The 1st Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. A seemingly straightforward interpretation would be that the federal government cannot force anyone to belong to a specific religion, and neither can the federal government prevent anyone from following a specific religion. Nonetheless, Americans have been divided on the implications of the 1st Amendment for centuries. Should a strict “separation of church and state” (a phrase which incidentally never appears in the US Constitution) be rigorously implemented, or is there room for the state and various churches to work together in order to better promote flourishing within society? What benefits do religions provide to the US, if any? To make matters more complicated, opinions toward religion sharply diverge depending on which religion is the subject of the question.
In order to understand State students’ attitudes towards religion, we designed a survey to measure their beliefs, including the possibility they would treat different religions differently. We divided students, at random, into two groups. Half were asked a question about teaching Christianity, while the other half was asked the exact same question except the subject was Islam. Students were asked only about teaching Islam or Christianity, not both, and did not know other students were asked about the other religion.
For one question, students were asked, “Should public schools be allowed to offer optional classes studying the Bible/Koran from a religious perspective?” (The actual event that prompted us to include this question can be found here.)
Approximately 56% of NC State students thought public schools should be able to offer electives about the Bible while 57% of students thought electives on the Koran should be permitted to be offered. On the aggregate, it seems like NC State students are very consistent in their treatments towards religions, but the results diverge greatly by respondents’ party identification.
We find that Democrats enthusiastically embrace teaching about the Koran in public schools, but they recoil when the same proposal is made about the Bible. Conversely, Republicans overwhelmingly support teaching about the Bible, but are lukewarm at best towards teaching about the Koran. Since each groups’ favoritism towards the different religions is of equal size, it falsely first appeared as though students treated each religion equally.
General Views on Christianity and Islam
In a similar manner students were randomly asked, “In general, do you think organized religion/Christianity/Islam is beneficial or detrimental to society?” Once again, the aggregate totals were strikingly similar with 64% of respondents claiming organized religion was beneficial, 64% claiming Christianity was beneficial, and 70% saying the same about Islam. But students of opposing political persuasions had very different opinions on the values of the specific religions.
Clearly Democrats at NC State are torn about the merits of Christianity and organized religion in general, but Democrats are loathe to criticize Islam in a similar manner. Considering that the vast majority of Republicans at NC State identify as Christian, it should not be surprising that Republicans overwhelmingly approve of Christianity. Conversely, Republican attitudes towards Islam are far less positive, though it should be noted that Republican attitudes towards Islam appear to be roughly identical to Democrat attitudes towards Christianity. Furthermore, it seems that a not insignificant faction of Democrats and Republicans are sharply critical of Christians and Muslims respectively.
Findings from a previous survey seem to complement this interpretation. In the Fall 2017 Big Poll, we posed the following question to respondents: “Every religion has mainstream beliefs, but also fringe elements or extremists. Thinking of mainstream Christianity/Islam, do you think mainstream Christianity/Islam encourages violence on non-Christians/non-Muslims, or is it a peaceful religion?”
The above graphic indicates about of a quarter of Democrats believe mainstream Christians promote violence, and a similar percentage of Republicans thinks the same about Muslims. These sentiments, despite only being held by small factions within both parties, have enormous impacts on public policy. If Islam is perceived as being an inherently violent religion, restricting Islamic immigration to minimal levels would seem to be a prudent decision. If Christianity is perceived to be a violent religion, an individual may hold less empathy towards a Christian business that is being sued into bankruptcy for not complying with demands to make a wedding cake for a homosexual couple. While Democrats and Republicans may disagree with the opposing party’s positions, the results of our survey may shed help shed light on some individuals’ justifications for controversial political opinions pertaining to religion.
Of course, party affiliation is not the sole determinant of attitudes towards specific religions. Although race and sex do not appear to be very significant within parties, ideological leanings regarding social issues seems to affect some responses. Socially liberal Democrats are less likely to approve of the Bible being taught in public schools, and they are more likely to consider organized religion to be detrimental to society. In a similar vein, socially conservative Republicans are more likely to consider Islam to be detrimental to society than Republicans that do not identify as socially conservative.
Among Democrats, religious affiliation also seems to influence attitudes towards Christianity. Democrat Christians and Mormons are more likely to say the Bible should be permitted to be taught in public schools, and they are more likely than non-Christian Democrats to say organized religion and Christianity are beneficial to society. On the other hand, Christian Republicans and non-Christian Republicans yielded no significant differences in their responses.
NOTE ON METHODOLOGY: This PackPoll took place March 27- April 2, 2018. We administered the survey over the internet to a random sample of 3,500 NCSU undergraduates. The true population of undergraduates taking at least one face-to-face class on campus is 21,192. Each student had an equal chance of being contacted because each student is required to have a unique “ncsu.edu” email.
Of those invited to participate, 782 undergraduates completed the survey, resulting in a 22% response rate. Assuming a 50-50 division in opinion calculated at a 95 percent confidence level, the margin of sampling error for the sample is (plus or minus) +/-3.4% for questions answered by the full sample. However, sampling error increases for each estimate when three or more choices were offered, for example, when fewer respondents were asked a version of a question, or when analyzing the opinions of sub-groups, such as when looking just at how female respondents answered a question. Many of our split-ballot questions have effective sampling errors ranging from +/-5.2% to +/-6.4%. These sampling errors did not include further divisions of the respondents by party identification or other common demographic variables.
In addition to sampling error, other forms of non-sampling error occur in surveys, such as confusion about question wording or the order of questions, and non-response bias (low response rates), but these types of error are not precisely quantifiable.
We only apply post-stratification sample weights for student status There is a slight under-representation of males in our sample, but not enough to warrant applying post-stratification weights for sex as it would not produce noticeable effects on any of the results.