Who faces more discrimination in America: Christians or Muslims? To many Americans, the answer may seem obvious — Muslims, after all, face a president who’s called to ban them from the US.
But among white evangelicals, the question is up for debate.
A new survey of 2,000 US adults, conducted in February by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), suggested that white evangelicals think Christians face more discrimination than Muslims. The poll found that 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants said that Christians face “a lot of discrimination” in the US today, while just 44 percent said the same of Muslims. White evangelicals were the only major Christian denomination to as a group indicate that Christians face more discrimination than Muslims.
White evangelicals’ beliefs here are easily disproved. But the results are telling in that they show how political and religious ideologies can drive some people into bubbles — to the point that they might believe a majority-Christian country is actually more likely to discriminate against Christians than Muslims.
Muslims face a lot more discrimination than other groups
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Muslims absolutely face more discrimination than Christians and just about any other religious group in the US.
There are all sorts of anecdotes to this effect, from people calling Muslims “terrorists” in the street for seemingly no reason to President Donald Trump proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the US.
But the empirical evidence backs this up as well.
A Pew Research Center survey from earlier this year had Americans rank their warmth toward different religious groups. Muslims again ranked the lowest. Christians were higher — by fairly big margins — than every other religious group except Jews.
Similarly, in studies conducted by Northwestern University psychologist Nour Kteily, researchers had participants rank different groups based on how evolved they are. Among the set of groups provided, Muslims ranked the lowest.
Again, at some level this should be obvious. Christians are a majority group in the US. Muslims are a minority that’s been blamed, sometimes explicitly by world leaders, for major terrorist attacks around the world. It doesn’t take much thought to realize who faces more discrimination in this scenario.
White evangelicals feel like they’re losing the culture wars
So how could this possibly be a view that white evangelicals hold? One answer may be that as they lose culture wars about LGBTQ rights and abortion, white evangelicals feel more and more like they’re outcasts in US society.
Conservative media in recent years has reflected this sense of persecution. Bill O’Reilly has repeatedly blasted a so-called “war on Christmas,” because some people say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.” Right-wing outlets circulated other conspiracy theories that former President Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, and that Obama was trying to undermine Christian values about marriage and family with his liberal agenda.
Indeed, this is the kind of sentiment that Arlie Hochschild encountered in her seminal study of Tea Party members in Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own Land. The book is laced with anecdotes like the following — of people expressing the belief that the federal government under Obama was in some way working to diminish Christianity and God:
If the federal government was committed to a multicultural America that dimmed the position of the Christian church, it was getting in the way of that church, diminishing the importance of God, and it was God who had enabled them to survive their terrible ordeal.
The research may not back up this feeling, particularly if it leads to some white evangelicals claiming that they face more discrimination than a truly marginalized religious group such as Muslims. But it’s a sentiment that is very strong on the religious right, fueled by where they see culture and politics going in America.