In an interview with the conservative Next News Network in June, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said, “I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.” While the sentiment may seem uncontroversial, academics and extremists use the term Christian nationalism to refer to an ethnocultural nationalist ideology — in this case, defining American identity as exclusively White and Christian, and aiming for a government that favors that group’s beliefs. Such a government would be at odds with liberal democracy.
Is Christian nationalism gaining popularity?
Before Greene’s comments, no nationally known public official had overtly claimed the Christian nationalist label. Yet since the Capitol insurrection, Christian nationalist ideologies have become more visible. Far-right leaders have ramped up their calls to take back Christian America through violence. Some observers suggest that recent Supreme Court decisions have supported the far-right’s goal of treating Christianity as more important than liberal democratic norms.
To court Christian nationalist voters, some Republicans have used rhetoric that suggests there’s an ongoing religious war against White Christian national dominance. Popularized most recently by former president Donald Trump, overt religious war rhetoric has trickled down to other Republican officials. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested Republicans don the “full armor of God,” a phrase that the Christian Bible uses to exhort followers to battle the devil, to go to the polls in November — implying that Democrats are the devil.
Although most GOP leaders have not claimed to be Christian nationalists, Republican elites increasingly use such religious war rhetoric. That may make it easier for Christian nationalist extremists to mobilize followers, gain adherents, and build coalitions to gain political power.
Christian nationalism draws on the idea of American religious exceptionalism
In our book “The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics,” we examined 12 years of U.S. public opinion data collected from 2008 to 2020 to explore alt-right and undemocratic opinions. We found that prejudicial and antidemocratic attitudes are linked to belief in the ideology of American religious exceptionalism, historical myths about the nation’s divine origin, purpose, and place in the world.
We included our questions on seven national surveys and two state surveys: a GfK survey in 2010 of 1,273 people; a 2012 GfK Religious World Survey of 1,146 people; three Cooperative Election Studies panel-based 1,000-person surveys in 2008, 2018, and 2020; a survey in a 2016 Survey Sampling International Poll of 4,800 people; and a 2019 survey from a Qualtrics 600-person panel.
We commissioned the 2010 GfK and 2012 RWS, which were probability-based, nationally representative surveys. We added the ARE questions to the remaining national surveys. The CES, SSI and Qualtrics surveys are opt-in, online surveys that use quotas to achieve samples that match national demographics with respect to race, gender, age, ethnicity and region. While not fully representative of the American public, the results from the non-probability samples offer diverse samples that resemble our two representative national surveys. We also placed our items on two original state surveys, a 2011 Oklahoma Poll of 500 people and a 2014 Kentucky Poll of 601 people, both probability samples of likely voters in each state.
To analyze attitudes toward the myth of American religious exceptionalism, we asked respondents to tell us what they thought about four statements, on a scale that ran from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree): 1) America holds a special place in God’s plan. 2) The success of the U.S. is a reflection of divine will. 3) The vast resources of the U.S. indicate that God has chosen it to lead other nations. 4) The U.S. is spiritually predestined to lead the world. We validated this metric across four surveys from 2012 to 2018, while borrowing some measures used in a 2011 study.
From 2008 to 2018, strong adherents of what we call American religious exceptionalism stayed stable at around 15 — 20 percent of our national survey respondents. Meanwhile, weak adherents increased throughout time, while non-adherents decreased. Since 2008, we found more people drifting toward at least mild agreement with the ARE myth. While the proportion of strong adherents remained fixed, the percentage of Americans who expressed moderate support for the myth of American religious exceptionalism increased from 26 percent in 2008 to 40 to 50 percent from 2010-2018. Meanwhile, non-adherents declined from their majority status in 2008, when 52 percent of the public rejected religious exceptionalism myths. The biggest change in Americans’ adherence was not an increase in strong adherence, but rather a notable drop in strong opposition.
Is belief in the myth of American religious exceptionalism linked to antidemocratic attitudes?
To examine whether those who support this belief want to move the United States away from democracy, we recruited 600 respondents through Qualtrics’s online panel in December 2019, using quotas to match respondents to national demographics such as race and gender. With non-probability samples, we can’t assume that these proportions accurately reflect beliefs in the broader population. However, the findings still reveal some interesting associations.
We used a standard battery of descriptions of types of governments, and asked respondents to evaluate if each would be “very good, somewhat good, somewhat bad, or a very bad way of governing this country.” Authoritarian rule was described as “a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from Congress or the Courts.” Representative democracy was described as “a democratic system where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law.”
Strong adherents to American religious exceptionalism were twice as likely to evaluate undemocratic rule positively as non-adherents. However, strong adherents continued to support representative democracy, as did all groups. Americans have many different traditions of U.S. national identity, and hold a series of sometimes conflicting and overlapping definitions of who “counts” as an American. Politicians can use these mixed beliefs to garner support from fringe believers.
Our work suggests that American religious exceptionalism myths can be powerful tools through which far-religious-right can mobilize White Christian nationalists who aren’t necessarily aware that Christian nationalism has violent and undemocratic strains. With religion prominent in American political discussions, Christian nationalist ideologies are likely to continue to spread unless confronted.
Allyson F. Shortle (@Shortle) is an associate professor in the department of political science, where she runs the Community Engagement and Experiments Laboratory.
Eric L. McDaniel (@EricLMcDaniel) is an associate professor in the department of government and co-director of the Politics of Race and Ethnicity Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.
Irfan Nooruddin is the Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani professor of Indian politics in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Together, they are authors of “The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics” (2022, Cambridge University Press)