Millennials approve of religious freedom as a choice, but don't know what it means

Princeton, New Jersey — Millennials accept a general view of religious freedom as being important, but they struggle to understand what religious freedom really means.

That’s one major takeaway that Emily Hardman, president of Amicus Communications, highlighted in a presentation last week on results from a survey looking at millennial and religious freedom.

She said she was surprised by data showing millennials accepting religious freedom in an abstract way but considerably less supportive of religion and faith when presented in real-life terms.

“They think it (religious freedom) is merely just a choice, and it’s troubling to see that so many don’t know what it means more than just choosing — it means practicing that faith in a meaningful and authentic way,” said Hardman, herself a Millennial and a graduate of Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.

Hardman presented at the 2017 Black Leadership Summit, sponsored by the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies and held at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Amicus Communications specializes in high-stakes communication strategies, including research and messaging related to religious freedom.

Millennials — the name given to the generation born roughly in the early 1980s to somewhere between the mid-1990s and the start of the 21st century — consider themselves religious, but often not to a particular religious organization. And data shows that overall, millennials are moving increasingly toward secularism, much more so than older generations.

In a 2015 survey of millennials conducted by Amicus, 95 percent of respondents said religious freedom was important — 68 percent as very important, and another 27 percent as somewhat important.

And when participants were asked to select three of the most important rights or freedoms from a list of 10, the top-ranked three were the rights to be treated equally under the law, the right to choose one’s own religion, and the right to free speech and expression.

As Hardman explained, those three rights can be summarized in three words that speak to millennials: equality, choice and expression.

And the troubling trends to those who support religion, as suggested by the survey? Hardman pointed out the following:

• 58 percent of millennials agree that “Religion is personal and should not play a significant role in society.”

• Millennials are 13 percent more secular than older generations.

• Religious liberty considered by millennials as “very important” is a rate significantly less — by 8 percent — than older Americans.

• Millennials agree about 10 percent less than older demographics on statements like “Involvement by churches and religious leaders helps communities solve problems” and “Religious values make families more stable and helps make better communities.”

Another example of millennials deviating from the rate of 95 percent saying religious freedom is important to substantially less support when put in context was the survey’s comparison of two statements.

1. There is a difference between a business serving people equally and forcing a business to participate in a ceremony that violates their religious beliefs. We should respect religious freedom of these people.

2. There is no difference between illegal discrimination and a business person refusing to provide services to a gay wedding ceremony for religious reasons. We should enforce anti-discrimination laws against these people.

Fifty percent of the survey respondents opted for the first statement, 49 for the second.

Hardman said that when using messaging to help personalize and promote religious freedom in a positive way, it’s important to emphasize “choice,” “equality,” “free expression” and “human dignity.”

“I think the LDS Church’s approach to ‘Fairness to All’ is really effective, showing the human dignity and perfecting the humanity of all people,” Hardman told the Deseret News after her presentation.

“You have to show that religious freedom matters and that it makes a difference in society, showing the good that religious institutions bring to society, the amount of people they care for, the fact that the religious service in this country counts for $6 billion of our U.S. economy, the number of homeless that are given shelter because of religion, the number of people fed because of religion. You have to show that good.”

Also key is bringing the messaging to a personal level — why should a Millennial care about religious freedom. Hardman showed two videos as examples of positive messaging, one a saved compilation of Snapchat Live posts by YouTube humorist Chaz Smith on his Christian faith and another YouTube video titled “Who Do You Say That I Am?”

“Show that it is linked to the very core of their human dignity, that religious belief above any other right is what makes us human, that ability to seek truth, to embrace truth and to express that truth is score to what it means to be human."