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New Index Tracks Americans' Religious Tolerance

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

Religious freedom has always been one of the guiding principles of American ideology. The Puritans settled in New England to escape persecution in England; Jews came here to escape persecution from myriad countries over the years; Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists came to America in order to practice their religion freely when it became dangerous to do so in their native countries.

We all know that the U.S. Constitution guarantees religious liberty to all. But just how firmly has the concept of "freedom of religion" taken root in American soil? Do Americans fully embrace it? How tolerant are Americans when it comes to accepting others of another religious faith, and how many Americans go beyond tolerance to religious integration?

In November and December 2002*, Gallup set out to answer these questions by developing and conducting the first annual Religious Tolerance Index.

From responses to these questions, Gallup has constructed the following three levels of religious tolerance, which will be tracked on an annual basis. The category definitions and baseline figures are as follows:

Isolated. This group makes up 17% of the population. Isolated individuals are less likely than those who are tolerant and integrated to be members of any particular faith group, but if they are members, they tend to believe that their religion is right or true and all other religions are wrong or false. They don't know much about other religious faiths, nor do they want to. They don't always treat those of other religious faiths with respect, and they don't always feel respected by members of other faiths.

Tolerant. This group makes up 46% of the population, and a high percentage of them are members of faith communities. The tolerant have a "live-and-let-live" attitude toward people of other faiths, and generally feel that they always treat people of different religious faiths with respect. However, those in the tolerant category are not particularly likely to go out of their way to try to learn more about other religious traditions, nor are they likely to say that they have learned something from someone of another religious faith in the past year.

Integrated. This group makes up 37% of the population. The majority of integrated individuals are not only members of faith communities, but they are also engaged in those communities. They go beyond a "live-and-let-live" attitude, actively seeking to learn more from others of different religious traditions. They believe that most religious faiths make a positive contribution to society, and not only do they feel they always respect others of different traditions; they always feel respected by them as well.

Bottom Line

Despite all the publicity given to supremacist groups and acts of religious bigotry, the individuals who make up those groups and commit such acts -- or even share the same attitudes as those who do -- are in the minority in this country. Most Americans believe in the right of individuals to practice religion in their own way. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans integrate different faiths into their lives. These are encouraging findings, especially given the emotionally charged times -- at least with regard to religion -- in which we live.

In future weeks, we will be publishing more articles on the specific findings of the Gallup Religious Tolerance Index.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, and 500 non-members, conducted in November and December 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2.6%.


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