Tuesday, February 1, 2022
Christian nationalism – i.e., the merging of Christian identity and American identity – concerns me, and I hope it concerns you too. When we treat our preferred political positions as matters of divine revelation that are not subject to rational debate with our fellow Americans, that’s a dangerous place for a democracy to be. However, I am also concerned by folks who portray Christian nationalism as a problem that belongs to white American evangelicals. It’s not that simple. Here’s why.
First, we have to be precise when we talk about “evangelicals.” Do we mean people who identify culturally as evangelicals or people who actually participate in evangelical Christianity? One of the unfortunate consequences of the great tribal sorting that has occurred between red and blue America over the past twenty years is that our political invocations of religion may have only a tenuous connection with actual religious practice. For example, last week Ryan Burge posted survey data showing that, in 2008, 18% of white self-identified evangelicals never attended church. In 2020, that had increased to 28%. And among self-identified evangelicals who never attended church, while 36% were Republicans in 2008, that had increased to 65% by 2020. For Republicans – who make up the majority of Christian nationalists – there are political and cultural reasons to identify as “evangelical” that have nothing to do with one’s religious beliefs or practices.
Second, a person who engages in Christian religious practices is less likely to embrace beliefs that correspond to Christian nationalism. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry show that, while Christian nationalists are more likely to report negative attitudes toward racial and religious minorities, those attitudes have an inverse relationship with religious practice. For example, the more one adheres to Christian nationalist views, the less willing one is to acknowledge the existence of police discrimination against Black Americans. However, “as people more frequently attend church, pray, or read their sacred scriptures, they become more likely to recognize racial discrimination in policing.” The same pattern holds regarding attitudes toward immigration, the environment, refugees, and Muslims. In light of the data, Perry and Whitehead conclude that “the association between Christian nationalism and . . . attitudes toward racial and religious minorities tends to work in the opposite direction than the association between private religious practice and these same things.”
Is American evangelicalism blameless for the rise of Christian nationalism? Hardly. But we need to be precise in talking about the challenges our nation faces. Christian nationalism is a threat that is associated with white American evangelicals but is, in reality, mitigated by the actual practice of evangelical faith.