As New Poll Finds “Increased Xenophobic Streak,” Republicans Heighten Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

As Republican presidential candidates and governors pronounce Muslims and Syrian refugees personae non grata after the horrific massacres in Paris on Friday, a major new poll about Americans’ religious and cultural attitudes provides an ominous look at Americans’ views on immigrants and Islam in particular.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2015 Religious Landscape Survey, released today in a new report, “Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust,” finds “Americans’ perceptions of Islam have turned more negative over the past few years.” A majority of Americans—56 percent—in PRRI’s 2015 survey agreed with the statement that the values of Islam are “at odds with American values and way of life,” while 41 percent disagreed with that statement. That represents an increase over 2013, when 47 percent agreed with the statement and 48 percent disagreed.

“One of the things the survey is showing is an increased xenophobic streak in the American public,” Robert Jones, PRRI’s CEO, told me in an interview. In addition to the increased hostility to Islam, Jones said, the survey found increased negativity toward the contributions of immigrants to society, and increased intolerance for encountering immigrants who do not speak English. “The attitudes are moving in the same direction,” Jones said.

Jones emphasized that the survey was conducted before the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, but suggested the uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment was probably attributable to January’s terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket in Paris, as well as to the increased visibility of ISIS atrocities.

“ISIS is a household word now,” he said, and “I think some of that is playing into these numbers.” Numerous Muslim groups and leaders have consistently condemned ISIS as contrary to Islam.

White evangelicals and white mainline Protestants are the most likely religious groups to agree with the statement that Islam is “at odds with American values and way of life” (73 percent and 63 percent, respectively). But the uptick in the percentage of people agreeing with the statement took place across demographic categories, Jones said, as the overall percentage of people agreeing rose nine percentage points in two years, from 47 to 56 percent.

At the same time, white Christian demographic groups were more likely to view America’s future prospects negatively. “Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants are markedly more pessimistic than other groups,” the report notes, “with majorities believing that America’s best days are behind us (60% and 55%, respectively).” But majorities of Americans affiliated with other religious groups, including non-Christian religions, Catholics, black Protestants, and the unaffiliated “all believe America’s best days are ahead of us.”

Jones called the pessimism/optimism gap a “deep cultural divide,” associated with a perceived decline in the influence of white men. “White working class Americans are less happy and less apt to say our best days are ahead of us,” he said.

Relatedly, and not surprisingly, PRRI found that supporters of Donald Trump are more likely than even other Republicans to be focused on immigration as a critical issue, and to hold negative views of immigrants. Sixty-nine percent of Trump supporters told PRRI that immigration is a critical issue to them personally, compared to 50 percent of Republicans supporting other candidates:

Trump supporters are much more likely to express negative views of immigrants than the supporters of other candidates. Eight in ten (80%) Trump supporters say that immigrants today are a burden to the U.S. because they take American jobs, housing, and health care. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Trump supporters say that it bothers them when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English. Supporters of other Republican candidates also view immigrants negatively, but somewhat less so—a majority (56%) say that immigrants are a burden on the U.S. due to their economic impact and a similar number (58%) report that coming into contact with immigrants who do not speak English bothers them.

After Paris, Trump, already on record for border walls and mass deportations, proposed surveilling mosques and even shutting some down. In an appearance on Morning Joe yesterday, Trump said the elimination of a New York Police Department program to spy on Muslims in the city’s mosques and other locations was a “mistake.” Trump claimed New York had “tremendous surveillance going on in and around the mosques of New York City and right now that has been totally cut out.” The NYPD spying program, which came to light when the Associated Press reported on it in 2011, was suspended in 2014; the NYPD admitted that it produced no terrorism leads.

While authorities have not confirmed that a Syrian passport found in Paris belonged to one of the perpetrators, initial reports of the passport has provoked a panic over a refugee-terrorist connection. The United States has resettled only a small number of Syrian refugees, but already governors are targeting the additional 10,000 the Obama administration aims to resettle here. More than a dozen Republican governors have stated their intention to refuse to resettle Syrian refugees in their states, including in Mississippi, Alabama, Michigan, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Any claim by the states to have the legal authority to block refugee resettlement is dubious, but Ted Cruz plans to help them out by introducing a bill in the Senate to ban Muslim Syrians from entering the U.S.

In Mississippi, though, the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi disagreed with the governor, noting the long-time work of the Catholic Church with the U.S. government in refugee resettlement. “We recognize people have concerns that the refugee stream could be infiltrated,” the Diocese said in a statement, according to the Sun-Herald, “but that doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on, for example, a war-ravaged family, a widow, or a single mother and her baby.” Apparently this bit of Catholic teaching hasn’t moved Chris Christie, who thinks even orphans should be refused refuge.

Although Trump’s supporters are the most avid opponents of immigrants, Cruz’s high-profile endorsement from Rep. Steve King (R-IA) exemplifies the clash of civilizations mentality described in the PRRI report. (A desperate second might be Mike Huckabee, with his plea for Americans to “wake up and smell the falafel.”) In endorsing Cruz for president yesterday, King, well-known for his own anti-immigrant rhetoric, said Cruz was the “answer to my prayers, a candidate God will use to restore the soul of America.” (emphasis mine)

Over the weekend, Cruz called for barring Muslim immigrants from the United States, describing the prospect of permitting Muslims to immigrate here “lunacy.” He added at a forum in South Carolina that there was “no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” and that “we need to be working to provide a safe haven for those Christians who are being persecuted and facing genocide, and at the same time we shouldn’t be letting terrorists into America.” Jeb Bush also said the U.S. should focus on resettling Christians. It’s hard to know who is taking cues from whom; last night Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch tweeted that an exception to banning Syrian refugees could be made for “proven Christians.”

“Do your duty for God and country,” King told his constituents in his Cruz endorsement video, in urging them to vote for Cruz in the February 1 caucus.

In case one might be inclined to dismiss the Trump-King-Cruz ideology, or the prospect that someone with this ideology could be the Republican nominee, one might do well to take note of another PRRI finding: that the people reporting the most enthusiastic interest in the presidential campaign are conservative Republicans. Only 40 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans, 43 percent of Democrats, and 35 percent of independents reported being “very interested” in the 2016 campaign, compared to 61 percent of conservative Republicans.