Pastors Believe Religious Liberty on Decline in U.S.

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By Bob Smietana

NASHVILLE, Tenn.– Americans have always had mixed feelings about religious liberty. Most say it’s important, but they don’t always agree how much liberty is enough or too much.

That’s the issue at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

It’s a dispute that is unlikely to go away, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

American preachers, it turns out, are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days.

A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also say Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. The telephone survey of Protestant senior pastors was taken Sept. 4-19, 2013.

Seventy percent agree with the statement, “Religious liberty is on the decline in America.” Twenty-seven percent disagree. Self-identified evangelical pastors (81 percent) are more likely to agree than mainline pastors (47 percent).

Researchers also asked pastors to respond to this question: “Many Christian leaders have talked about society being in a culture war. Regardless of how you feel about that terminology, how would you explain the current situation?”

Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) say Christians are losing. One in 10 (11 percent) say the culture war is already lost. Few (10 percent) say Christians are winning the culture war.

Evangelical pastors (79 percent) are more likely than mainline pastors (60 percent) to say Christians are losing or have lost the culture war.

Mainline pastors (30 percent) are also most likely to say they “don’t know” when asked about the culture war. By contrast, 13 percent of Evangelicals say they don’t know. Overall, one in five pastors (19 percent) say they don’t know.

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Culture shifts

Some of the unease about religious liberty is due to shifts in American culture and church practice, said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research.

In the 1960s, nearly two-thirds of Americans were Protestants. Today, they make up less than half of the population, according to the General Social Survey.

Fewer Protestants means less cultural power, says Stetzer.

In the past, he says, Christians – and Protestants in particular – took it for granted that Americans would look to the church for guidance on moral issues. Churches, he said, were seen as being good for society and so they were given special privileges – like exemptions from taxes and other laws. “Even if people did not go to church, they looked to the church,” explained Stetzer.

That’s no longer the case, as the government and culture no longer defer to Protestant Christians, which makes pastors and their congregations nervous.

“They feel like in some ways there was a pact made at the founding of the country — between God and America,” he said. “That pact has been broken.”

Read More at Life Way Research

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