'Exceptional' Americans: Religion, Optimism and Political Belief


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses during his speech on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Win McNamee/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses during his speech on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump would reject accusations that he's running a negative presidential campaign. Even though many characterized his acceptance speech of the presidential nomination as "dark," he ended it with his usual remark, "We will make America great again."

"'Make America Great Again' — that's optimism!'" the Republican nominee told primary supporters in Florida back in February. "We're going to fix things up, we're going to make this country better than it's ever been before."

Whether you believe Trump can "fix" America, "Make America Great Again" brilliantly taps into a peculiar strain of American optimism mostly held by religious conservatives: The past was great, the present is awful, but the future will be amazing. 

America has always had an "exceptional" relationship with optimism. Alexis de Tocqueville, during his early 19th-century tour of a young United States, was among the first to marvel at Americans' singular optimism — a belief that both the individual and society can improve their circumstances with some hard work and faith in God.

Even today, two recent polls from the Pew Research Center confirm that American's remain "exceptional" in two major areas — their positive outlook and their religious belief — particularly when contrasted with other wealthy Western nations.

Of the U.S. citizens polled in Pew's Global Attitudes Survey, 54 percent said religion was "very important" in their lives. Compare that to Germany or France, where only 21 percent and 12 percent respectively said religion was a priority.

The same holds for optimism and positivity. The very first question asked in the Pew survey is "How would you describe your day today?" Interestingly, the poorest countries generated the most positive responses, like Uganda, where 47 percent of respondents reported a "particularly good" day. Wealthier countries were far more likely to describe their day as "typical," except, of course, for those "exceptional" Americans, where 41 percent said their day was going great.  

The Connection Between Religion and Optimism

If Americans are both exceptionally religious and exceptionally optimistic among wealthy nations, could there be a relationship between the two? Is there something about religious faith that makes believers happier and more positive? According to the experts, yes.

It's long been established by psychologists and social scientists that people with strong ties to a religious belief system and faith community are, on average, happier than non-believers and better equipped to cope with life's many hardships. David G. Myers of Hope College has researched and written extensively on happiness. In "Hope and Happiness", he cites a 1984 Gallup poll in which people with the highest faith commitment were twice as likely as non-believers to describe themselves as "very happy."

More recently, researchers found that religious belief is an even stronger predictor of happiness when coupled with political conservatism. In a 2015 paper called "Happiness, political orientation, and religiosity", Michael T. Bixter, a psychologist at Georgia Tech, analyzed data from two large social surveys to show that religious conservatives tend to be happier than religious liberals. But why?

For that, you have to consult the shrinks. Psychologist John Jost at New York University has researched extensively on the psychological underpinnings of religious ideologies. Jost writes that "political and religious ideologies offer certainty, security, and solidarity." The certainty of devout religious belief — God has a plan — is comforting in the face of political strife and personal suffering. Conservative political candidates offer similar promises of certainty and security, bolstering national defense and promoting "law and order" in the face of global threats and social upheaval.

Paul Nail, a psychologist at the University of Central Arkansas, has shown that the certainty and security craved by religious conservatives is an antidote to their higher levels of anxiety.

"Conservatives experience the world as more threatening baseline than liberals do," says Nail, who conducted some interesting research in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As anxiety levels rose nationwide, so did conservative political tendencies. "After 9/11, there was a conservative shift. Liberals became as interested in defense and patriotism as conservatives normally are. But it was a short-term effect."    

The Connection Between Doom and Optimism

The divisions between religious and non-religious voters have never been starker than in the current election cycle. Another recent Pew poll found that 78 percent of white evangelicals are backing Donald J. Trump in the U.S. presidential election, while 67 percent of religiously unaffiliated voters support Hilary Clinton.

But there's an interesting twist in the optimism data. According to Pew, 75 percent of Trump supporters believe that life is worse now than it was 50 years ago for "people like them." Only 22 percent of Clinton supporters feel the same way. On the surface, this appears to go against the idea that religious conservatives are happier and more optimistic. But psychologist Paul Nail says there's a simple explanation: the Bible.

"Religious conservatives who believe in Bible prophesy believe things are going downhill, but they are going to be protected," says Nail. "The culture and the world might be going to hell, but that excludes them. When Christ comes back, their fate is sealed on the positive side. They can be quite pessimistic about the current state of affairs, but still optimistic about the ultimate outcome."