Mood in America Turns Gloomier

Fretting about Islam, immigrants and security is just tip of the iceberg

(RNS) — Americans of all faiths and viewpoints are gloomy about the economy, anxious about Islam, bothered by immigrants and mistrustful across racial lines, a new survey finds.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s annual American Values Survey, released Tuesday, documents discontent among all major religious groups, races and political views.

“I am struck by the high level of anxiety and worry on all fronts,” said PRRI CEO Robert Jones, though he underscored that white evangelical Protestants express it most sharply.

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For the first time in six years of the survey, Americans are split — 49 percent to 49 percent — on whether “America’s best days are ahead of us or behind us.”

The survey of 2,695 U.S. adults was conducted between Sept. 11 and Oct. 4 — weeks before the latest horrific attacks in Paris.

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However, public opinion polls measure perceptions, which can be worse than what is actually happening.

The 2015 headlines likely influenced views, said Jones. He cited the January attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine; months of videotaped beheadings of Christians in Libya; waves of Syrian immigrants, chiefly Muslim, fleeing escalating violence at home; the 2016 presidential election campaign; and the #blacklivesmatter movement that has emerged after police shootings of black Americans.

A majority of Americans (56 percent, including majorities in all the major Christian traditions) say the values of Islam are at odds with American values. That’s a significant rise since 2011, when Americans were split, with 47 percent saying the values were incompatible and 48 percent disagreed.

This includes:

  • 73 of white evangelical Protestants (up from 59 percent in 2011)
  • 63 percent of white mainline Protestants (47 percent)
  • 61 percent of Catholics (41 percent)

Only two groups did not reflect significant change.

  • 55 percent of black Protestants said values were incompatible (51 percent)
  • 41 percent of “nones,” people who claim no religious label (42 percent).

The responses of Muslims, Jews and Hindus on that subject are not broken out because their numbers are too small to be statistically compared on individual questions. The overall survey, conducted online and by phone, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

The survey also finds significant unease across racial lines.

The PRRI report says the number of Americans who say that racial tensions are a major concern in their community more than doubled, going from 17 percent in 2012 to 35 percent now. Concern about crime as a major problem has risen from 33 percent to 48 percent in the same period.

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One question in particular — regarding police killings of black men — found that whites and blacks operate in parallel universes of perception.

“I am struck by the high level of anxiety and worry on all fronts.”

Overall, 53 percent of U.S. adults say the killings of unarmed black men by police are “isolated incidents.”

But this includes 65 percent of whites, while only 15 percent of blacks say the same.

Black Americans overwhelmingly (81 percent) say the killings are part of “a broader pattern of how police treat African-Americans.”

“On this issue, there is no daylight statistically between white evangelicals (72 percent), white mainline Protestants (73 percent) and white Catholics (71 percent),” Jones said.

This divide is glaring despite the mobilization of religious leaders from all sides to address police violence, discrimination and racial inequality, he said.

Their efforts have had “little measurable impact,” he said, because “white Christians in the pews just see a different set of social problems than their fellow black Christians do. Any conversations about racial reconciliation need to back up. They need to find out first if they even see the same problems before they can address solutions.”

In presenting the American Values Survey at the Brookings Institute on Tuesday, PRRI also released a supplemental political survey of 1,010 U.S. adults, conducted Nov. 6-10. It looked at the how the current top five 2016 Republican presidential contenders stack up with the white evangelical vote.

Ben Carson leads the pack with a 55 percent favorable rating with this influential voting bloc, and 26 percent unfavorable. Still, many people (10 percent) say they have not heard of him. That matters since these are the people any candidate might turn toward to grow support, said Jones.

Behind Carson:

  • Jeb Bush has a 41 percent favorable rating, but a 47 percent unfavorable rating. Only 3 percent said they had not heard of Bush.
  • Donald Trump has the highest unfavorable rating with white evangelicals (52 percent) and a 39 percent favorable rating. And everyone said they have heard of him.
  • Marco Rubio has more favorable (36 percent) than unfavorable (29 percent) ratings and significant maneuvering room to introduce himself to people who haven’t heard of him (20 percent).
  • Ted Cruz is the least known of the top five with 23 percent saying didn’t know him. Among those who do, however, his favorable and unfavorable ratings are about equal — 31 percent to 32 percent.

Cruz and Rubio also shared the distinction of the highest declined-to-answer number — 14 percent for each — while the leading three had less than 10 percent of people who said they didn’t know or refused to answer.

This article originally appeared in Religion News Service.

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