By Paul A. Djupe
It must be election season, because Donald Trump is Muslim baiting again. As the New York Times described it, Trump’s team is attempting to make Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the first female Muslim representatives, the face of the Democratic Party. Trump tweeted video of Rep. Omar speaking interspersed with 9/11 images. Though Muslims constitute less than 1 percent of the population in most estimates, the group looms large in the public imagination, especially the Republican imagination as a persistent threat to the nation. The tool that Trump is trying to construct is perhaps perfectly embodied in the phrase he rolled out when running for president in 2016: “I think Islam hates us” (NYT reports that Trump told Anderson Cooper, the CNN host, in March 2016).
It’s worth examining what American views are of Muslims and I am fortunate to have data from a year ago that bear on this question. The question asked of 1,429 national responses from Qualtrics Panels weighted to look like the national population, “We’d like to get your feelings towards some groups and figures in society. Please use the following rating scale to indicate how warm or cold you feel towards each of them. 100 indicates that you feel very warm towards that group/person, and 0 that you feel very cold towards that group/person.” The responses, below, show that Muslims are NOT the least liked group in society. That honor belongs to white supremacists, among whom Trump famously suggested there are “some very fine people.” Instead, Muslims are right in the mix; people have slightly warmer feelings toward them than they do to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Of course, many of the feelings shown above are deeply polarized along partisan lines. But they may also be riven by religion. As the now conventional wisdom goes, white Christian America is shrinking and, especially, white evangelicals have taken up both defensive and offensive postures to stem the tide of their cultural and political influence. The figure below shows warmth toward Muslims by religious tradition, further broken down by worship attendance. There are some differences across groups here. White evangelicals and “other Christians” (which is generally another grouping for being a white evangelical) have the coolest feelings toward Muslims, while Jews, Black Protestants, and a collection of non-Christian groups have the warmest feelings. Of course, these groups tend to be on opposite sides of the partisan divide. Catholics and Mainline Protestants are in between. What is remarkable here is that there is no relationship with church attendance. Often patterns intensify among the highest attenders, but the relationships between attendance and warmth toward Muslims are flat. The exception is a mild decline in warmth among evangelicals (p=.09), which makes sense.
Instead, the lion’s share of views toward Muslims is explained by Christian nationalism: a constellation of attitudes and beliefs that define the nation as reserved for Christians. Belief that America is a Christian nation is perhaps the most emblematic, but it also includes prayer in schools, public display of Christian imagery, and other views. From the lowest to the highest value of the scale, warmth toward Muslims drops 35 degrees. This is not surprising since Muslims are defined as outside the “Judeo-Christian” constellation.
And note the shift in attendance levels from the left to the right of the figure – Christian nationalism is closely linked to high rates of worship attendance (among Christians). There are many papers about the effects of Christian nationalism now from Andrew Whitehead, Sam Perry, and others showing its link to voting for Trump, opposition to gun control, and others. Put another way, Christian nationalism appears to define the Republican Party and has done so for years (as the MPSA paper from me, Andy Lewis, and Anand Sokhey shows; see also this from Jamelle Bouie in today’s NYT). It is so prominent that almost half of Americans and over 60 percent of Democrats, view Christian nationalism as a threat.
The most important relationship is how views toward Muslims and Christian nationalism connect back with partisanship. The figure below shows (from a model that includes a few demographic controls) that to be a Republican, it is sufficient to be either a Christian nationalist or cool toward Muslims. (The figure above attests that these combinations actually exist, that there actually are Christian nationalist who say they are warm toward Muslims.) But, on the other side, it is not sufficient to be either, you have to be both. Only those opposed to Christian nationalism and warm toward Muslims are Democrats, but the anti-Christian nationalists who are cooler toward Muslims are much more Republican. Put another way, views toward Muslims have the potential to shred the Democratic coalition. And Donald Trump’s team knows this, or at least intuits it.
We are living in dangerous times, where commitment to equality and freedom are under constant attack. The president and his team are looking to divide the country to stoke the fires of animosity toward Muslims, immigrants, and others in order to hold together his minority white coalition. My initial conclusion from these results is that it just might work. Nothing short of our basic freedoms is at stake. As Michael Gerson put it, “Religious freedom is either rigorously equal, or it becomes an instrument of those in power to favor or disfavor religions of their choice. And those believers who are currently in favor may someday discover what disfavor is like.”
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (see his list of posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.