On Tuesday morning, as many Republican governors and presidential aspirants were jockeying to express their antipathy to Muslim refugees hoping to emigrate to the United States, the Brookings Institution held an event to unveil the findings of this year’s American Values Survey. Titled “Anxiety, Nostalgia and Mistrust,” the report goes a long way toward explaining the intensity of the anti-Muslim sentiment that has gripped Republican politicians (and a couple Democrats) in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris.
The survey itself was taken before the attacks, so it likely doesn’t capture the full spectrum of fear and mistrust among U.S. demographic groups that exists toward Muslims today. Even so, it vividly illustrates why a presidential candidate intent on appealing to Republican primary voters might, as Chris Christie did on Monday, take a position on Muslim refugees so extreme that it even barred orphaned toddlers.
The survey, by the Public Religion Research Institute, measures the feelings of different religious groups toward Islam. By far the most negative response came from white evangelical Protestants, 73 percent of whom agreed with the statement, “The values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.”
To a Republican presidential candidate, white evangelical Protestants are the single most important demographic group to appeal to. They’re overwhelming Republican. They’re more likely than other groups to vote in primary elections. And according to a PRRI study of exit poll data from the 2008 and 2012 GOP primaries, they’re especially highly concentrated in the early primary states. A Rasmussen report based on PRRI data found that “about two-thirds (64%) of the total delegates in states with contests on or before March 8 will come from states with electorates that may be at least 50% white evangelical.”
But religious affiliation isn’t the only lens through which Republican politicians are considering the issue of Muslim refugees—the mere fact that they’re potential immigrants is politically salient on the right. The PRRI study also lays bare the view popular among Tea Party (dark red dot) and Republican (red dot) voters that U.S. Christians are the truly oppressed group, and one whose interests are routinely subordinated to those of “immigrants” by the federal government:
When you add to these findings President Barack Obama's just-reiterated intention to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, the reason for the sudden negative Republican reaction to the prospect of Muslim refugees becomes, while no less cold-hearted, a bit clearer to understand.