on average, while Republicans rated them a 53. Below is how a range of religious groups felt toward white supremacists, atheists, Christian fundamentalists, and “people like me.”
The same survey respondents were asked to choose the group they “liked the least” from a list that included atheists, Christian fundamentalists, immigrants, white supremacists, Muslims, Trump supporters, Hillary Clinton supporters and homosexuals. Almost a majority of the sample (49 percent) chose white supremacists as their least-liked group. Just 5 percent chose Christian fundamentalists; that included only 5 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of atheists.
Then respondents were asked whether their selected group should be allowed to give speeches in the community, teach in public schools, run for public office and other liberties. Americans are not particularly tolerant of groups they dislike. Only 30 percent are willing to allow their disliked group three or more such activities.
But 65 percent of atheists and 53 percent of Democrats who listed Christian fundamentalists as their least-liked group are willing to allow them to engage in three or more of these activities. That’s a much higher proportion with tolerance than the sample overall.
Someone could argue that only the most politically active atheists would be intolerant. But the proportion who were tolerant didn’t vary by whether atheists said they engaged in more or less political activity.
But evangelical Christians would strip away atheists’ rights
However, we found that a smaller proportion of white evangelicals would behave with tolerance toward atheists than the proportion of atheists who would behave with tolerance toward them. Thirteen percent of white evangelical Protestants selected atheists as their least-liked group. Of those, 32 percent are willing to extend three or more of these rights to atheists. In fact, when we looked at all religious groups, atheists and agnostics were the most likely to extend rights to the groups they least liked.
Conservative Christians believe their rights are in peril partly because that’s what they’re hearing, quite explicitly, from conservative media, religious elites, partisan commentators and some politicians, including the president. The survey evidence suggests another reason, too. Their fear comes from an inverted golden rule: Expect from others what you would do unto them. White evangelical Protestants express low levels of tolerance for atheists, which leads them to expect intolerance from atheists in return. That perception surely bolsters their support for Trump. They believe their freedom depends on keeping Trump and his party in power.