One of the apparent paradoxes of the 2016 election is how could good upstanding Christians support a serial philandering crook and altogether asshole of a man like Donald Trump for President? In their new book Taking America Back for God sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry provide an answer. For many of those voters is not so much about voting for leaders that display Christian values but rather voting for leaders who will promote Christian values over others, in other words its about power.
Christian Nationalism defined
In their book the authors investigate the phenomenon of “Christian nationalism” which they describe as:
a cultural framework – a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems – that idealize and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life. (10)
The authors stress that Christian nationalism is more about the nationalism part than the Christianity part. In other words, it is more of an ideology, or more broadly a cultural viewpoint, than a set of religious beliefs. They state:
Christian nationalism is a cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and seeking to enhance and preserve their union. (15)
One quick way to identify Christian nationalism or to determine if someone is a Christian nationalist is if they wear a t-shirt like this. Although the authors do not treat the concept as an either or but rather as one of degrees. They use six survey questions from the 2007 and 2017 Baylor Religion Survey to measure the degree of Christian nationalism in the U.S. Those six questions are:
1 The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.
2. The federal government should advocate Christian values
3. The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state
4. The federal government should also the display of religious symbols in public spaces
5. The success of the United States is part of God’s plan
6. The federal government should allow prayer in school
The authors using a 5 point likert scale assign higher values to more affirmative responses (with the exception of question 3 which is reverse coded). The overall Christian nationalism scale they derive therefore ranges from 0-24 with people who score from 0-5 termed “rejectors”, those that score from 7-11 termed “resisters”, those that score from 12-17 described as “accommodators”, and finally those that score from 18-24 described as “ambassadors.” Obviously rejectors are those that strongly reject the ideology of Christian nationalism and “ambassadors” are those that strongly promote the ideology. “Resisters” are generally not favorable towards Christian nationalism but not as strongly as “rejectors”, and “accommodators” are generally more favorable to Christian nationalism but not as much as the “ambassadors.” (I scored myself as a 6)
Christian Nationalism as distinct from Conservative Christian, Evangelical Christianity, and Religiosity
In addition to carefully demarcating the degrees of Christian nationalism, the authors are also careful to parcel out the difference between Christian nationalism and similar concepts such as Christian conservative and even Evangelical Christian. Christian nationalism differs from those categories in that:
it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as religious. (10)
In other words, Christian nationalism is more of a political orientation than religious one (although Christian nationalists can be religious). As a political orientation it seeks power to implement its agenda of exclusion at the local, state and national level. A telling example comes from the different views about the role of government in enforcing Christian morality with regards to gay marriage highlight this difference. The first quote comes from Jay who wants the government to enforce such a morality (to use the language of Whitehead and Perry he is an ambassador of Christian nationalism, meaning the most diehard believer). Jay says:
Government is not to be a tyrant and the rules they put in place should be most wholesome and necessary for the public good. Proverbs 29:2 tells us that “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” Wicked laws bring groaning so I would not want my country to put in laws that promote sexual sin. (145)
Contrast this with a quote from Brian, who the authors tell us describes himself as “fairly conservative” and a Christian. But Brian is what the authors term a “resister” of Christian nationalism in that he advocates strongly against the government enforcing a Christian morality.
I’m working from the basis that homosexuals seeking marriage are not Christians. What I mean is that they are not seeking a life aligned with the Bible to bring glory to God. As a Christian I desire every person to come to faith in Christ, and that certainly extends to the homosexual community. However, I also try not to allow my desire for them to become Christians to lead me to a place where I think mandates and laws should strip [their] American liberties away. (146)
Although I think Brain is dead wrong theologically, the point is that the difference between him and Jay is that the while both are Christian conservatives only Jay is a Christian nationalist. This is an important distinction because Christian nationalism is an exclusionary ideology not compatible with a pluralist society. Its also why the authors go to such lengths to tease out these differences
Christian nationalism is also distinct from Evangelical Christian. While many Evangelical Christians are Christian nationalists many are not and not all Christian nationalists are Evangelical Christians either. Whitehead and Perry find that the vast majority of white Evangelical Christians that voted for Trump scored high on their Christian nationalism scale indicating it was their Christian nationalism that lead them to vote for Trump rather than their Evangelical Christianity.
The most interesting distinction made in the book to me was the distinction between Christian nationalism and religiosity. Whitehead and Perry state that:
Christian nationalism is distinct from religiosity in a general sense . . . commitment to Christian nationalism behaves differently from private commitment to religion generally speaking, and particularly with where boundaries are drawn. (114)
Christian nationalism is about politics and is public facing while religiosity is about a persons individual religious beliefs and is private facing. Whitehead and Perry show this when looking at the difference between Christian nationalism and religiosity on a host of public policy issues. For example, they find that the more one believes in Christian nationalism (an ambassador or accommodator to use their categories) the more one is likely to respond in the affirmative to the question “Police treat blacks and whites the same.” However the higher ones religiosity the less likely one would be to respond in the affirmative to that question. They find this crisscrossing pattern on a host of issues. Another example comes with support for refugee resettlement in the U.S. Christian nationalists were more likely to support the statement “Refugees from the Middle East pose a terrorist threat to the United States.” While those with higher religiosity were just the opposite and more likely to disapprove of that statement. This idea is something I was trying to tap into myself when writing about the process of refugee resettlement in the U.S. myself. Although I wished I would have incorporated the framework of Christian nationalism developed here by Whitehead and Perry.
Why Does This Matter?
Whitehead and Perry do a great job of identify the phenomenon of Christian nationalism is the U.S. in both what it is and what it is not. Fundamentally, Christian nationalism is about defining a certain type of person – white, native born, Christian as authentically American, and therefore proscribing that our political institutions and culture must not just reflect those views but reflect those views at the expense of other “un-American” views. Christian nationalism is at its core illiberal. It seeks to exclude those that do not fit in its narrow conception of what America is. This is why I feel the distinction between Christian nationalism and Christian conservative are important since the latter is someone who I would strongly disagree with politically but wouldn’t fundamentally push me and others outside of legitimate political space while the former certainly would. “know your enemy” is a fundamental dicta of politics and for those of us committed to a multicultural social democracy it is important to know what Christian nationalism is and how to fight against it