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Deep divisions in Americans' views on race, faith

Americans are sharply divided on issues from race to religion, often along generational and partisan lines, a survey concluded on Tuesday.
/ Source: Reuters

Americans are sharply divided on issues from race to religion, often along generational and partisan lines, a survey concluded on Tuesday.

The survey of nearly 2,500 Americans by a pair of Washington think tanks found sharp divisions on a host of issues, ranging from immigration policy to attitudes toward followers of other religious faiths.

"Ten years after September 11, 2001, we seem far less united as a nation," the report from the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute said.

"The survey findings suggest that we are in the midst of a struggle over what growing religious, racial and ethnic diversity means for American politics and society, and that partisan and ideological polarization around these questions will make them difficult to resolve," it said.

One of those divides is between young and old. There are sizable gaps between seniors aged 65 and older and those aged 18 to 29 on whether to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, support for gay marriage and favorable views of blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and atheists.

The relative tolerance of the younger "millennial" generation was seen, optimistically, as suggesting "the arc of American history will, again, bend toward inclusion," the report concluded.


The survey, which was completed during the first two weeks of August, asked how Americans felt a decade after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and found 53 percent said the country is safer from terrorism now than it was before the attacks.

But eight in 10 believed Americans enjoy less personal freedom and seven in 10 said America is less respected in the world than before the attacks.

While the majority of Americans believe in religious tolerance as a basic right, many expressed suspicions directed toward Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Mormons. Two of the top Republican candidates for president, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, are Mormons. .

Overall, 58 percent of those surveyed held a "favorable" view of Muslims, though less than half of Republicans held that view compared to two-thirds of Democrats. The survey had an error margin of 2 percentage points.

There were also gaps between generally liberal Democrats and more conservative Republicans in how comfortable they were with having a Muslim teaching elementary school in their community, with having a mosque built near their home, with witnessing Muslim men praying in an airport and with women wearing Muslim garb.

Over the past eight months, the percentage of Americans who believed American Muslims want to establish Sharia law in the United States grew by 7 points to 30 percent, the report said, citing a February 2011 survey. Sharia or Islamic law covers all aspects of Muslim life including religious obligations and financial dealings.

Sixty percent agreed that too many Americans think that all Muslims are terrorists, and 88 percent admitted knowing little or nothing about Muslim beliefs and practices.

Seventy-nine percent said people in Muslim countries have an unfavorable opinion of the United States. Of those, three-quarters believed such views were not justified.

Views on immigration were also sharply divided, with 62 percent desiring a policy that would combine enforcement with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. One-third want enforcement coupled with deportation of illegal immigrants.

Another question asked was whether discrimination against whites was as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Less than half agreed with that view, but the proportion was much higher among Republicans and Tea Party supporters.