Evangelical Christians are less popular in America than Catholics or Jews, and are viewed with only slightly more favor than Muslims, according to a poll released Tuesday.
The survey by the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life focused on views of Islam and Muslim-Americans in light of the July 7 terrorist attacks in London.
Among findings, 55 percent of Americans said they held a favorable view of Muslim-Americans. That is well below a 77 percent favorable rating for Jews or 73 percent for Catholics, but just two points behind the 57 percent who view evangelicals favorably.
Despite concerns about the London attacks and fear of terrorism in the United States, the number of Americans saying that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence has fallen from 44 percent two years ago to just 36 percent in the current survey.
People have a less positive view of Islam in general than of Muslim-Americans in particular. Just 39 percent view Islam favorably, while 36 percent regard it an unfavorable religion. But 55 percent said they hold a favorable view of Muslim-Americans, compared to 25 percent who view Muslim-Americans with disfavor.
While Muslim-Americans have grown in popularity over the last two years, from 51 percent favorable in July 2003 to 55 percent today, evangelicals lost ground. Fifty-eight percent rated evangelicals favorably and 18 percent unfavorably in 2003. In 2005 the percentages shifted to 57 percent pro and 19 percent con.
While America’s Protestant-dominated social structure in the past has been accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, both of those groups are today viewed far more favorably than evangelicals.
Among the religious spectrum, only atheists are held in lower regard than evangelicals. Thirty-five percent view people who don’t believe in God favorably, and half view them unfavorably.
The numbers point to what some have described as the evangelical paradox. Evangelicals make up about a quarter of the population, many of their churches are thriving, they are credited with helping President Bush win re-election and some believe they control the Republican Party. Yet surveys show they feel misunderstood and excluded by secular society.
“I think evangelicals may still feel marginalized and as minority members in a hostile culture,” Mark Noll, a historian and professor at Wheaton College told Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on PBS.
A 2002 poll by George Barna found that evangelicals ranked 10th out of 11 types of individuals in creating a favorable impression with non-Christians. Adults who do not identify themselves as Christians gave evangelicals a 22-percent approval rating, worse than lawyers, Republicans and lesbians. Only prostitutes fared worse, with 5 percent. Military officers rated No. 1, with an approval rating of 56 percent. Barna said it is one reason why evangelical churches as a whole are not growing.
Evangelicals are statistically more Southern, rural and older than Americans as a whole.
“Often, to those who don’t appreciate evangelicals, they’re seen as rednecks, as crypto-fundamentalists, as people without education,” Noll said, though in fact nearly half have attended at least some college.
Also in the Pew survey, 75 percent said they believe religion has a great deal or a fair amount to do with causing most wars and conflicts in the world, and 65 percent said it plays a role in causing political conflict in the United States.
More than one in four (27 percent) thought of Islam as the most violent of world religions, while Christianity ranked second at 5 percent. Just 2 percent each picked Judaism and Hinduism, but 43 percent said religions are all about the same when it comes to violence.
Those surveyed said by a 2-1 margin that terrorist attacks over the past few years are a conflict with a small, radical group and not with the people of Islam. Twenty-nine percent said they view it as a major conflict between the people of America and Europe versus the people of Islam, down from 35 percent who said so in 2002. Sixty percent called it a conflict with a radical group, up from 52 percent three years ago.
Despite the trend, half of evangelicals said they still believe Islam is more likely than other religions to cause violence, about the same percentage as two years ago. Among non-evangelical white Protestants, meanwhile, the 50 percent who viewed Islam as more violent in July 2003 dropped to 28 percent in the current survey.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.