- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A poll finds that, in just two years, the number of Americans who think Christians are facing growing intolerance in the U.S. has drastically increased.

Sixty-three percent of respondents in the LifeWay Research survey said they agree or strongly agree that Christians are facing growing levels of persecution, up from 50 percent in 2013. The bulk of that surge comes from respondents who said they “strongly agree” with the statement, a number that increased from 28 percent to 38 percent.

A similar number, 60 percent, said religious liberty is on the decline in America, up from 54 percent in 2013.

Although the poll shows higher rates of anxiety about the state of religious freedom, it also indicates that the issue is increasingly becoming polarized. A growing number of people in the survey said Christians “complain too much about how they are treated,” up from 34 percent in 2013 to 43 percent in 2015.

The poll was published March 30 and has an error margin of 3.6 percentage points. It was conducted shortly after the Supreme Court decision in June striking down state laws defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

That decision has intensified the debate about where religious liberty ends and discrimination begins. Gay couples contend that their rights are violated when religious wedding vendors decline to service same-sex wedding ceremonies, while religious bakers and florists believe their right to religious freedom is the one being trammeled.

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Several states have moved to enact legislation to protect the free exercise of religion, but liberals say such laws are discriminatory and businesses have made severe backlash threats in some states.

Greg Jao, director of campus engagement and vice president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, said heightened media attention on those sorts of issues could be skewing the numbers in the short run.

“Because of the high media attention on a couple of key cases, I think Christians are more aware and feel more persecuted or less tolerated than they did before,” Mr. Jao said.

What has not helped their plight, he said, are reactions that at times are perceived as “histrionic.”

But Mr. Jao said the poll is not just perception. He said the nation is “re-evaluating the privileged place that religion had in its past.”

“A couple of decades ago, for instance, universities were delighted when we started a chapter, because we were considered a moral and calming influence on campus excess,” he said. “They thought it was excellent — they needed help leavening the party culture. Now, of course, Christians are no longer considered to be morally virtuous additions to a community. I think Christians are actually considered moral problems to solve, particularly because of human sexuality issues.”

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Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, said the poll reflects an increasingly influential progressive movement that champions diversity but hypocritically works to exclude Christians from the mainstream culture.

“As the diversity-inclusion movement grows, and more and more companies become diversity-centric, what you really begin to see is a glaring gap that exists,” Mr. Stone said. “As a Christian, you begin to see that you’re being excluded from the culture, excluded from the conversation.”

“We’re seeing language that changes ‘free exercise,’ which is the Constitution, to ‘freedom of religion,’ which means you can do what you want within the four walls of your church, but you can’t bring it out,” he said.

To underscore this point, Faith Driven Consumer publishes a Faith Equality Index, which rates how welcoming specific businesses are to religious people. AT&T, for instance, scores a perfect 100 with the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index but received only an 18 from Faith Driven Consumer.

“While each company states that they do not discriminate — even on the basis of religion — in practice that is exactly what they are doing,” Mr. Stone said.

Mr. Jao concurred with the view that the diversity movement has blacklisted Christians by selectively applying an “outdated definition of inclusion, welcome and tolerance.”

“They’re using essentially a ‘melting pot’ analogy — everyone should come together and blend together, and therefore everything should be accessible to everyone,” Mr. Jao said. “In fact, nobody teaches the melting pot analogy anymore in elementary school, because we’ve all realized that a melting pot analogy silences the people on the margins and those who are different, and assumes that we should all become homogenous and assimilated.”

Mr. Jao said exclusion of Christians in America “will get worse” but becoming part of the counterculture can free the church to pursue the tenants of the faith more honestly.

“Certainly Christianity in its origins was a minority religion working and being propagated in an environment that was profoundly antithetical and actively antagonistic toward Christian belief, and Christianity flourished,” Mr. Jao said. “Christianity is actually at its strongest when it’s not in charge.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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