The Anxiety of White Christian America: A Poll

There’s lots of good stuff in the new PRRI/Brookings poll on immigration and cultural change released yesterday, including, oddly, a long section on voters’ views on terrorism, crime, and unemployment.

But on a day when the Supreme Court deadlocked, handing a major setback to Pres. Obama’s stab at immigration reform, it’s the views on that specific subject that interest me most. Those views, in turn, have to be set in a somewhat larger social context. Only about one-quarter of all Americans are worried about the US becoming a majority-minority nation, while about half are unhappy when they run across immigrants who don’t speak English. Trump voters are notably higher on both scales: 34% worry about whites losing their majority, and 77% are fussed about non-English speakers. That last one is about ten points higher than other Republicans and 40 points more than Democrats.

The same pattern holds when respondents are asked about whether discrimination against whites is a problem. There’s not much difference between white Evangelicals, Catholics, or mainline Protestants on the question: just shy of two-thirds of each group agree that white oppression is real. (There is a significant education gap, however.)

When it comes to discrimination against Christians, though, things start to get interesting:

Nearly eight in ten (77%) white evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians now rivals that of other groups. Substantially fewer white mainline Protestants (54%), white Catholics (53%), black Protestants (53%), and Hispanic Catholics (50%) agree that discrimination against Christians is now as big a problem as discrimination against other groups in the America. About eight in ten religiously unaffiliated Americans (78%) and adherents of non-Christian religions (77%) disagree.

(If you’re surprised that putatively ultra-liberal mainline Protestants would agree with such a statement, it’s useful to remember that many mainline denominations still have healthy representation of white, working-class and rural segments.)

Likewise, older and Evangelical respondents are more likely to say the US has lost its Christian identity than younger survey subjects, or any other religious group. Ditto “Is Islam a threat to American values?” When it comes to the question of whether there’s too much immigration from Middle Eastern nations, though, things seem to break down along racial, rather than religious, lines:

More than two-thirds (68%) of white evangelical Protestants and roughly six in ten white Catholics (60%) and white mainline Protestants (59%) say the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Muslim countries is either too high or should be stopped. Fewer than four in ten black Protestants (39%), Hispanic Catholics (37%), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (34%), and fewer than one-quarter (23%) of non-Christians echo this sentiment.

Same when talking about banning Syrian refugees or temporarily barring Muslim immigration. Right around half the white folk from any tradition want to keep out Syrians. Hispanics (45%) and black Protestants (36%) offer less support, and it absolutely craters among the unaffiliated (67% against) and members of non-Christian faiths (75% opposed). And again:

White Christian Americans stand apart from other religious communities in expressing support for a temporary ban on Muslims. A majority of white evangelical Protestants (55%), white Catholics (52%), and white mainline Protestants (51%) endorse a temporary ban on Muslims coming to the U.S. from abroad. In contrast, only about one-quarter religiously unaffiliated Americans (27%), black Protestants (25%), Hispanic Catholics (25%), and members of non-Christian religions (21%) express support for a ban. More than seven in ten black Protestants (73%), Hispanic Catholics (75%), religiously unaffiliated Americans (72%), and members of non-Christian religions (77%) oppose the idea.

You get the drift. Even though most people say they’re more worried about immigration from Mexico and Central America, whites are really dead-set against Muslims coming to the US. They’re also not big fans of immigration in general. There are similar breakdowns to what we’ve seen above when people are asked whether “immigrants are more of a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing, and health care,” or whether immigrants are changing American society for the better.

Given all this, you might think that immigration is the perfect wedge issue for a white nationalist like Donald Trump. And indeed, the study’s authors find some evidence to suggest that whites with authoritarian tendencies and/or high levels of cultural anxiety are more likely to support a “strong man” like Trump. That cleaves whites nicely along differences of class and education.

Still, immigration and all of Trump’s other demagogueries seem unlikely to get him much traction, for two reasons. Americans are already largely sorted into political camps on these issues: 63% of Republicans say their party represents their views on immigration, and so 69% of Democrats. Throw the independents into the mix, and the Democrats come out with a 37-27 edge. You can’t really wedge what’s already split.

The other reason, of course, is Trump’s long parade of funding woes, dysfunctional campaign organizations, and unforced errors. The more time he spends on the defensive, the less time he has to go to the bully pulpit, and I do mean bully. If Hillary Clinton is smart, she’ll keep him on the ropes with negative ads from here to November… possibly December, just to be on the safe side.