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Americans Deeply Divided by Party on Ideals of Religious and Ethnic Pluralism

PRRI contact: Ian Hainline

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The Atlantic contact: Anna Bross

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New PRRI/The Atlantic Survey: Americans Deeply Divided by Party on Ideals of Religious and Ethnic Pluralism

But Americans Remain Optimistic About Overcoming Divisions—Except Political Ones

WASHINGTON, Thursday, February 21, 2019 – A new PRRI/The Atlantic survey of American attitudes about the health of our nation’s democratic institutions reveals that partisan divisions over racial diversity and religious pluralism have Americans split, but most are optimistic divisions can be overcome except those that are political. This survey, the latest in a series of surveys examining challenges to democratic institutions and practices, discovered that despite these stark divides, Americans remain optimistic about the country’s ability to work together to solve national problems. However, there is greater optimism about working across racial and religious lines than political divisions.

Divergent Partisan Visions on Ethnic and Religious Pluralism

Overall, nearly half of Americans generally support a racially and ethnically diverse vision of the United States. When asked to align themselves with a vision of the United States, “I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation made up of people from all over the world” or “I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people from Western European heritage,” 47 percent of Americans mostly agree with the former compared to the less than nine percent of Americans who agree with the second statement. Thirty-nine percent of Americans place themselves in the middle.

“Divergent attitudes about the very desirability of ethnic and religious pluralism are one of the key drivers of partisan polarization today,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “Compared to Americans who identify with the Republican Party, Americans who identify with the Democratic Party are twice as likely to affirm a preference for an ethnically diverse country and are four times as likely to prefer a religiously diverse country.”

There are stark political divisions on this issue. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Democrats, compared to only three in ten (29 percent) Republicans, mostly prefer a country with racial and ethnic diversity. Republicans are nearly twice as likely as Democrats to state a preference for a Western European majority (13 vs. 7 percent).

Americans also support religious diversity but disagree on what form that should take. Thirty-four percent of Americans agree with the statement, “I would prefer the U.S. to be made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions.” Fewer than one in four (24 percent) prefers the U.S. “to be a nation primarily made up of people who follow the Christian faith.”

Again, there are sharp partisan divides on this question. Fifty-four percent of Democrats, but just 12 percent of Republicans, prefer religious diversity. Forty percent of Republicans prefer a Christian majority, compared to only 14 percent of Democrats.

Religious divides on this issue reveal two noteworthy views: religiously unaffiliated Americans (66 percent) are more likely than any religious group to agree with the statement supporting religious diversity, while 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants prefer a primarily Christian nation.

Optimism About Overcoming America’s Racial and Religious Divisions, but Not Partisan Divisions

Despite these divisions, two in three (66 percent) Americans say they feel optimistic that the country can work across both religious and racial divides. However, fifty-nine percent of Americans say they feel pessimistic about whether Americans who hold different political views can come together and solve the country’s problems. Just 38 percent feel optimistic that this can still happen.

The survey also provides a poignant portrait of just how personal partisan polarization has become. Nearly half of all Democrats (45 percent) and more than a third of Republicans (35 percent) say they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposite political party. A stark gap has emerged on this question over time: in 1960 only four percent of Democrats or Republicans said they would be displeased if their son or daughter married someone of the opposite party.

Diversity as a Strength and Perceptions of What Makes Someone “Truly American”

Although Americans feel the country is divided on racial lines, they also feel that diversity is a strength: 62 percent of Americans agree that the country’s diverse population, with people of many different races, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds, makes the country stronger. Only 13 percent say it makes the country weaker. There is bipartisan agreement on this question, though Democrats are most intense in valuing diversity as a strength. Seventy-seven percent of Democrats say diversity makes America stronger, together with 55 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans. One in five (20 percent) Republicans, though, say that the U.S.’s diverse population makes it weaker.

Americans are also united in seeing several traits as critical to being “truly American.”

The vast majority of Americans agree that believing in individual freedoms, such as freedom of speech (91 percent), respecting American political institutions and laws (90 percent), accepting people of diverse racial and religious backgrounds (86 percent), and being able to speak English (83 percent) are somewhat or very important to being American.

Other characteristics are more controversial, with differences falling along partisan lines. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans say being “truly American” means believing capitalism is the best economic system (79 percent), believing in God (73 percent) and being born in America (63 percent). On none of these issues does support among Democrats reach a majority.

The Workplace: Where Americans Encounter Diversity

Seventy-four percent of Americans interact with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in their workplace – more than any other social gathering place by nearly 30 points. This gap holds true for most Americans’ experiences of diversity.

“We often think of public schools as places where Americans come together across lines of difference, but few Americans report having that experience,” said Jones. “Instead, most Americans report their interactions with those different from themselves happens in the workplace. This means that corporate America is increasingly left to shoulder the task of fostering basic democratic values of pluralism. While many corporations are stepping up, their primary focus on the bottom line may not always be aligned with the goals of broader civic education.”

Where Americans interact with people who differ from them by:


Religious background

Sexual orientation

Political Party

  • In the workplace





  • Among friends





  • At their children’s school





  • Within family





  • Civic gatherings





  • Religious Services





  • School they attend





Note: Numbers in table reflect percentages. Multiple responses accepted; results do not add up to 100.

The 2020 Census

While a contentious legal fight takes place over asking respondents to the 2020 Census if they are U.S. Citizens, public opinion on the impact of this question is clear. Three in four (76 percent) of Americans say it is at least somewhat likely that that the Census will not get an accurate count because some people will be worried about answering this question. A majority of Americans (53 percent) say this is very likely. Majorities of white (82 percent) and Hispanic (75 percent) Americans and black Americans (55 percent) all say that the addition of a citizenship question would threaten the Census’ accuracy.

Barriers to Voting

Few Americans who voted in the 2018 midterm elections reported problems at the polls. However, those affected were far more likely to be nonwhite:

  • Voter Harassment: Nonwhite voters were eight times as likely to report they were harassed or bothered as white voters.
  • Not on voting lists: Nonwhite voters were more than three times as likely as white voters to report being told their name was not on a voting list even though they were registered.
  • Long Lines: Nonwhite voters were twice as likely to have to wait in a long line to vote in 2018.
  • Incorrect Identification: Nonwhite voters were three times as likely to report they were told they did not have the correct identification.


The PRRI/The Atlantic 2018 Pluralism Survey was conducted by PRRI in partnership with The Atlantic among a random sample of adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States and who are part of Ipsos’s Knowledge Panel. The survey included a national sample (N=1,073) representing all 50 states. The survey also over-sampled those living in Ohio (338), Illinois (356), Michigan (354), Wisconsin (338), and Minnesota (360). Interviews were conducted online in both English and Spanish between December 17 and 23, 2018. The survey was made possible by generous grants from The Joyce Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and McKnight Foundation. The margin of error for the national survey is +/- 3.3 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.2.

About PRRI

PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture and public policy.

About The Atlantic

Founded in 1857 and today one of the fastest growing media platforms in the industry, The Atlantic has throughout its history championed the power of big ideas and continues to shape global debate across print, digital, events, and video platforms. With its award-winning digital presence TheAtlantic.com and CityLab.com on cities around the world, The Atlantic is a multimedia forum on the most critical issues of our times—from politics, business, urban affairs, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture. Bob Cohn is president of The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg is editor in chief. Emerson Collective is majority owner; Atlantic Media is the minority operating owner of The Atlantic.