When it comes to religion, modern Americans think religious beliefs are good, but they tend to worry about beliefs that affect other people. As a rule, religious words are safer than religious actions.
Consider these numbers from a new Ellison Research study that shows surprising support — on the left and right, among believers and skeptics — for freedom of expression when it comes to words and symbols.
An overwhelming 90 percent of adults agreed that faith groups should be allowed to rent public property, such as a school gyms, if laws gave non-religious groups the same right. Asked about allowing a moment of silence in public schools, 89 percent said that was fine. Another 88 percent said teachers should have the right to wear jewelry, such as a cross or a Star of David, in public-school classes.
"There is a lot of unity out there about these kinds of issues," said Ron Sellers, president of the research firm in Phoenix. "But the specifics do matter. Wearing a cross on your lapel is not the same thing as showing up a school wearing a t-shirt with a big cross on it and the words, 'Believe in Jesus or you're going to hell.'
"There's no way to say that approving one thing is the same as approving another, even though the same principle is at stake."
The key is that religion is bad if it makes large numbers of people uncomfortable.
For example, 83 percent of the survey participants said it should be legal to put nativity scenes on public property, such as city hall lawns, and 79 percent supported the posting of the Ten Commandments in court buildings.
But that number fell to 60 percent when they were asked about Muslim displays on public property during Ramadan.
This study asked another crucial question linked to a religious liberty issue that is affecting a wide variety of faith groups, especially in higher education.
The researchers asked if respondents agreed that it "should be legal for a religious club in a high school or university to determine for itself who can be in their membership, even if certain types of people are excluded."
The result was a stark divide, with only 52 percent agreeing that religious groups should be able to enforce their own doctrines among their own members.
"People might respond differently if you asked the same question, but were more specific," said Sellers. "I think most Americans believe that a Jewish student union should have the right to say, 'No, you're Muslim. You cannot join our group.' But what if it's a conservative Christian group that says, 'No, you cannot join our group because you're gay'? American aren't sure what they think about that, right now."
The trend is clear. Vague talk is safer than clear action. Personal beliefs are good, but not if these doctrines lead to actions that indicate that some beliefs are right and others wrong.
Seeking is good, but finding is bad. Judging is even worse.
For example, a new survey by the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research team found that 72 percent of "unchurched" Americans who rarely if ever attend worship services believe that "God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists." However, 61 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the God of the Bible is "no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc."
The researchers found that 78 percent of the respondents claimed that they would be "willing to listen" if a Christian wanted to share talk about their beliefs. Then again, 44 percent agreed that "Christians get on my nerves."
"There is a sense in our culture that is acceptable to believe in anything spiritual, as long as it makes you a better person and helps you find peace," said Ed Stetzer, leader of the LifeWay Research team. "One's faith only becomes a problem when that belief actually makes claims that contradicts the faith of others."
In an age of "I'm OK, You're OK" spirituality, he added, "American spirituality has glorified 'searching' for spiritual meaning, but de-emphasized 'finding.' In other words, it is good to be looking for spirituality, but it is intolerant to actually believe you have found a right faith. … Intolerance is defined to mean actually believing that your faith is the correct one."