Study Suggests Freedom of Religion Argument Could Make Evangelical Christians More Tolerant

A pedestrian walks past a sign reading “All are Welcome” at Brown Street United Methodist Church in downtown in Lafayette, Ind.. March 31, 2015.  REUTERS/Nate Chute
A pedestrian walks past a sign reading “All are Welcome” at Brown Street United Methodist Church in downtown in Lafayette, Ind.. March 31, 2015.
REUTERS/Nate Chute

The rapid expansion of same-sex marriage has left some Americans with profound misgivings. Their opposition is sometimes expressed as a moral condemnation. But often it is framed around a hallowed American concept: rights.

More and more, religious people who oppose same-sex marriage draw on the First Amendment for support. In their view, the constitutional right to exercise one’s religious faith means that opponents of same-sex marriage should not have to do something that affirms these marriages. State legislators in Indiana and Arkansas recently sought to reinforce this position by passing their own versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The firestorm that ensued may seem like yet more evidence of our polarized politics — with Christian small businesses denying services for gay and lesbian weddings, corporate, organizational, and government boycotts, and mobilization by liberals and conservatives alike.

But our research has identified a fascinating silver lining. We find that evangelical Christians who are exposed to claims about religious rights actually become more willing to extend First Amendment rights to their ideological opponents. That is, the campaign to reinforce religious liberty might actually increase political tolerance in the long run.

In our research, we constructed an experiment in which participants read a clergyperson or candidate arguing in support of a photographer who denied service to a same-sex couple for their wedding. This argument was justified one of four ways: morality, free speech, religious liberty, or without any justification. For instance, the religious liberty argument regarding same-sex marriage read:

We need to protect the right to religious freedom in this country. In this case, the business owners were faithful Christians merely expressing their religious opposition to participating in activities that violated their religious consciences. Therefore, I believe that the companies should be permitted to exercise their right to religious freedom to refuse to provide the photography services.

This scenario is obviously ripped from the headlines. It is similar to the baker in Lakewood, Colo., the florist in Richland, Wash., the pizza maker in Walkerton, Ind., and, most clearly, the photographers from New Mexico, whose appeal was denied by the Supreme Court a year ago.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Paul A. Djupe, Andrew R. Lewis and Ted G. Jelen