Christian Nationalism and Our Political Moment

Preface: I think this is the longest I’ve every gone between blog posts. I could say I was busy, but the reality is that I wasn’t sure I had anything compelling to add to the various crises swirling around us. That changed the last couple of days as I read Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry’s Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. And so I’m back!

I have been following Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry on social media for some time. I have read with interest the pieces they posted online and heard their presentations at conferences. It is good sociology that adds far more to our social and political moment that nearly all of the “Why did the white evangelicals support Trump?” opinion pieces.

In my own work on the question, I come to the same easy conclusion that Ryan Burge reports: White Evangelicals are Republicans. What has nagged at me for years is the motivation behind that correlation. Is it because white evangelicals are more likely to be rural or Southern? Less likely to have a college degree? More likely to hold a certain social class position? Concern over morality? A deep application of theological/scriptural understandings to their voting preferences?

It has proven nearly impossible to disentangle the mess of causal factors (which, admittedly, we are doing with correlational data). The search for a Grand Theory keeps failing us in the data. And so I was very excited to finally get Andrew and Sam’s book last week and put it on top of my things to do with my spring break.

It’s a quick and compelling read. The data is rich but easy for a lay reader to interpret and there’s an entire appendix on regression stuff for those who want the details.

Andrew and Sam argue that there is something of a central thread that begins to make sense of what we saw not just in 2016, but a host of things related to contemporary society. That central thread is support for Christian Nationalism. This is not a historical understanding of the nation’s founding, although it is related. It is a belief about the primacy of Christianity in our society’s social organization.

They measure Christian Nationalism through a scale made up of six questions. The measures of agreement with CN are 1) the government should declare the US a Christian nation, 2) the government should endorse Christian values, 3) separation of church and state should be minimized, 4) display of religion (read Christian) symbols should be allowed on state property, 5) American success is part of God’s plan, and 6) the government should allow prayer in public schools. They then divide the scale into four groups: Rejectors, Resisters, Accommodators, and Ambassadors.

Using data from the Baylor Religion Studies, they explore the relationships between these four groupings and a host of contemporary issues. They supplement the quantitative data with 50 personal interviews representing the four orientations.

Notice the division in the chart above. Those distancing from Christian Nationalism make up just under half of their study population (48.1%) while those in favor are just over half (51.9%). It is also interesting that the two extreme categories (Rejecters and Ambassadors) are also nearly equal in size (21.%% to 19.8%, respectively). In the very first chapter, then, we have data that roughly mirrors the polarized socio-political moment we find ourselves in.

The authors unpack this data looking at three broad areas: Power, Boundaries, and Order. The first has to do with voting, legislation, and rights. The second has to do with in-group protections and out-group exclusion. The third has to do with issues of family structure and heterosexuality.

In the Power chapter, they provide a powerful counter narrative to the “white evangelicals and Trump” arguments. They show that Rejectors were very unlikely to have voted for Trump (around 5%) and Ambassadors were overwhelmingly likely to have done so (around 75%).

Moreover, this pattern repeats across a variety of subgroups (though with different percentage magnitudes). For example, 85% of evangelical Ambassadors (regardless of race) voted for Trump but so did 82% of Mainline Ambassadors and 79% of Catholic Ambassadors. Among white evangelicals, there is nearly a 60% gap between support for Trump between Ambassadors (90%) and Rejecters (31%). Even within political parties differences emerge — while 92% of Republican Ambassadors voted for Trump, only 31% of Republican Resisters did

The same patterns hold for attitudes toward refugees, military spending, and gun control. Interestingly, when they examine how a scale of religious practices relates to these same topics, the find that the more religious one is the more positive they are toward refugees, for example. So Christian Nationalism isn’t a mask for religious practice but a separate dimension altogether.

The Boundaries chapter deals with issues of immigration, race, and non-Christian religious groups. In each case, Ambassadors take the most conservative position and Rejectors the relatively liberal one. Again, these patterns are tested against religious practice with the same opposite effect as the previous chapter.

The Order chapter has a “focus on the family“. It deals with questions about mens’ role in leadership, stay at home mothers, opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to transgender rights, and belief that divorce laws should be more stringent. In each case, the Ambassadors are highest in these measures and the Rejectors are lowest. In this chapter, as opposed to the others, religious practice does not move in a counter direction. As Sam Perry’s other books (on evangelical adoption and pornography use) show, this may because the family taken a central role in understanding contemporary religious practice.

As I was reading the book, a couple of questions kept recurring. I found myself wanting to do much more about the Accommodators. Are they conscious participants in Christian Nationalism or do they simply take its assumptions as background noise and implicitly act upon them? The same is true about the Resisters. Are they taking their objection to Christian Nationalism seriously or are somehow mildly annoyed at the Freedom Sunday celebration at church?

In the introduction, Whitehead and Perry describe Christian Nationalism as “a complex of explicit and implicit ideals, values, and myths — what we call a ‘symbolic framework’ — through which Americans perceive and navigate their social world.” I think is an apt description, yet the social psychologist in me wants to know how that symbolic framework is activated and how it is addressed by those whose ideals are at odds with an Ambassador or Accommodator. Specifically, are there mechanisms through which Accommodators become Resisters?

Furthermore, if the church is to be an active yet not fearful part of the social discourse surrounding contemporary politics, how do pastors and congregations begin to reshape these implicit understandings. The data on people leaving the church due to what I would consider inappropriate political posturing is pretty clear. As Ryan Burge pointed out on Brad Onishi’s podcast last week, the alternative is to suffer in silence.

What do I mean by “inappropriate political posturing”? I mean the assumption that 1) we are all on the same side and 2) we can’t talk about broad social issues because that would be “divisive”. If the church is to the body of Christ in the contemporary word, it must be able to model church-state relations in a way that goes beyond hoping our side wins.

Andrew and Sam have provided us with an excellent starting place in terms of conceptualizing Christian Nationalism and how it is operating in contemporary society. Now it falls to other sociologists, political scientists, and religious leaders to figure out how to take their ideas into our everyday worlds in search of a more compassionate society.

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