Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
In November 2012, when millions of Americans go to polling stations, they will cast their vote for either a black or Mormon presidential candidate. Intergroup attitudes will play a significant role in an election where, for the first time, two men with minority backgrounds have been selected for candidacy by the major parties. Scholars have found that minority candidates have a hard time finding electoral support among white Americans. So, what is the current status of religious, racial, and ethnic minorities in the minds of white Americans? Will the racial prejudice that narrowed Obama’s victory in 2008 be an issue again?
The theory of ethnocentrism, first coined by William G. Sumner at the very beginning of the 20th century, argues that mainstream society perceives all minorities with an across-the-board attitude: in other words, that mainstream Americans either have favorable feelings toward all minorities, or dislike all minorities. According to this theory, ethnocentrism does not discriminate; it creates a clear boundary between the mainstream and all others (see Don Kinder and Cindy Kam’s recent book Us Against Them, and Paul Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn’s book When Ways of Life Collide for an more detailed treatment of ethnocentrism). However, as I illustrate below, prejudice toward minorities in America follows an ethnocentric pattern with two clusters, a finding which has significant implications for the upcoming election.
“What It Means to Be American,” a survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in September 2011, enables us to answer these questions empirically. The survey asked respondents about favorability toward six American minorities: atheists, black Americans, Jewish Americans, Hispanic Americans, Mormons, and Muslim Americans. By using factor analysis (a statistical technique used to uncover underlying values or orientations from observable opinions or behaviors), I find that not all religious, racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. evoke similar responses from white Americans, but rather cluster into distinct groups: “traditional minorities,” which include blacks, Hispanics and Jews and “cultural outgroups,” which includes Mormons, Muslims and atheists.
Traditional minorities have been living in the United States for long enough or grown large enough to become part of the cultural mainstream. The first figure shows that black Americans, Jewish Americans, and Hispanic Americans score high on this traditional minorities dimension. They are less disliked and more welcomed minorities in the eyes of white Americans.
Cultural outgroups—atheists, Mormons, and Muslims—are viewed very differently. These groups all fall outside of mainstream society culturally, behaviorally, or both. White Americans perceive atheists, Mormons, and Muslims through a common lens. They are viewed less favorably and are generally less welcomed than black Americans, Jewish Americans, and Hispanic Americans. There is, however, a range of perspectives on these cultural “outgroups.” Mormons are seen as most akin to the traditional minorities, atheists are viewed as furthest from the “traditional” minorities, and Muslims score in the middle. It seems most likely, given this analysis, that Mormons could soon join blacks, Jews, and Latinos as part of the “traditional” minority group.
It’s important to note that while Americans approach these groups in markedly different ways, opinions of minority groups are generally related, meaning that warmer attitudes toward Muslims go hand-in-hand with warmer attitudes toward Jews, blacks, and Latinos. Similarly, prejudice toward Mormons is likely to be accompanied by prejudice toward Latinos.
Is there a partisan story for this two-dimensional nature of prejudice in the United States? The short answer is yes. The second figure shows the partisan breakdown of average favorability toward traditional and cultural minorities. White Republicans hold very negative feelings toward cultural outgroups (atheists, Mormons, and Muslims), and are almost indifferent toward traditional minorities (blacks, Jews, and Latinos). White Democrats, on the other hand, have high positive ratings toward both dimensions of minorities. White Independents hold somewhat negative feelings toward the traditional outgroups, and very positive attitudes toward the cultural outgroups.
How will this play out in this November’s election? There are many black, Hispanic, and Jewish politicians in American politics today. However, there are fewer openly atheist, Mormon, and Muslim politicians in public office. Perhaps what it takes for a minority group to become part of the traditional minorities cluster is its ability to recruit salient political figures. If this is true, we can speculate that Romney’s candidacy may speed the movement of Mormons from a cultural outgroup to a traditional minority.