Donald Trump Hurts Public Support for Religious Freedom

By Andrew R. Lewis

A common refrain among religious supporters of Donald Trump is that he will defend religious freedom, which is under threat. Trump’s commitment to religious freedom has been central to many of his endorsements, including from Mike Pence, Paula White-Cain, and Albert Mohler. Trump’s three Supreme Court appointments, the Administration’s Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, and the creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force are among the actions frequently used to highlight Trump’s religious freedom bona fides. As supporters describe, not only is Trump securing religious liberty, but Biden would prove disastrous – “declaring war” on religious freedom.

Throughout his campaigns and presidency, Trump and his supporters have politicized religious freedom, opening the door for potential public backlash. A recent survey suggests that in the area of public opinion, Trump may be doing more harm than good.

The Trump Administration has made changes to religious freedom policies, especially responding to the concerns of its conservative Christian base. Trump’s Supreme Court appointments appear ready to help change the landscape of religious freedom law, and its actions have aided religious groups who object to regulations regarding health care and LGBT rights. Along the way, Trump has escalated the partisan nature of religious freedom, painting Democrats as the enemy of religious freedom, while at the same time engaging anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies.

While Trump’s record on religious freedom has been contested among lawyers and advocates, we have very little understanding of how Trump’s support might impact public opinion on the issue. Two weeks ago, several colleagues and I fielded a national survey of approximately 1,600 people to provide insight into the effect Trump has on public support for religious freedom.

In the survey, people were randomly assigned to read the same statements advocating for religious freedom, except we varied the speaker – Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or a generic both presidential candidates (see this note for the language for “both candidates”). A final portion who did not receive a statement served as a control group. What changed was not the content of the statements, but who signaled support. The statement mentioning the individual candidates read:

At a recent campaign rally, [President Trump / Vice President Biden] touted his religious freedom policy, “Our country needs to get serious about the rights of religious groups to follow their beliefs in society.” Do you agree or disagree with him?

After the statement, we asked a series of general statements about religious freedom.

  • Do you agree with the presidential candidate’s statement about religious freedom?
  • How important to you is religious freedom in the United States?
  • To what extent is religious freedom threatened in the United States?

The results are clear. When people received the statement where Trump defended religious freedom, they supported it less. Figure 1 below shows that those who read about Trump making the statement supported religious liberty significantly less than those who read the statement from both candidates. There were no significant differences with those who were shown the Biden statement, though support is lower.

Figure 1. Support for Presidential Candidates Endorsing Religious Freedom. Qualtrics, N=1188. Note: The N is lower by ¼ since the control group could not be asked about agreement with a candidate’s statement since they were not presented with one.

There is a similar pattern when people were asked to express how important religious freedom is to them. As Figure 2 shows, those who saw the Trump statement reported the lowest scores for the importance of religious freedom. The ratings were significantly less than for those who did not see any statements from candidates (control condition) or who saw the statement from both candidates. Reading Biden’s support for religious freedom also reduced people’s expressed importance of religious freedom compared to the control, but not to the extent that Trump’s statement did. 

Figure 2. Presidential Candidates Endorsing Religious Freedom and the Importance of Religious Freedom. Qualtrics, N=1582.

Because of our polarized politics, we expect that many will follow partisan signals and either support or reject issues based on which presidential candidate supports them. Yet, there seems to be something asymmetrically polarizing about Trump’s support for religious freedom. Analyzing the partisan responses to these randomized treatments provides greater insight into how Trump affects partisan opinions.

Figure 3 shows how Democrats and Republicans responded to the initial statement about the need to “get serious about the rights of religious groups to follow their beliefs in society.” Republicans agreed with this statement more than Democrats, but when it is attached to Biden, Democrats became slightly, but significantly more supportive than Republicans. The real change in opinion, though, happened when the statement is attributed to Trump. Democrats were much less supportive, while Republicans were more supportive. The result is polarization, with a wide gap between the parties.

Figure 3. Support for Presidential Candidates Endorsing Religious Freedom by Party ID. Qualtrics, N=1188.

The results are similar, though less stark, for people’s expressed importance of religious freedom and whether they perceive religious freedom as being under threat (see Figure 4 for threat). When Trump talks about religious freedom, attitudes become more polarized. Note that the level of importance Democrats ascribe to religious freedom when hearing from Trump is equivalent to the control – that’s the status quo.

Figure 4. Presidential Candidates Endorsing Religious Freedom and Religious Freedom Threat. Qualtrics, N=1583.

Scholars, lawyers, and activists will debate the merits of Trump’s religious freedom legacy, but the evidence from this survey experiment suggests that Trump damages public support for religious freedom. The public becomes less supportive of religious freedom when Trump endorses it, and partisans become more polarized. This fits with public opinion shifts in other policy areas where Trump has spawned public opinion backlashes.

In the end, if conservative Christians are worried about the state of religious freedom, then they should strive to expand public support. This survey suggests that there is good support for religious liberty, but, among the general public, Trump may be doing more damage than good.

Andrew R. Lewis is an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars (Cambridge, 2017). He is on Twitter at @AndrewRLewis.


Note: The statement listing both candidates was a bit different. It read, “Both presidential candidates have recently campaigned on their religious freedom policies and largely agree that our country needs to get serious about the rights of religious groups to follow their beliefs in society. Do you agree or disagree with them?”

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