Early in the 2016 Presidential campaign, which feels like both a lifetime ago and only yesterday, then-candidate Donald Trump stood in front of supporters and called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Just seven days after his inauguration, the world experienced its first taste of conservative social policy in the Trump era when President Trump issued an executive order to ban entry from seven Muslim-majority nations.
It ignited massive protests in the US and abroad. It triggered an extended legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. It prompted public discussions about whether the American people actually wanted a so-called “Muslim ban” or instead would prefer to continue to welcome folks from all walks of life.
The prevailing opinion in that discussion was — shockingly — that, yes, most Americans did want a Muslim ban, though a large minority were opposed. At the time, polls showed the President’s Muslim ban was supported by over 50% of Americans and opposed by roughly 40%.
Those numbers should be enough to make us spit our coffee all over the screen. The USA is a nation of immigrants. It’s a country that calls itself the “Land of the Free.” Our citizens young and old will inform you, loudly and proudly, that the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of religion. One would think religious freedom and tolerance would be an overarching priority.
So, why would a majority of Americans support an immigration policy expressly designed to discriminate against Muslims? And, if most supported it, why not all? Why might a sizeable minority have had the wherewithal to reject the Muslim ban in favor of a more tolerant, welcoming, and equitable society?
As we’ll see, some new research in social psychology can help us better understand these two very different patterns of approaches to immigration — and no doubt a host of other issues — in contemporary American politics.
The political landscape: Matters of life and death.
One important observation is that, although we may not be aware of it in any given moment, political issues are largely about managing existential psychological concerns. Whether it’s healthcare, abortion, war/terrorism, gun violence, racial justice, food/drug safety, climate change, or other such topics, the most important policy items are often those that are most directly connected to matters of life and death.
That atmosphere of existential concern in politics is so critically important because over the past ~35 years hundreds of studies around the world have examined the impact of human existential concerns, and they reveal an important difference between the way we respond to explicit and implicit awareness of existential threat.
When we’re explicitly aware of death — when it’s in focal/conscious awareness — we experience discomfort and we know why. Sometimes we try to simply suppress the thought or deny our vulnerability to it, but most often we take whatever logical steps we can to remain alive and well — we wear a seatbelt in the car, we apply SPF before hitting the beach, we schedule a check-up with our doctor, that sort of stuff.
When we experience implicit awareness of death — when the concept of death is “on the mind” but not necessarily in focal/conscious awareness — we still experience discomfort, but we can’t really put our finger on the problem so we can’t really take any logical steps to solve it. Instead, our minds will try to attenuate that implicit sense of impermanence by motivating us to successfully participate in cultural worldviews that offer a sense of permanence through secular legacy (national identity, contributions to government, art, science, prosocial values, etc.) and/or supernatural means (e.g., souls, afterlife). This, in part, is why we often take our cultural identities, beliefs, standards, and values so extraordinarily seriously.
So, which cultural identities and beliefs might be relevant to the majority of Americans? According to the US Census Bureau and the Pew Research Center, the US population is over 76% White and about 71% Christian. Keep that in mind as we continue to think about how existential concerns impact the way people treat each other.
Now, because our cultural worldviews — our beliefs, standards, and values — are fundamentally social constructions, confidence in their veracity and utility is profoundly dependent on social validation. When other people share our worldviews, that consensus helps affirm them as valid, worthwhile sets of beliefs. But when others have different cultural identities with a competing set of beliefs, or if they reject our own, it raises the possibility that our own cultures might be wrong and it might even threaten our own way of life more directly.
Thus, if our mind is trying to manage the implicit existential concerns underlying most political issues, we’ll tend to prefer people who share (socially validate) our own cultural experience and we’ll tend to have a pretty difficult time getting along with people who see the world differently.
How does this impact the average Americans’ attitudes toward Muslims?
Research shows that when existential concerns become implicitly active, predominantly White Christian Americans prefer other people who look like them, think like them, and live like them.
By the same token, however, it also means it’ll stir up some pretty negative attitudes about Muslims who, to White Christian Americans, are strangers (less than 1% of the US population) who don’t look like them, don’t live like them, have a very different view of the world, and — thanks to the availability heuristic — may seem like a dangerous threat to their own way of life in what they may perceive to be their own White Christian nation. The negative attitude and resentment may become even stronger as, according to data from PRRI, the numbers of White Christians dominating American social and political life is indeed losing ground to a generation with more diverse racial and religious (and non-religious) cultural experiences.
Indeed, carefully controlled psychology experiments among predominantly White Christians found that activating existential concerns increased the desire to restrict the civil rights of Muslims, and — alarmingly — that their existential concerns were relieved after experimenters showed participants reports about Muslims killed in a plane crash. Similar studies in the USA show existential concern also fuels Americans’ anti-Arab prejudice and anti-immigrant attitudes.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
As we mentioned at the outset, the American public isn’t a monolith, and neither are its White Christian constituencies. Remember that 40% of the population who rejected Trump’s 2017 Muslim ban? No doubt they experienced the same existential concerns that everyone else does, but their existential motivational trajectory was routed away from White Christian nationalism and toward a more tolerant, welcoming, and equitable society.
Why? To better understand that it’s important to remember that implicit existential concerns simply motivate people to want to successfully live up to relevant cultural beliefs, standards, and values. It doesn’t have an inherent political direction. Sure, existential concerns will drive us each to our community’s corner of the cultural boxing ring — ready to duke it out to defend our way of life. But each one of us has so many different cultural lenses. At any given moment we could view the world through the lens of our religion, age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sex and gender, sexual orientation, indigenous heritage, nationality, political orientation, sports fandom, dietary preference — the list goes on and on.
So, the question is: In any given moment, which community is our community, and which of our community’s cultural beliefs, standards, and values are at the forefront of our minds?
Change the cultural lens.
In many circles, folks encounter messages — often couched amid existential concerns — that focus one’s view of the world through their White or Christian cultural lenses. They receive messages that Mexicans are criminals, drug-dealers, and rapists; that a “thin blue line” of police is the only thing between them and the chaos of Black and Brown “thugs” who are either rioting or about to riot; or that abortion, homosexuality, and Muslims are among the most pressing challenges facing their modern Christian family. For individuals living in that sort of cultural milieu, existential concern can easily motivate support for conservative policy designed to “defend” their White Christian ways of life in some rather exclusionary and anti-democratic ways.
But when situations refocus their view of the world through the lens of more prosocial cultural standards and values, implicit existential concerns can motivate some of those very same folks to want to uphold and defend those more prosocial values. Studies among predominantly White Christian participants found that, when researchers primed relevant prosocial cultural norms, elevated existential concern led participants to be more empathetic and forgiving, more tolerant and compassionate, more helpful and pacifist, and more racially egalitarian.
That research suggests that when it comes to existential concern motivating large swaths of the American public toward White Christian nationalism, it doesn’t have to be that way. If we make the effort to change the cultural lens — to emphasize prosocial values, such as education and compassion — then we might bend the trajectory of existential motivation away from White Christian nationalism and toward the maintenance of a free, open, and equitable society.
A real-world test of ideas:
How to curb existentially-motivated anti-Islamic prejudice.
To test these ideas, a team of researchers at Cleveland State University and University of Missouri conducted a set of carefully controlled experiments. The studies focused on a real-world episode of anti-Islamic prejudice in American politics, similar to Trump’s 2017 Muslim ban, but surrounding the election of Rep. Keith Ellison to Minnesota’s 5th congressional district.
With his win in Minnesota, Ellison — who also happens to be Black — made history in 2006 as the first Muslim elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. But before taking office, Ellison stirred strong reactions across the nation by announcing he would swear his oath of office on the Quran instead of the Bible as his Christian counterparts have traditionally done.
Criticism from White Christian nationalists poured in, from talk radio hosts to sitting congressmen. Most notably, Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., a five-term congressman from Virginia, mailed letters to his constituents explaining that he “does not subscribe to using the Koran in any way,” adding that “…if American citizens don’t wake up… on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. We need to stop illegal immigration totally, and reduce legal immigration, and end the Diversity Visas policy that allows many persons from the Middle East to come to this country.”
Supporters, on the other hand, cautioned against anti-Islamic prejudice. For example, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who took her oath of office on the Tanakh (i.e., Jewish Hebrew Bible) the previous year, publicly responded to Rep. Goode’s letter, saying “Each of us has every right to lay our hand on the bible that we were raised with; that’s what America is all about — diversity, understanding, and tolerance.”
Clearly, the situation was pointing some folks down the path to prejudice while pointing others down the path to tolerance and acceptance. The question that the research team was investigating was whether existential concerns and salient tolerance values influence those responses in the ways articulated here.
To find out, the team conducted two experiments that each consisted of 3 main phases. In the first phase, participants were randomly assigned to be presented with a set of four statements that highlighted either (a) the cultural value of compassion, tolerance, and acceptance, or (b) a set of statements that were simply neutral. In the second phase, participants were randomly assigned to a task that either (a) implicitly activated the concept of death (existential concern), or (b) didn’t (control topic). In the third and final phase, participants were presented with brief info about the election of Rep. Ellison, then they were given Rep. Goode’s anti-Islamic letter, and then they were asked to indicate how much they agreed with Goode’s letter.
Data patterns in both studies showed that when participants were presented with only neutral statements, heightened existential concern caused them to more strongly endorse Goodes’ anti-Muslim anti-immigrant letter.
But when presented with statements highlighting the moral value of tolerance, participants with heightened existential concerns did not endorse Goode’s letter and instead appear to have maintained a welcoming acceptance of Rep. Ellison’s beliefs and practices.
Bend the arc of existential motivation toward compassion.
This research helps us better understand how, in a predominantly White and Christian nation, existential concerns would motivate some folks to focus on defending their traditional White Christian ways of life.
It can help explain why Rep. Virgil Goode had such a big problem with a Black Muslim being elected to the US Congress, and swearing his oath of office on the Islamic Quran instead of the Christian Bible. It can help explain why Donald Trump promised to halt Muslim immigration, and why over 50% of Americans supported his anti-Muslim travel ban during the first days of his Presidency. And it can probably also tell us something about what motivates many Americans toward socially conservative, White Christian nationalist perspectives on a broad range of other issues — from immigration to foreign policy, law enforcement, judicial nominations, racial justice movements, marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights, religious private vs. secular public education, science, climate change, and so on.
But this research also helps us to better understand that, when one’s prosocial cultural values are particularly salient, those same existential concerns can motivate folks to instead focus on being more empathetic, helpful, and egalitarian.
It can help explain why Rep. Wasserman-Schultz came to the defense of Rep. Ellison’s religious and political freedoms in the name of diversity, understanding, and tolerance. It can help explain why roughly 40% of Americans opposed President Trump’s anti-Islamic travel ban and engaged, instead, in large international protests calling for more tolerant, compassionate policies. And it can probably also tell us a good deal about what motivates many Americans toward other socially progressive causes, and corresponding public policy perspectives, designed to be inclusive, fair, and respectful to people from all walks of life.
So, in a time marked by challenges to democratic norms, political back-sliding, and tribalism, what can those of us who value the ideals of liberal Western democracy do with a better understanding about how the existential mind works?
In a word: Intervene. Don’t shy away from existential fears, but accept and work with them. Recognize that existential concerns will always be with us, and the most important political issues of the day will always focus on them, in one way or another. Those concerns motivate people to want to defend and uphold their most salient cultural identities, standards, and values. But we can influence which of our cultural identities, standards, and values are most salient and thus guide those motivations toward the better angels of our nature.
So, learn to recognize the existential concerns inherent in most political issues, and — when they come up — use word and deed to draw our view of the world through the lenses of prosocial identities and values. Bend the trajectory of our collective existential motivations toward the defense of a more understanding, kind, and compassionate way of life.
- White Christian America Needs a Moral Awakening. The Atlantic (2020, July 28).
- White Christians continue to favor Trump over Biden, but support has slipped. Pew Research Forum (2020, October 13).
- U.S. Muslims Concerned About Their Place in Society, but Continue to Believe in the American Dream. Pew Research Forum (2017, July 26).
The following is an example of how to recognize existential concerns in politics and then shift the existential motivational trajectory toward more compassionate American values. Immediately after the final 2020 Presidential Debate, Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC) presented a 3-minute video depicting the life and death issues involved in healthcare, highlighted that voters have a choice about the availability of care, and emphasized that “Americans take care of one another.”
Research studies of interest:
Vail, K. E., Courtney, E., & Arndt, J. (2019). The influence of existential awareness and tolerance on anti-Islamic attitudes in American politics. Political Psychology, 40, 1143–1162.