Why do many conservative Christians support President Donald Trump, advocate for xenophobic policies, dismiss ethnic and racial injustice, and oppose women’s equality? Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry ask these loaded questions in an attempt to understand today’s political climate. Using the findings in their book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, the two researchers answer these questions at a virtual event hosted by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs on June 18, 2020.
Whitehead and Perry claim that the driving factor for what many on the left deem as racist, sexist, and fascist has little to do with personal religiosity and more to do with the “proto-fascist” ideology of Christian nationalism.
The sociologists defined Christian nationalism as a cultural framework that integrates Christianity and American civic life, often “dog-whistling” to generally white and culturally Christian individuals who presume it is all about “people like them.” Throughout their exploration of Christian nationalism, they do not address the possibility that a Christian could have a special love for his country, alongside an understanding that God uses nation-states for His own purpose, without “laying the groundwork of fascism.”
Whitehead and Perry summarize their research-based book down into two ideas: first, Christian nationalism is a powerful navigator of politics, past and present. Second, Christian nationalism is not a reducible category. There is something else going on that broad, sweeping terms like “white supremacy” and “conservative Christians” often miss. That something, according to the authors, is Christian nationalism.
Whitehead and Perry identified the nature of Christian nationalism by conducting a survey on thousands of respondents. In this survey, participants were asked to rate their levels of agreement for six Christian nationalistic statements, such as “The Federal Government should declare the United States a Christian Nation” and “The United States has a special part in God’s plan.” The sociologists clumped similar survey results and created four categories: rejectors, resisters, accommodators, and ambassadors.
Rejectors believe that the United States does not have any kind of special relationship with Christianity, nor should it. Rejectors make up about 1/5 of the American population, and the researchers suspect this number has grown since their 2017 results.
Resistors occupy the second category. These are people who likely believe that the separation of church and state is a good idea and disagree with the ideals of Christian nationalism, though not as dogmatically as rejectors do. These respondents constitute about 1/4 of Americans.
Accommodators make up the third and largest group. About 1/3 of all Americans “accommodate” and generally feel friendly towards Christian nationalism. While they would not strongly approve of the United States declaring itself a Christian nation and the like, they are generally religious.
The ambassadors are in the last group and want the full manifestation of Christian nationalism. They make up about 1/5 of Americans and are a shrinking minority, although the authors forecast that they will have a constant political presence in the future. In fact, the smaller the ambassador’s number, the more fervent their nationalism as “they are more likely to perceive themselves as persecuted.”
The important finding within these four groups is the fact that their individual piety had little bearing on the policies they supported, whereas their levels of nationalism had strong predictive power. “Where one falls on the Christian nationalism spectrum,” Andrew Whitehead notes, “can predict one’s views on same sex marriage, gun regulation, and immigration policy, etc.” Christian nationalism, the authors argue, is therefore not the same as religiosity.
But the sociologists report that their findings show a deeper difference: Christian nationalism is a “proto-fascist” ideology. The first indicator of this trend, the researchers claim, is illustrated in the fact that white Christian nationalists tend to bank hard right on most every policy issue, whereas African Americans who adhere to the same levels of Christian nationalism tend to be much more moderate. Non-white Christian nationalists are “more likely to envision the ideals of what America could be.” They are less interested in making Christianity the main religion in the public sphere, even though they align with many white Christian nationalists on matters such as family and gender.
White Christian nationalists, on the other hand, tend to want an ethnoreligious homogeneity. The authors argue from their findings that white Christian nationalists would say that “America is God’s melting pot, meaning that everybody should be like them.” Whereas non-white Christian nationalists would say “America is God’s mosaic,” understanding pluralism and democracy as desirable systems.
“When you look at the kind of values and the logic that white Christian nationalists use to think through political decisions,” Perry argues, “it suggests that they are more interested in cultural and political power and influence.”
Ultimately, this leads the sociologists to suppose that serious Christian nationalism, no matter how religious its ambassadors, lays the groundwork for fascism. If difference is detrimental to their power, then pluralism and democracy are often in direct contradiction to Christian nationalism. “Society better fall in their line,” Whitehead concludes, “or get out of the way.”
The entirety of the interview can be viewed on the Berkley Center YouTube channel below: