How Religious Fear is Shaping the Culture War
A new study sheds light on how and why religious groups feel targeted in America today, and the implications for politics may not be what you think.
On Monday, the Supreme Court allowed President Trump’s travel ban to take effect. That he doesn’t hide his anti-Muslim sentiments well is not a secret—a firestorm erupted over his unapologetic sharing of anti-Muslim videos from Britain First in November, and six of the eight countries in the newly approved ban are still predominantly Muslim.
The president’s use of a culture war exploits far right religious motives and fears. But there are good reasons to believe that this strategy, while effective for an election last year, is ultimately short-sighted.
First, why did his culture war strategy work?
A recent Penn State study led by Michael H. Pasek and Jonathan E. Cook may have that answer. Looking at religious threats in the United States, their research shows that feelings of religious threats can have spiraling impacts and consequences (full study). Threats, according to the study are psychological responses “experienced by individuals who feel stereotyped, discriminated against, or devalued because of a social group membership.” Individuals who “feel targeted because of their religious identity” also may “experience that as a psychological threat.” This becomes a vicious cycle, according to the researchers. Those who feel threatened frequently feel isolated, tend to hide their religious identities, and in turn increase their own prejudice against others.
Trump’s decision this week to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, for example, is rejected globally as potentially devastating. Yet it is welcomed by many of his highly religious white evangelical followers who see it as essential for ushering in the “end of times,” a day where their perceived spiritual oppressors will be judged.
In their study, Pasek and Cook focused on Abrahamic faiths—Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. They found feelings of threats to be highest among minority religions (Jews and Muslims) and highly religious Protestants. Pasek and Cook recognize further research is needed to get a fuller picture.
“Our study in particular did not measure the underlying causes of religious threat,” Pasek tells me, “although we had some ideas.” When it comes to religious minorities, the researchers suggest that threats may “emanate from prejudice and discrimination.”
There is no doubt that even a less than cursory attention to the news in the last year cannot miss rising racial and religious tension in America and their effects on minority faiths.
“It is a time of fear for many religious communities in the United States, including the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Joshua Stanton of East End Temple in New York.
“The white nationalist actions in Charlottesville embodied some of our deepest fears. The images and videos of people wielding torches chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ struck at the multi-generational goal of American Jews to retain their unique identity while becoming full and equal members of our society. So yes, there is fear.”
But, he clarifies, this is not the complete picture. “The study seems to capture accurately our sense of fear, but focuses far less on the hope that we also regularly feel.”
“Aside from the vocal but small minority of people who genuinely threaten the Jewish community,” says Stanton, “we experience a great deal of love and kindness from non-Jewish communities, groups, and leaders. At times the contrast is confusing, but also gives us the chance to embrace the hope of religious pluralism, even as we confront the fear that anti-Semitism continues to inspire.”
This optimism may feel counterintuitive, but it reflects the findings of a study from Pew Research Center. In 2014 and 2017, Pew looked at how Americans feel about various religious groups, rating them on a scale of cold to warm. Jews and Catholics rated the warmest—a warmth that increased in the 2017 study.
What about Muslims?
Interestingly, Pasek and Cook found that the feeling of religious threat for Muslims was high regardless of religiosity, an effect they believe is compounded by race, as most Muslims in America are not white. They suggest it is worthy of further research.
It is an idea with merit, but demographer Besheer Mohamed, Senior Researcher at Pew Research Center, sees it as needing more nuance.
“There are definitely important differences among Muslims other than level of religiosity,” adds Mohamed. “Race is an important one, but is complicated by the fact that so many Muslims are foreign born. For example, 96% of US born black Muslims say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims, compared with 65% of all foreign born Muslims. Even though 55% of foreign born Muslims are non-white.”
In other words, the experience of American Muslims is not monolithic.
For example, questions of whether one has been physically threatened or attacked, or singled out by law enforcement may show “larger gaps than others” between U.S. and foreign born Muslims, he adds. However, “on whether you’ve been singled out by airport security there’s not much of a gap between U.S. born and foreign born.”
The same 2014 and 2017 Pew studies that rated faiths from cold to warm, for example, found that both Muslims and atheists were ranked the coldest for both years—though by 2017 both were rated warmer.
And yet, while Americans may have warmed slightly to Muslims, other trends show a more disturbing direction. “We also asked the public whether or not there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims,” says Mohamed, “and we found that about seven-in-ten people said that there is a lot of discrimination.” He notes that it is a number that has increased significantly each year they ask the question, showing a steady pattern.
In fact, adds Mohamed, studies show that white evangelical Protestants, Trump's primary base, “rate Muslims more negatively than other Christian groups.” They are also less likely to know a Muslim compared to other groups. “Only 35 percent of white evangelicals say they know a Muslim personally. No other religious group had a lower share,” he adds.
It should probably be no surprise then that Pasek and Cook found high levels of threat felt by American Muslims.
And what about those highly religious Protestant Christians who feel threatened?
Pasek and Cook argue that part of the connection is that “religiosity itself is highly stigmatized in American society.”
Pasek tells me that high religiosity shows a “robust correlation” to feeling threatened. Christians, he says, may “be more likely than those who were less religious to feel marginalized in mainstream secular settings.” He believes the current research is consistent with this conclusion, showing that “white Americans,” and similarly for “Christians, and Protestants in particular,” are “threatened by changing demographics and a loss in status.”
Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), and author of The End of White Christian America, mostly agrees.
Jones disagrees with the characterization of religiosity as stigmatized. “I don’t really think that holds up,” he tells me, pointing to the fact that most of America is religious. “I think that we hear that from conservative politicians and cultural warrior types, but when you look at religiosity as a whole in American society, let’s put it this way: it’s news that a quarter of Americans claim no religious affiliation.”
That white Protestant Christians are reacting to a loss of power, however, makes sense to him.
“The data they collected is actually quite consistent with the quantitative national survey data that we at PRRI have seen across a number of surveys, particularly when we ask about who is experiencing discrimination in the country,” he says.
“The real key,” according to Jones, “is that the forms of white Protestantism that have been dominant in our nation’s life for all of its history have moved from being a majority to no longer being a majority in terms of culture or demographic.”
President Trump’s administration has succeeded by exploiting this loss, particularly among white evangelical Protestants. Take, for example, his return to the annual “war on Christmas.” As it also happens, the majority of white evangelical Protestants (65 percent) believe stores should use the Christian-specific greeting of “Merry Christmas.” The president’s claim that with him “we can say Merry Christmas again,” therefore, is one that organically appeals to his base, even if it blindly disregards the facts. (President Obama said “Merry Christmas” every year.)
“These symbolic issues,” says Jones, “like building a wall, the Muslim ban, saying ‘Merry Christmas’—all of these are symbolic gestures that are about restoring a kind of order and white Christian version of America that many of them feel they are losing.”
This is not to say that Christians don’t face actual threats and persecution globally, a problem that has gained the attention of Vice President Pence. A study from Pew this summer shows that there is global harassment of Christians, but with some irony, in that it occurs in “mostly in Christian-majority countries.”
But David Curry, CEO of Open Doors U.S.A., an international organization that tracks and brings awareness of Christian persecution, says “there is a way to rise above constant religious conflict.”
“For Christians it means returning, and staying rooted, in Jesus rather than religion,” he tells The Daily Beast. “When we identify with our religion, we’re likely to get sucked into jockeying for position and competing for religious dominance. When we focus on Jesus, it allows us to live into a better way. Jesus understood those on society’s margins. He advocated for loving and praying for our enemies and going the extra mile to serve them.”
So, does the past success of president Trump in appealing to white Protestant fears point the way to an inevitable future? Not necessarily.
While a high 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, those numbers are shifting. According to a new study from PRRI, the lion’s share of Trump’s support among white evangelical votes is down to 72 percent (white mainline protestants are split at 49 percent.) Almost a third of white evangelicals say “there is almost nothing Trump could do to lose their approval.” While 72 percent is still high, the study shows only 30 percent are considered “strong” supporters, while 42 percent are classified as “weak.”
Additionally, a new Pew study also released this week shows that the president’s job approval numbers is lower among evangelicals at 61 percent. His overall job approval among Americans also met an all-time low at 32 percent. Winds of change are occurring quickly, especially by the terms of a first year president.
Jones also sees a culture change.
He notes that Christians resisted the Obergefell decision, which legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states, but “public opinion just continued to march forward.” He points to PRRI surveys showing slim majorities of white evangelical Protestants and Republicans under the age of 30 in support of same-sex marriage. “Not only have they lost outside of their circle on this issue,” he points out, “but they’ve lost the youngest generation of their own people.”
These shifts in society, however, may not show up on election night right away.
“In fact,” says Jones, “if you look at the demographic makeup of the electorate, it looks about like the country did a decade ago. What happens is that the ballot box functions like a time machine that takes the demographics of the country back a couple of presidential election cycles. So when we’re projecting that forward, it means that it’s gonna be the 2024 election cycle before the demographic changes that have already happened on the ground are fully reflected at the ballot box—if current trends stay true.”
So yes, the president has radically upset the stability of American political system, and yes, he was partly successful because he was able to get highly religious white Protestants, and particularly evangelicals in their number, to invest in him as their last hope. But his strategy misses the wider cultural shifts at play.
For many Americans, in fact, those shifts are felt already and are welcomed.
“The Friday after Charlottesville, East End Temple convened an Interfaith Shabbat,” Stanton tells me. “Our sanctuary was packed with people of all traditions who came together for the greater good, in a Jewish space. Since then, Muslim and Christian leaders have regularly reached out to see what they can do to support me as a Jewish leader and our community as a whole. It is testament to the idea that this is also a time of hope.”