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The Christian Nationalist Bogeyman

A shoddy but prestigious survey paints ordinary believers as insurrectionists-in-waiting.

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Is Christian nationalism a growing threat to American politics? A survey conducted by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) purports to find out, determining how many Americans are Christian nationalists and identifying other beliefs correlated with Christian nationalism. Unfortunately, the survey has a number of flaws, which have been exacerbated by problematic interpretations offered by the researchers overseeing the project. They inflate the number of so-called Christian nationalists, exaggerate the danger these people pose, and downplay data that contradict their intended political message. 

The primary failing of the Brookings/PRRI survey is that it misidentifies many normal Christians as Christian nationalists. Christian nationalism is often portrayed as a theocratic attempt to impose Christianity on Americans at swordpoint. Yet here are the statements the institutions use to measure adherence to Christian nationalism:

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  1. The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.
  2. U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
  3. If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
  4. Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
  5. God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.

Only Statement 1 indicates support for a formal religious establishment, and even there the establishment is purely rhetorical. The survey does not ask about public funding for churches, state punishment of heresy and blasphemy, or even prayer in school. 

The rest of the statements could be endorsed by any Christian. What believer would deny that Christian values should inform the law? Most Christians number love and racial reconciliation among their values. Martin Luther King Jr., who is never labeled a “Christian nationalist,” used biblical arguments to oppose racial segregation. By contrast, social conservatives are regularly dismissed as theocrats even when they frame their opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage in terms of natural law. 

Statement 5 is equally compatible with America’s constitutional regime. The Bible exhorts Christians to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and to “make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Mathew 28:20). These tasks have religious, social, and ethical dimensions, but they need not be interpreted as theocratic or nationalistic. Both instantiating values into law and exercising dominion can be accomplished without coercing or punishing dissenting beliefs.  

A later question in the survey asked how strongly respondents agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people who follow the Christian faith.” Unsurprisingly, most people favorable to Christian nationalism agreed with this statement. This was then interpreted as a rejection of “pluralism” and an implicit threat to other faiths. Apparently the survey designers forgot that Christianity is a proselytizing faith. Besides, would feminists not agree that they would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of believers in feminism?

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An unintentionally humorous exchange at the launch event for the survey revealed the extent of this misunderstanding. During the Q&A, a presenter noted that most Christian nationalists endorsed the separation of church and state. He explained that these people must be hopelessly confused. The question about church–state separation was excluded from the published results, presumably because it would complicate the narrative the authors wanted to offer. 

I noticed at the event that “Christian nationalism” quickly morphed into “white Christian nationalism.” Several panelists cited the Ku Klux Klan as a previous manifestation of this ideology. During the Q&A, one questioner repeatedly asserted—with no pushback—that white men were angry about competing with non-whites for jobs. 

But the survey responses totally failed to support these racial theories. Virtually equal percentages of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and multiracial respondents were coded as adherents of Christian nationalism. (Only Asians, who are less likely to be Christian at all, scored much lower than whites.) At the event, the only black speaker, Jemar Tisby, devoted much of his talk to explaining away non-white support for Christian nationalism. He pointed out that American blacks are highly religious—implicitly admitting that the survey conflates ordinary religiosity with whatever the surveyors think they are measuring—and dismissed black support for Christian nationalism by referencing the “trope” of the “Uncle Tom.” In his view, a segment of the oppressed black community supports the oppressors as a way to gain power within an unjust system. 

In order to show that white Christian nationalists are particularly racist compared to their non-white peers, respondents were labeled as “anti-Black racists” for disagreeing (or agreeing, for number 2) with the following statements: 

  1. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for many Black Americans to work their way out of the lower class.
  2. Today, discrimination against white Americans has become as big a problem as discrimination against Black Americans and other minorities.
  3. A Black person is more likely to receive the death penalty for the same crime.
  4. White supremacy is still a major problem.

The same ploy was used to tar respondents with xenophobia. Disagreeing with the statement “The growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society” was taken to indicate “anti-immigrant attitudes.” In fact, a wealth of social scientific research shows just that: as ethnic diversity increases, people become less trustful and form fewer and shallower interpersonal bonds. Another question asked whether immigrants are “invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” Again, leaving aside the loaded reference to “invasion,” it is indisputable that the nation’s ethnic mix is changing rapidly and that mass immigration causes cultural disruption. The survey’s creators seem to think that acknowledging these facts is tantamount to hating immigrants. 

The worst set of race questions may have been the one measuring “antisemitism.” Apparently, it is antisemitic to agree that “Jewish people stick together more than other Americans.” This question can be interpreted in different ways, but tight-knit Orthodox Jewish communities undeniably stand out in an increasingly atomistic and disconnected society. It was labeled antisemitic to believe that “American Christians love Israel more than most American Jews do” and to believe that “Jewish people are more loyal to Israel than America.” Which is it? In any event, non-white adherents of Christian nationalism were more likely than white adherents to hold “antisemitic” opinions—a finding largely ignored at the launch event.

It should give us pause to find that so many non-white respondents, including in many cases majorities of non-white Christian nationalists, gave the “racist” answer to survey questions. Given the ideological bias of these questions, it is clear that they measure the ability to adopt trendy theories of race, not adherence to “white supremacy.” 

The survey team’s discussion of Christian nationalists’ “violent” tendencies represents a further example of bias. According to the survey, adherents of Christian nationalism were more likely than rejecters to have engaged in several aggressive acts against another person in the past year: pushing, grabbing, or shoving (9 percent vs. 5 percent); hitting or kicking (9 percent vs. 4 percent); and threatening with a gun or knife (7 percent vs. 2 percent). The survey seizes upon this finding to paint Christian nationalists as dangerous extremists who might stage an insurrection at any time. 

There is, however, a likelier explanation: class cleavages. Their own data reveals that Christian nationalists are much less educated, and presumably less wealthy, than rejecters. From other analyses, we know that evangelicals and Trump supporters belong disproportionately to the non-elite class and are more likely to own guns. Every social scientist also knows that aggressive and violent behavior correlates strongly with education, wealth, and class. Poor and uneducated Americans are more likely to act in violent ways. Violence is especially common in the unruly “Scots-Irish Appalachian” culture that David Hackett Fischer identified in his famous book Albion’s Seed. But this culture is also disproportionately Christian and pro-Trump. 

In a similar vein, the survey found that 17 percent of respondents agreed that “America is a white Christian nation, and I am willing to fight to keep it that way.” Predictably, the panelists inferred that these people are poised to engage in revolutionary action. But politicians and political commentators regularly use martial rhetoric to describe political behavior. An attempt to win political office, for instance, is called a “campaign.” For nearly all respondents, “fighting” means little more than voting or posting incendiary comments on social media. 

The speakers at the Brookings launch event gave the impression that Americans ought to be terrified by Christian nationalism. Only 10 percent of Americans are adherents of Christian nationalism, according to the survey’s own loose definition, but several people asserted that 10 percent is still “a lot,” because violence can be committed by small groups and because minorities can overthrow the government. As possible staging grounds for the imminent Christian nationalist insurgency, they cited “non-majoritarian” institutions, like federal courts or the Electoral College, and conservative state and local officials. In the most comically clueless remark at the event, someone in the crowd asserted that the Religious Right controls the policy and strategy of the Republican Party. 

This response is overblown. Few Americans want a state church, and far fewer will engage in violence to accomplish this end. Civil dialogue is hindered, not helped, by caricaturing so-called “Christian nationalists” as mindless bigots itching to slaughter their fellow citizens in the name of theocratic Caesarism.