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In his United Nations General Assembly speech, President Donald Trump focused on trade, Iran and North Korea. But he also touched on protecting gay rights, gun ownership and freedom of religion. Trump put forth the United States as a pillar of religious toleration, speaking of the "ironclad American commitment" to protecting religious freedom.
"Hard to believe, but 80% of the world’s population lives in countries where religious liberty is in significant danger or even completely outlawed," Trump said Sept 24. "We want and support religious liberty for all."
There’s some substance to Trump’s statistic, but it relies on the broadest definition of threats to religion.
Well, in the underlying analysis, the United States itself was included as having having high rankings for one type of intolerance and ended in the same category as places such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
Let’s unpack the number.
The 80% figure shows up in a summary by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, an organization that promotes interfaith understanding and aims to show business leaders that "religious freedom is good for business."
The group looked at countries with high levels of governmental restrictions or social hostility rooted in religion and added up their populations. The country list came from the Pew Research Center, a reliable source of data.
"Pew Research Center data show that the number of people living in countries with high religious restrictions and hostilities has reached nearly six billion people, or 78.5% of the world's total population in 2017," the group’s president wrote in a presentation.
The math is correct, and supports Trump’s claim. But a closer look at the Pew study shows why a dose of caution applies.
The Pew Research Center’s most recent survey of religious restrictions looked at two types of problems: government actions, and actions by individuals or groups, which it called social hostility.
Jeremy Barker with the Religious Freedom Institute, a group that advocates for religious liberty, told us that when interpreting the findings, "additional nuance is required."
"While the total population of these countries is 6.3 billion, the restrictions may not evenly affect these people," Barker said.
Especially in the area of social hostility, all it takes is a handful of bad actors to put a country on a list of nations with relatively poor rankings.
In the government category, the report found that out of 198 countries, 52 had high or very high levels of governmental restrictions on religion.
In the very worst cases, government agents had arrested or detained people for reasons of their faith. The top offenders were China, Iran, Malaysia and Syria, and countries such as Russia and Indonesia ranked in the top 10.
The Pew analysis had separate rankings for social hostility. Those included such acts as harassing women for the clothes they wear, religious violence by organized groups, and hate crimes by individuals. These can take place beyond the best efforts of governments to stop them.
It ranked 56 countries as showing high or very high social hostilities. India was at the very top, followed by Syria, Iraq and Egypt. With rising tensions in Europe tied to refugees, Denmark, Germany and Italy also appeared there.
But so did the United States. It received higher rankings due to incidents such as the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where marchers chanted "Jews will not replace us," and a fatal stabbing in Portland, Ore., when a man shouted anti-Muslim remarks to two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab.
While Trump exhorted other nations to match the commitment of the United States, his statistic included the United States and other nations with a tradition for protecting religious rights.
Combining the lists of governmental restrictions and social hostility, the report found that 83 individual nations ranked high in at least one or the other. Their combined population is close to 6 billion, of which the U.S. population is a part. That is the source of the 80% figure Trump cited.
Shaun Casey, director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, said the 80% figure distorts the Pew report.
"The president is looking for a riveting number that says religious intolerance is on fire," Casey said. "And you look at the data and it’s not true."
Barker warned that a few countries have an outsized impact.
"Because a few large countries are included in this — India, China, Indonesia, etc. — the population share is very high compared to the raw number of countries."
Anna Schiller, a Pew spokeswoman, said the center includes many variables but doesn’t rank them by severity or importance.
"We leave it up to our readers to form their own opinion based on the analysis we provide," Schiller said.
Trump said that 80% of the world’s people live in countries where religious liberty is in significant danger or completely outlawed.
Ultimately, that is based on an independent group’s list of countries with what it deems high or very high levels of governmental or social intolerance of certain religions. But the underlying data sweeps up many laws and actions, some much more repressive than others. The United States shows up on one list, as do several other Western democracies.
There is no simple way to capture the experience of religious minorities. The 80% figure is dramatic, but the experts we reached agreed that it exaggerates the impact of government-sanctioned and societal religious intolerance on most people living in those countries.
We rate this Half True.
Donald Trump, Speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Sept, 24, 2019
Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, The state of religious freedom around the world, Aug. 14, 2017
Pew Research, A Closer Look at How Religious Restrictions Have Risen Around the World, July 15, 2019
U.S. State Department, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, June 21, 2019
Donald Trump, Remarks on religious freedom at the United Nations, Sept, 23, 2019
Email exchange, Steven Groves, spokesman, White House Press Office, Sept. 24, 2019
Email exchange, Anna Schiller, spokeswoman, Pew Research Center, Sept. 24, 2019
Email exchange, Brian Grimm, president, Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, Sept. 24, 2019
Email exchange, Jeremy Barker, senior program office, Religious Freedom Institute, Sept. 24, 2019
Interview, Shaun Casey, director, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University, Sept. 24, 2019
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