Muslims as outsiders, enemies, and others: The 2016 presidential election and the politics of religious exclusion


Despite Americans’ commitment to religious freedom, religious minorities have been marginalized and excluded since the country’s founding. Focusing on the 2016 election, this article analyzes the latest chapter in this history, in which Republican candidates constructed symbolic boundaries that defined Muslims as non-American (outsiders), anti-American (enemies), and un-American (others). It then draws parallels between contemporary anti-Muslim rhetoric and the historic treatment of Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and atheists. In each case, these religious groups have troubled a vision of American belonging that is tightly linked to white Protestant identity, and more subtly, to individualist and voluntaristic notions of the good religious (and democratic) subject. This recurrent pattern complicates the notion that American nationhood is rooted in civic rather than ethnic membership, instead revealing a complex interplay between civic and ethnic logics of exclusion. While efforts to purify the “Christian nation” rest explicitly upon an ethno-religious vision of American peoplehood, a subtler civic logic is also at work in efforts to frame religious minorities as uncivil threats to American values and norms, including religious freedom itself.

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    The term “radical Islamic terrorism” itself became an issue of debate during the 2016 election. Responding to Obama’s refusal to use the term, Republicans argued that Democrats’ “political correctness” was preventing them from effectively addressing terrorism (Wright, 2016).


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I would like to thank Jeffrey Guhin as well as Jeffrey Alexander and Jason Mast for their valuable feedback on previous drafts.

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Correspondence to Ruth Braunstein.

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Braunstein, R. Muslims as outsiders, enemies, and others: The 2016 presidential election and the politics of religious exclusion. Am J Cult Sociol 5, 355–372 (2017).

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  • national identity
  • religion
  • symbolic boundaries
  • Muslims
  • 2016 election