The American double standard on religious violence

FRANCOIS LENOIR Belgium’s Flemish right wing Vlaams Belang party member Tanguy Veys poses with a part of the manifesto written … Continued


Belgium’s Flemish right wing Vlaams Belang party member Tanguy Veys poses with a part of the manifesto written by Anders Behring Breivik, at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels July 27, 2011. Veys received an email containing the manifesto of Breivik, the Norwegian mass killer who gunned down 68 people on the Norwegian island of Utoeya and killed another 8 in a bomb attack in Oslo on Friday, hours before the attacks in Norway took place. The Vlaams Belang party has distanced itself from the manifesto. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM – Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS)

When the news of a bombing in downtown Oslo, Norway, was closely followed by the shocking mass shooting at a teen youth camp on the island of Utøya, major news outlets were quick to pin the blame for the attacks on Muslim extremists. The New York Times briefly reported that a terrorist organization called “Helpers of Global Jihad” had claimed responsibility, while the British newspaper The Sun declared that the events were “Norway’s 9/11.” Hours later, it was clear that these early reports that the violence was related to religious extremism were correct, but the religion with which they associated the violence was wrong. The perpetrator turned out to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, who publicly identified himself as Christian on his Facebook page and also posted online a 1500-page ideological manifesto in which he declared himself to be a “cultural Christian” crusader standing up for Europe’s “Christian culture” against the forces of “Islamization.”

This revelation re-opened a fundamental question: are those who carry out acts of violence in the name of a religion true followers of that religion, or not? A new survey from Public Religion Research Institute, and a new joint report by PRRI and the Brookings Institution, reveals that Americans literally apply a double standard when answering this question, depending on whether the perpetrator is Christian or Muslim. More than 8-in-10 (83 percent) Americans say that those who commit violence in the name of Christianity are not truly Christian. On the other hand, less than half (48 percent) of Americans extend this same principle to Muslims and say that those who commit violence in the name of Islam are not truly Muslim.

The Double Standard Evaluating Religiosity of Self-Identified Christians and Muslims Who Commit Violence in the Name of Religion

One way of quantifying the double standard is to evaluate the percentage point difference between a group’s willingness to affirm the religious identity of self-proclaimed Christian perpetrators vs. self-proclaimed Muslim perpetrators. This double standard gap is, not surprisingly, most pronounced among those who self-identify as Christian, but different Christian groups employ stronger double standards than others. For example, among white evangelical Protestants, the gap is a staggering 47 percentage points: only 10 percent of evangelicals believe that a self-identified Christian perpetrators are really Christian, compared to 57 percent who believe that self-identified Muslim perpetrators are truly Muslim.

The double standard gap for other Christian groups is also large but significantly lower than the gap among white evangelical Protestants: 27 points each for Catholics and white mainline Protestants, and 23 points for black Protestants. Non-Christian religiously affiliated Americans-a composite group that includes Muslims along with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and other minority religions-has the most consistent approach to these questions, with a double standard gap of only 14 points.

The double standard gap also differs by political party affiliation. The double standard gap is 45 points for both Republicans and Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement, nearly double the size of the gap among Independents (25 points) and Democrats (23 points).

This double standard in evaluating religious violence is related to continuing ambivalence among Americans overall about the place of American Muslims and Islam in the country ten years after the September 11th terrorist attacks. However, one of the most important patterns that emerged in the survey-and one that foreshadows how Americans may resolve these issues in the future-is the unique profile of the Millennial generation (Americans ages 18-29).

Outside of the group that includes American Muslims themselves, Millennials are the least likely group to employ a double standard when evaluating violence by self-proclaimed Christians and Muslims. The double standard gap among Millennials is only 17 points, less than half the gap among seniors (36 points). Consistent with this profile, Millennials are also significantly more likely than the public to express comfort with various kinds of public expressions of Muslim practice, and are more likely to say American Muslims are an important part of the religious community.

What does this mean for the future for Muslims in the U.S.? The Millennial generation is the most religiously and ethnicially diverse generation in American history, and as they come of age it seems likely that they will facilitate a resolution of the public’s current ambivalence about the place of American Muslims in society in the manner Americans have solved questions about previous groups such as Catholics and Jews: in favor of acceptance.

The Pluralism, Immigration, & Civic Integration survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute. Results of the survey were based on 2,450 bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews, including 804 cell phone interviews, conducted between August 1, 2011 and August 14, 2011. The margin of error is +/-2.0 percentage points for the general sample at the 95 percent confidence interval. The full report, jointly released by PRRI and the Brookings Institution, along with the topline questionnaire and methodology, can be found here.


Robert P. Jones Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, values, and public life.
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