In today's presidential election, African Americans and the white working class will likely support opposing candidates: The former has been firmly behind Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton since the primaries, while the latter forms the foundation of Republican candidate Donald Trump's base. But these two groups arguably have more in common with one another than with the rest of the country.
In particular, they have a common religious history, and they share certain views on political issues like same-sex marriage as well as a skepticism of certain earthly authorities, such as large corporations and government. African Americans and the white working class share “a similar fundamental outlook in terms of the way the world works,” said Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
Trump has been remarkably successful in appealing to white voters who understand the world in this way. He has brought religious leaders onto the stage with him and stoked suspicion of the political establishment. But his appeal has not extended to members of other racial groups with similar views. Polling shows that these groups are divided on an issue that, at least in this election, will likely prove more influential than religion or values as voters cast their ballots today: cultural and racial identity.
NBC's “Saturday Night Live” made this point last month with an instantly classic “Black Jeopardy” sketch in which black contestants share common views with a supporter of Trump about religion and their mistrust of government. They share an affinity for Tyler Perry's religiously themed films, raise suspicion about the purpose of iPhone's thumbprint security feature, turn a skeptical eye toward transgender Olympic champion Caitlyn Jenner, and agree that secret forces decide the election before voters enter the booths.
Implicitly, the segment raised the provocative question of how American politics and American society might be different if it weren't for the question of race.
“You can find lots of similarities. Where those two groups really separate in a very significant way are around issues of race and group identity,” Oliver said. He added that the issue of race “precludes that sense of commonalty that would otherwise be there.”
'Shaped by God'
The similarities begin with faith. Though African Americans and the white working class have had vastly different experiences over the course of American history, they share a religious tradition, and they continue to subscribe to many of the same principles.
Nationally, a bare majority of Americans — just 51 percent — are Protestants today, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. That is compared to 77 percent of African Americans and 60 percent of the white working class (identified by the institute as those without a college education who are not salaried).
Many in both groups today can trace their traditions and beliefs to the Second Great Awakening, a series of revivals during which Methodist and Baptist preachers gained followers, making these denominations two of the largest in the early republic. Although the churches that developed afterward quickly segregated, the religious meetings were often interracial, said Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a historian at Washington University in St. Louis.
“That was part of the appeal,” Maffly-Kipp said. “The Holy Spirit worked in you whether you were white or black or rich or poor.”
Some historians argue these evangelical faiths were more democratic and that they were particularly successful with black congregants and the white working class as a result. The faiths placed an emphasis on believers' individual capacity to choose salvation and then to serve as God's mouthpiece and instrument by, for example, healing the sick through prayer.
On one hand, people have had a range of reasons for following their faith. Though many wealthy Americans shared this religious enthusiasm, there was an early appeal to people who were disadvantaged in American society, said Nancy Isenberg, a historian at Louisiana State University. Race and class were irrelevant to this direct relationship with God.
“Those features are really important for people who are powerless or who feel alienated, or feel that the world has moved in a direction they don’t like,” Isenberg said. “They believe in prayer — that their destiny will be shaped by God, not necessarily social or economic forces, which, to them, don’t look that bright, which tend to look more bleak.”
The power of prayer
This religious history is arguably reflected in black Americans and white working class Americans today. Oliver asked respondents about biblical inerrancy and prophecy and the healing power of prayer. Overall, 45 percent of respondents said that prayer had the power to heal. The figure was 53 percent among Trump's supporters (who include the majority of white working-class voters) and 57 percent among African Americans.
On the whole, 35 percent said that the Bible could not be wrong. Among African Americans and Trump's supporters, the figure was 49 percent and 46 percent, respectively.
These strong religious views also unite black Americans and the white working class on certain political issues. For instance, just 39 percent of black Protestants and 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants favor same-sex marriage, compared to 55 percent of the country as a whole, according to the Pew Research Center.
Religion might also explain one of the more striking similarities between these two groups: their views on child rearing. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right,” instructs Ephesians 6:1.
Polling data has shown that views on child rearing are part of what unites Trump's coalition. A poll conducted during the primary campaign found that, among demographically similar Republicans, those with stricter views on parenting were more likely to support Trump.
Political scientists at Vanderbilt University have found that roughly three quarters of African Americans also believe it is more important for children to respect their elders than to be self-reliant. Nearly four in five favor good manners in children over curiosity. These views on child rearing, however, have not led to significant support among African Americans for the Republican candidate.
Oliver's poll also suggests a shared skepticism of the motives of certain elite authorities between black Americans and the white working class, as reflected in more common acceptance of conspiracy theories than in the general population. For instance, in Oliver's poll, 34 percent black respondents said they thought the financial crisis had been a scheme to extend the power and influence of the Federal Reserve. An identical share of Trump's supporters agreed.
Nearly half — 48 percent — of African Americans said they believed the Food and Drug Administration was withholding natural cures for cancer to make money for the pharmaceuticals industry, and a quarter said federal officials were withholding information about a connection between autism and vaccination.
Trump's supporters were even more conspiratorially minded. Fifty-six percent endorsed the theory about cancer and 30 percent agreed with the claim about autism and vaccines.
In a poll conducted in May at Fairleigh Dickinson University, 29 percent of Trump's supporters said it was definitely true that “global warming is a myth concocted by scientists,” and 22 percent of black respondents agreed.
Oliver's past research has found that there is an association between views on prayer and the Bible and belief in conspiracy theories. He pointed out that those who believe that the apocalypse is approaching might be more likely to see divine or demonic forces at work in the world, and as a result, they might be more likely to assign ulterior motives to political actors — one of the conceits the best-selling books in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's “Left Behind” series.
Despite these similarities, polling shows black Americans and the white working class are divided on one issue that will likely prove more influential in this election. Among demographically similar Republicans and Republican-inclined independents, those who were anxious about white status relative to that of other groups were more likely to support Trump in the primary.
Those who told pollsters that white Americans “losing out due to preferences for blacks and Hispanics” is a bigger problem than the reverse were more likely to support Trump, the analysis found.
Although Trump announced his campaign by describing Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, his supporters might interpret the New York businessman's rhetoric as a defense of what they believe to be the legitimate interests of white voters. In a recent poll by The Post and ABC, less than half of white respondents without a college degree said that Donald Trump is biased against women and minorities.
African Americans apparently view Trump's rhetoric differently. Seventy-seven percent of black respondents in that poll said that Trump was biased.
They also had more favorable views of immigrants. Sixty-eight percent said that immigrants strengthen American society overall, while exactly half of white respondents without a college degree agreed.
Among black respondents, 84 percent favored eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants, compared to just 70 percent of white respondents without a college education.
The “Saturday Night Live” sketch ends with an acknowledgment of the capacity of racial tension to divide people who have so much else in common. “Black Jeopardy” host Darnell Hayes, played by Kenan Thompson, reads the final category: “Lives that Matter.”
There is an awkward pause, then Hayes turns to the Trump supporter and says, “Well, it was good while it lasted, Doug.”
Correction: A chart in this story has been updated to include the correct data for voters' belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.
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