This year’s American Values Survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution, reveals that the American people are increasingly divided and lack a shared set of beliefs or values on various political issues. The survey highlights concerning trends such as growing support for political violence, a willingness to disregard the rule of law for political gain, and the endorsement of false conspiracy theories among Republicans compared to Democrats. The survey also found that white evangelical Protestants, who long for a return to “traditional American values,” hold even stronger antidemocratic beliefs.
The question arises: how can the American people and their leaders address the numerous challenges facing the country if they cannot agree on basic facts, reality, and the truth? To shed light on these findings, I spoke with Robert P. Jones, founder and president of PRRI and author of the New York Times bestseller “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future.” Jones emphasizes the deeply divided state of the American public, the enduring power and dangers of Trumpism, and the influence of White Christian nationalism in the rise of House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Trump loyalist.
The survey results are disheartening, reflecting the current state of crisis in America and the world. As tensions rise between Israel and Hamas, Russia’s conflict with Ukraine shows no signs of resolution, and early presidential polls suggest Trump’s popularity, it is clear that difficult times lie ahead. Acts of violence related to the Israel-Palestine conflict have even spilled over into the US, with hate crimes targeting Palestinians, threats against synagogues and mosques, and Jewish students feeling unsafe on college campuses.
However, amidst these challenges, there is still hope. Jones shares his encounters with individuals across the country who are actively working to address past injustices, mend community divisions, and protect democracy. This hope stems from the belief that change is possible, not only in liberal states but also in conservative strongholds like Mississippi and Oklahoma.
The American Values Survey, conducted annually by PRRI and the Brookings Institution, provides valuable insights into the divisions and tensions within the country during these crises. It reveals that Americans understand the high stakes involved and express deep concerns about the future of democracy. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the 2024 presidential election will determine the fate of democracy, although their concerns differ significantly. The survey also highlights widespread pessimism about the country’s future, particularly among Republicans, and widespread economic anxiety. However, the root cause of these divisions lies in disagreements over the country’s identity, who belongs, and who counts as a “real American.”
One particularly troubling finding is the growing support for political violence. The survey shows that an increasing number of Americans believe that resorting to violence may be necessary to save the country when things have gone astray. This sentiment is disproportionately prevalent among Republicans, with one in three Republicans endorsing this view compared to only 13% of Democrats. Additionally, the survey reveals a concerning connection between white Christian nationalism and political violence. Nearly four in ten individuals who believe that America was intended as a promised land for European Christians express a willingness to use violence to save the country.
The media and pundits often struggle to understand why white Christian evangelicals and other white Christians remain loyal to Donald Trump. The answer, according to Jones, is straightforward: it is purely instrumental, driven by a desire for power. Trump does not align with the values and virtues professed by conservative white Christians, nor does he actively participate in religious practices. However, these factors do not diminish his appeal to this group. Jones recalls an interview with Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffries, who supported Trump in 2015, explaining that the country’s dire state necessitated a strong and forceful leader like Trump.
“MAGA” (Make America Great Again), Trump’s slogan, represents a longing for a bygone era, a mythical “golden age” that conservative white Christians believe America should return to. This nostalgia reflects a desire for a time when white Christians held unparalleled power and dominance in the country. Contrary to the narrative that white evangelicals reluctantly voted for Trump, evidence suggests that they actively support his anti-immigrant and racially divisive rhetoric. Their support for Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 elections stems from a shared embrace of racial grievances.
Language plays a significant role in shaping these conversations about the Republican Party, the conservative movement, and American politics as a whole. Terms such as “Christians” and “evangelicals” lack specificity and fail to capture the nuances within these groups. Leaders like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Mike Johnson often use racially coded language when referring to “Christian” values, excluding Black and Latino Christians from their definition. It is crucial to challenge these narrow views, as they represent the beliefs of a minority (around 14% of Americans) and do not hold a monopoly on Christianity. Insisting otherwise perpetuates white supremacy.
For these right-wing white Christians, American society appears adrift from their desired trajectory. Their reactionary language reflects a longing for a return to a time they perceive as more aligned with their beliefs. While it may be tempting to mock their beliefs, it is essential to recognize that these issues have real-life consequences. Dismissing them outright will not address or resolve the challenges they present.
In conclusion, the American Values Survey exposes deep divisions and conflicts within the American public on various political issues. These divisions hinder the country’s ability to address the many challenges it faces. The survey highlights concerning trends, including growing support for political violence and the influence of white Christian nationalism. Understanding these dynamics is crucial in navigating and resolving the problems at hand.