By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service     12/14/2015

A new “American Values” survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute shows widening gaps in how America regards itself, according to the institute’s president and CEO, Robert Jones.

There are “big partisan gaps, big racial and ethnic gaps” in the data, Jones said at a Nov. 17 forum at the Brookings Institution in Washington where the survey results were introduced.

On one key issue, 79 percent of Republicans said terrorism was a critical issue to them compared to 53 percent of Democrats. The surveys were taken before the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, Jones noted, so those numbers may have changed.

Another top issue, education, showed an even wider chasm. “There’s a 30 percent gap on education,” Jones said, with 60 percent of Democrats calling it a critical issue, while 30 percent — half as many — of Republicans hold that belief. “You have a public school system that’s become increasingly black and brown and becoming increasingly defunded,” said MSNBC national correspondent Joy Reid, a panelist at the forum.

Asked whether the country’s best days are ahead of it or behind it, 56 percent of Catholics agreed with the former, along with 57 percent of black Protestants, 58 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans and 55 percent of members of non-Christian religions. But 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 55 percent of white mainline Protestants believe America’s best days are behind it.

These numbers could play into the fact that white Protestants stopped being a majority of all Americans before the 20th century was over. As of 2014, Jones said, “even if you add all white Christians, we are now less than a majority of the country.” And by the 2024 presidential election hear, he added, “white Christians will not even make up a majority of all voters.”

Jones said, “This sense of dislocation is economic, it’s cultural and it’s religious.”

Seventy percent of Americans say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims, 68 percent say the same about gays and lesbians, 63 percent says it holds true with blacks and 56 percent with Hispanics.

Asked about themselves, 51 percent of white evangelical Protestants say evangelical Christians confront a lot of discrimination today, while only 21 percent of Catholics say the same about themselves.

Much of the unease reflected in the study, called “Anxiety, Nostalgia and Mistrust,” could be the result of economic concerns, panelists suggested.

Strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans identified health care as a critical issue, (71 percent and 61 percent, respectively), and jobs and unemployment also as critical issues (66 percent vs. 59 percent).

“White working-class respondents are more anxious and more depressed than any other group,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Seventy-eight percent think we’re still in recession. They’re more likely to think America’s best days are in the past … that U.S. culture has gotten worse since the 1950s (62 percent said so) … that hard work does not lead to success (68 percent),” he added. “On cultural matters, they’re out of step with the average American. Sixty-six percent think illegal immigration is responsible for America’s economic decline, and that Islam is incompatible with American values.”

Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed. “In the early part of this century, optimism soared,” she said. But since the 2008 recession, Bowman added, “Americans aren’t confident that we’ve fixed what went wrong.”

Jones noted changes in the 2015 survey from previous years.

“There’s been a major uptick in crime from 2012,” when 33 percent said it was a critical issue, “to nearly half” this year, he said. “Racial tension, not surprising perhaps, given Ferguson and Baltimore,” more than doubled as a major concern of survey respondents over the same three years, from 12 percent to 28 percent.

Asked this year if they believed police killings of African-American men were isolated incidents or part of a broader pattern, eight in 10 blacks said it was part of a broader pattern, Jones reported. “Latinos are largely in the same boat,” with six in 10 saying it was part of a broader pattern, he said. Two-thirds of whites, on the other hand, said they were isolated incidents.

“The evangelical church and the mainline (Protestant) churches have had a very, very different history” on race issues, Brown said, noting that The Christian Century, often regarded as a flagship of mainline Protestantism, was the first to publish the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” where the civil rights leader had been held in 1963.

Now, a half-century later, “we see very little daylight” between the two Protestant groups on race, Jones said, as 72 percent of white evangelicals saw the shootings as isolated incidents, and 73 percent of mainline Protestants said the same.

“People can’t agree what to do about something, if they can’t agree if there is even a problem,” Jones said.

The survey was conducted with 2,695 Americans in English and Spanish in September and October both online and by phone. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.