By Ryan Hammill 11-17-2015
  • Seventy-two percent of Americans still believe U.S. is in recession
  • Percentage that believes immigrants are an asset falls from 57 to 46 percent
  • “White, black, and brown Americans do not live in the same countries,” says Joy Reid
  • White mainline Protestants more likely than white evangelical Protestants to think police killings of black men are “isolated incidents” and not “part of broader pattern”
  • Minority and immigrant churches may be best hope for communal solidarity in U.S.

The Public Religion Research Institute released its annual American Values Survey today and the results aren’t pretty: We are an increasingly dour and divided bunch. Americans have become more suspicious, pessimistic, and convinced that the government does not pay attention to them.

“The sense of the deck being stacked against you is alive and well,” Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI said at Tuesday’s press conference.

Even though the Great Recession officially ended in 2009, 72 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. is still in recession, a figure unchanged from 2014. While that figure has remained steady, this year has seen a dramatic spike of discontent regarding economic inequality. Over the past four years, only slight majorities (53 to 55 percent) have agreed that “One of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.” But in 2015, 65 percent of Americans agreed.

And Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly agree, at least on this: The federal government is looking out for the rich. The American Dream, seemingly in question since the Great Recession, is now only an idle daydream for most.

And as Americans give up on the American Dream, they grow more suspicious of immigrants. In 2012, 57 percent of Americans believed that immigrants strengthened the U.S. That number has now, dangerously, fallen below a majority, to 46 percent. And it has gotten personal — more people report being bothered when they encounter non-English speakers.

As we grow more pessimistic and xenophobic, we lose trust that our democracy actually works. Not a single demographic group covered in the AVS has a majority that believes that their vote actually matters. Who feels the most disenfranchised? Hispanics (74 percent) and blacks, who are tied with working-class whites (66 percent). Unsurprisingly, the most advantaged group in the U.S., college-educated whites, are the least likely to feel that their vote is futile (55 percent). But still, even they are relatively unconfident.

And while young adults (18-29) are the least likely group to report negative feelings about immigrants, that doesn’t mean they believe in American democracy. A staggering 74 percent of them agree that their vote doesn’t matter. The influence of wealthy individuals and businesses in elections has convinced a vast majority of young people that their participation in electoral democracy wouldn’t make a difference.

The pessimistic, xenophobic, cynical outlook of Americans has taken a populist flavor too. Nearly two-thirds of Americans agree that everyday people understand what the government should do better than the “experts.” Seventy-one percent of working-class whites agree, but college-educated whites are split, and are much more likely to trust the experts. This is not the only issue where college-educated whites are outside the norm.

When asked about the “critical issues” facing the U.S., blacks (68 percent), Hispanics (65 percent), and working-class whites (58 percent) all agreed that crime was a critical issue. By contrast, only 32 percent of college-educated whites agreed.

A chasm is widening between the white elite that lives in communities immured from crime and seems more hopeful about technocracy, and other Americans whose neighborhoods are not as safe and who do not trust the experts in charge. Concerns about economic inequality attest to this. The chasm, and the anger that it engenders, however, poses no real danger to the white elite.

After all, working-class whites are much too divided from Hispanics and blacks on the crucial issues of racial discrimination, policing, and immigration for a multi-racial class struggle to arise. Different ethnic groups profess very different ideas of what discrimination even is, according to the study.

“White, black, and brown Americans do not live in the same countries,” said Joy Reid of MSNBC, part of a panel discussing the AVS.

Instead, if current trends continue, different social groups will likely splinter further. And the federal government will not be a unifying force – only 50 percent of the American population professes any sort of trust in it. Further, representatives don’t even seem interested in what their constituents care about. For example, Democrats, Republicans, and independents all widely oppose Congress forcing a government shutdown, but congressional republicans continue to use a shutdown as a threat.

That leaves civil society as the forum for cross-class, cross-race unity to form. Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute hinted at this, when discussing young people’s disengagement from national politics.

“Young people are much more hopeful about solving problems in their local communities, and less interested in Washington,” Bowman said. There may yet be a ray of hope for communal solidarity in the U.S., but not on the national level.

Whether the churches — among the foremost institutions of American civil society — can forge communal solidarity is unclear. Jones noted white mainline Protestantism’s long history of activism for civil rights, particularly Martin Luther King Jr.’s partnership with The Christian Century. But that history has basically evaporated, according to the survey. When asked whether recent police killings of black men are “isolated incidents” or “part of a broader pattern,” white mainline Protestants followed white evangelicals. Seventy-two percent of white evangelicals believe the killings are isolated incidents, as do 73 percent of white mainline Protestants.

“What has happened to white mainline Protestants in the pews on race issues?” Jones asked.

By contrast, an overwhelming 82 percent of black Protestants saw the killings are part of a broader pattern of police treatment of African Americans.

“We’re Balkanizing into two different Americas,” said Reid, and nowhere is this more true than on questions of race and ethnicity. Not only do different groups have different values — different groups have different perceptions of reality.

Sadly, there’s further reason to doubt that the white churches can provide meaningful leadership for American society. Both white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants agree that America’s best days are behind us. With such resignation in the pews, can we expect white Christians to rally around Dr. King’s rallying cry that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice?”

Probably not.

But here’s the good news: even though blacks and Hispanics have a more heightened sense of crisis than whites on the six issues PRRI covered (police brutality, racial tensions, immigration, crime, public school funding, and opportunity for young people), blacks and Hispanics remain hopeful that America’s best days are still ahead of us.

The spark of hope present in immigrant and minority churches — and lacking in white ones — could be the ignition for the birth, phoenix-like, of national purpose and harmony, if it ever comes. Non-white Christians can be the leaders for a new communal solidarity, but only if white Christians join them. And as the American Values Survey makes clear, our first job will be to listen. In the face of worries about public schools as they re-segregate, police brutality that the black community sees as a clearly established pattern despite white denial, and crime’s disproportionate impact on minorities, white Christians must be willing to accept that our understanding of reality might not be the most accurate one.

“What is the institution that’s going to bridge the racial divide?” Jones asked.

“I don’t know what it is. It won’t be the churches.”

Let’s prove him wrong.

Ryan Hammill is a former Online Assistant for Sojourners. Follow him @ryanahammill.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Survey Says Americans More Pessimistic Than Ever. But Here's Why There's Hope."
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe