American Identity Is The New Culture War
A new PRRI/The Atlantic survey exposes painful divides, with some hope
By The Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen
This past fall, I was speaking with white mainline protestant pastors in rural western Iowa, the home of far-right Congressman Steve King, and Trump country. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump carried all of these counties, many by 80% of the vote. These pastors, mostly white moderates serving mostly white conservative congregations, felt embattled. One recounted a parishioner standing up and objecting to the Bible reading in which Jesus proclaims good news to the poor and liberty to the oppressed (Gospel of Luke 4:18).
We are, in some respects, in a new moment of crisis as a nation.
A compelling new survey from Washington D.C.-based public option researchers PRRI and The Atlantic goes a long way to helping us understand the dire circumstances we face at this point in our history as a nation. While historians will surely point to other moments when our body politic was roiled with division and conflict, we are, in some respects, in a new moment of crisis as a nation. The survey, American Democracy in Crisis: The Fate of Pluralism in a Divided Nation, takes stock of attitudes about racial diversity and religious pluralism, and the institutions that either support or erode our capacity to deal well the challenges each pose.
A disturbingly large number of citizens live in a “bubble of sameness,” neither seeking or desiring encounters with others across racial/ethnic or religious difference.
As The Atlantic reporter Emma Green reports in an article based on the survey findings, a disturbingly large number of citizens live in a “bubble of sameness,” neither seeking or desiring encounters with others across racial/ethnic or religious difference. Further, a similar number, when asked whether they desire a nation with religious diversity versus a Christian majority, an unsurprising partisan divide shows itself with only 12% of Republican respondents saying they desire a religiously diverse nation, compared with 54% of Democrats.
Stepping back from the details of the survey, PRRI CEO Robert Jones notes that as people of color and of diverse faith traditions other than Christian reach “a critical mass, I think it throws Americans as a whole back into a conversation about affirming these principles [of pluralism] or not. If you think culture war today, it’s less about gay marriage and abortion than it is about American identity.” Auburn’s vision for a future story of the United States where all belong, where we share space for the dignity and potential of every individual and group to thrive, directly responds to the challenges of this new culture war over identity.
I think it throws Americans as a whole back into a conversation about affirming these principles [of pluralism] or not.
The survey does offer some hope, noting that two in three (66%) of respondents said they feel optimistic about overcoming racial/ethnic and religious divides and that there are institutions working towards such healing, especially religious organizations, schools, workplaces, the military and community organizations. This is tempered by a strong pessimism about overcoming political divides, and an overwhelming sense that political parties and the media are major forces in driving these divides. The stakes couldn’t be higher as we struggle as a nation to build, and not burn, bridges between the white rural pastors and their congregations I met in Iowa, and the growing diversity of our bold experiment in pluralism and democracy we call the United States of America.
The Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and leads of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn.
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