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How Christian nationalism gave Trump the White House

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This is the third entry in a series on Christian nationalism and the religious groups supporting Donald Trump. You can read the first one here and the second one here.

It was 2016, and the era of white Christian American influence was supposed to be over.

Political pundits declared that shifting demographics meant Republicans could no longer rely solely on the white Christian vote that had protected them for so long; U.S. News used the term “the powerless religion voter.” Many of the people making this argument cited Robert Jones, CEO of polling group PRRI, who released a book before the election entitled The End of White Christian America that offered a historical look at the various elements of white Christian identity and, ultimately, predicted its demise. Others argued that conservative Christians were simply too diffuse to muster the power they once had, and may not rally behind a twice-divorced businessman who had been caught on camera bragging about sexual assault.

And then Donald Trump won the White House anyway, riding into power on a coalition that was, well, overwhelmingly white and Christian.

Why? New research suggests that while white Christian America is certainly shrinking demographically, it isn’t dead just yet—at least not politically. Instead, disparate elements of the (mostly white) group have coalesced with renewed vigor around an old ideology: Christian nationalism.

Nearly a year after the election, scholars now argue Christian nationalism is not only a sizable part of how Trump placates his base now that he’s in office, but also one of the biggest reasons he won the 2016 election in the first place.

A demonstrator holds a copy of the U.S. Constitution over his heart at a San Francisco Religious Freedom protest in 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
A demonstrator holds a copy of the U.S. Constitution over his heart at a San Francisco Religious Freedom protest in 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Christian nationalism remains a powerful electoral strategy

One of these new reports comes from a working paper entitled “Make American Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.” The document is still under peer review, but authors allowed ThinkProgress to examine their initial findings about the power and persuasiveness of Christian nationalism among the American electorate.

The chief author of the report, Andrew Whitehead, told ThinkProgress he and his two co-authors (Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma and Joseph Baker of East Tennessee State University) arrived at their conclusions by mining data from the recently released Baylor Religion Survey, a mail-based study administered by the Gallup Organization. The study randomly sampled 11,000 Americans –and received 1,501 responses, a 13.6 percent response rate — in the spring of 2017, during the first few months of Trump’s tenure in the White House.

Whitehead and his colleagues honed in on the study’s “Christian nationalist index,” in which respondents were asked to score 6 statements related to Christian nationalism using a 1 to 5 scale:

  • The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation
  • The federal government should advocate Christian values
  • The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state
  • The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces
  • The success of the United States is part of God’s plan
  • The federal government should allow prayer in public schools

The questions closely align with many definitions of Christian nationalism, an old concept whose modern iterations are rooted in the claim that America is a “Christian nation.”

The movement saw a peculiar resurgence in the mid-2000s, and left a lasting mark on some Trump’s religious surrogates: Megapastor Paula White, a close spiritual confidante of the president, recently declared that America’s “forefathers” in Plymouth, Massachusetts forged their colony as “a lighthouse for God,” and called on her Christian followers to “take back” school systems and the nation at large.

Meanwhile, Trump has adopted his own version Christian nationalism while on the stump. Despite his numerous theological missteps during the campaign, he often invoked the idea that Christianity was under assault: Trump declared during a January 2016 speech at Liberty University that “we have to band together…Our country has to do that around Christianity,” and called on supporters in a September 2016 speech to “turn again to our Christian heritage to lift up the soul of our nation.”

Trump has been even more explicit about invoking this “Christian nation” sentiment since taking office. His inauguration speech spoke of Americans as “God’s people” and insisted that God would “protect” the nation, for instance, and he has crafted a favorite line when speaking before religious audiences: “In America we don’t worship government, we worship God.”

According to Whitehead, the rhetoric had a powerful impact on Trump voters. When he and his fellow researchers took the responses to these questions and paired them with the respondents’ voting preferences, the results were striking: those who scored high on the Christian nationalism index were “overwhelmingly” likely to vote for Trump.

“Christian nationalism is strongly and positively associated with voting for Trump…even when controlling for attitudes towards refugees, illegal immigrants, gender ideology, economic satisfaction, religious characteristics, and political ideology and party,” the paper reads. “For every unit increase on the Christian nationalism scale, the odds of voting for Trump increased by seven percent. A one standard deviation increase above the mean on the Christian nationalism index (e.g., scoring 24 instead of 17.5) equates to a 45 [percent] increase in the odds of voting for Trump, regardless of whether the person is a Democrat or Republican, politically conservative or liberal.”

CREDIT: Baylor Religion Survey/Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress

In other words, the more a person agreed with Christian nationalism, the more likely they were to vote for Trump. In fact, the correlation between Christian nationalism and Trump support was stronger than almost every other factor Whitehead and his colleagues accounted for, such as anti-immigrant sentiment, sexism, or economic anxiety.

“Christian nationalism has a strong, significant, and independent effect on people voting for Trump,” Whitehead told ThinkProgress in an interview. “It’s something broader than religious tradition, or gender, or race.”

Whitehead was quick to note that political ideology and party affiliation remain the most powerful predictors in the survey for how people voted in 2017. Yet the data shows Christian nationalism still had a notable effect across party lines.

“Comparing across political party affiliations, independents who score above the mean on the Christian nationalism index have an equal or greater probability of having voted for Trump than Republicans who score a standard deviation below the mean on the Christian nationalism index,” the paper reads.

Flags and signs are held during a rally for religious freedom organized in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in front of Independence Hall Friday, March 23, 2012 in Philadelphia. The rally was in objection to the Health and Human Service mandate that private health care cover women's contraception. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Flags and signs are held during a rally for religious freedom organized in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Christian nationalism isn’t really about religious beliefs

When analyzing connections between faith and politics, sociologists and political scientists often rely on a slate of traditional religious categories to explain voting patterns. Pundits tend to speak of a “Catholic vote” or a “evangelical vote,” for instance, and scour for correlations between church attendance and political worldview. To wit, early assessments of Trump’s evangelical support during the primaries focused on how many of his initial conservative Christian supporters were infrequent churchgoers.

Yet this phenomena proved short-lived. Trump went on to win roughly 80 percent of white evangelicals—regardless of church attendance—on Election Day, despite being dogged by scandal.

Social scientists still struggle to understand this shift, but analysis by Whitehead and his co-authors suggests these categories may have missed a bigger story. In fact, one of the more surprising findings of their paper is just how little religious affiliations, beliefs, and practices affected support for Christian nationalism—and, by extension, support for Trump. High church attendance and “literalist” beliefs about the Bible did indicate Trump support, for instance, but when researchers ran models to see how these factors interacted with Christian nationalist sentiment, they discovered that they “only had a significant effect on voting for Trump to the extent that they led to different levels of Christian nationalism.”

“For this study, when we look at a lot the normal ways we measure religiosity, at the end of the day, none of them really predict a vote for Trump except Christian nationalism,” Whitehead told ThinkProgress. “It didn’t matter if you were evangelical or mainline [Christian], it didn’t matter if you went to church a lot or a little, what mattered was whether you think America is a Christian nation.”

He later added: “There wasn’t a really religious vote, but there was a Christian nationalist narrative that can unite these religious groups.”

The paper, if proven accurate through peer review, provides a plausible explanation for why conservative Christian voters that champion sexual piety would ultimately embrace a candidate caught bragging about sexual assault: Modern American Christian nationalism, while attached to a Christian identity, is more about country than faith.

“This brand of of religious nationalism appears to be unmoored from traditional Christian ideals and morality, and also inclined toward authoritarian figures,” the paper reads. Researchers later use italics to drive their point home: “Ironically, Christian nationalism is focused on preserving a perceived Christian identity for American irrespective of the means by which such a project would be achieved.

Condy Holmes of Mechanicsburg, Ind. holds a sign a rally at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Monday, April 27, 2015 against the revised religious freedom legislation. The group of conservative religious leaders is rebuking Gov. Mike Pence and the leaders of the Republican-dominated General Assembly for changes to Indiana's religious objections law that they claim threaten religious liberties.(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Condy Holmes of Mechanicsburg, Ind. holds a sign a rally at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, in 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Conroy

A house for hateful ideologies

It’s important to note these findings don’t negate the numerous independent ideologies that also attach themselves to Trump support. Survey respondents who harbored xenophobic or sexist perspectives also tended to back the real estate mogul, and Islamophobic and anti-refugee sentiment was actually an even greater predictor of Trump support than Christian nationalism.

But when researchers ran models examining how these different ideologies interact, they found quite a bit of overlap — hinting at a web of social views that worked together make Trump president.

“Christian nationalism has a strong, significant, and independent effect on people voting for Trump,” Whitehead said. “These ideologies overlap, but there are also some distinctive audiences for each. They’re symbiotic—these things work together.“

Whitehead was even more explicit when drawing connections between Christian nationalism and Islamophobia.

“Our findings do strongly suggest that they are intimately intertwined,” he said.

Penny Edgell, a sociologist of religion at the University of Minnesota who studies Christian nationalism and who read an early draft of the paper, challenged the author’s definition of misogyny based on the survey, and said she encouraged them to conduct more mediation analysis to explore how these different factors interact. (The newer version of the unpublished study provided to ThinkProgress had been updated to include this.)

But Edgell agreed Christian nationalism serves as an ideological home that offers an intellectual structure for a host of other perspectives, including hateful ideologies stoked during Trump’s campaign.

“Certain white Christian institutions house and foster and bundle these attitudes all together, and link them to politics in systematic ways,” Edgell told ThinkProgress in an email.

In fact, Edgell said her own ongoing research with two other scholars—particularly a paper under peer review that she discusses in a recent blog post—suggests views like Islamophobia arise in part because of Christian nationalist sentiment.

“We show that this form of Christian nationalism leads to negative views of religious minorities and that religious minorities and the non-religious often feel alienated from political life when it features ostensibly secular but religiously-rooted political discourse,” she said. “So my research supports what Whitehead and his colleagues are finding.”

Two of Edgell’s colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Evan Stewart and Jack Delehanty, provided ThinkProgress with a copy of a paper recently accepted to The Sociological Quarterly that’s based on part of this research. In the forthcoming paper, the three scholars examine the effects of those who support “Public Religious Expression (PRE),” or the idea that religious beliefs should be an integral part of public life and political deliberation. The sentiment maps closely with Christian nationalism, as it pulls from survey responses to prompts such as “being Christian is important for being a good American” in the American Mosaic Survey.

Authors note that PRE is “particularly prominent” among, but not exclusive to, evangelical Christians, and that the results can be dark: Their research concludes support for PRE (which authors argue is distinct from private piety) has a “significant association” with intolerant attitudes toward religious “out groups” as well as “out groups in general.”

“These results tell us that people high in PRE also tend to express intolerance toward groups they dislike (whatever those groups may be),” Stewart told ThinkProgress.

REPLACES INCORRECT CAPTION - Pat Zebley, of Lewiston, Maine, left, Renee Fortin, of Lewiston, center, and Linda Lavoie, of West Bath, Maine, acknowledge honking motorists during a rally to protest an upcoming federal mandate that most institutions and businesses provide insurance plans that cover artificial birth control, Friday, June 8, 2012, In Augusta, Maine. The guidelines from the Obama administration will go into effect in August. Opponents say requiring employers to provide those services through their health plans is a violation of religious freedom, despite promised exemptions and accommodations for religious institutions. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Demonstrators in 2012, In Augusta, Maine. CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

It’s time for new categories

The research of Whitehead, Edgell, and others is provisional; more study is required to unearth the depth and breadth of Christian nationalism’s influence on Americans at the poll booth.

While scholars have been examining Christian nationalism for some time, more precise parameters will likely need to be hashed out before pundits start using it as a vote predictor. Almost all of the scholars who spoke to ThinkProgress for this piece pointed to Robert Jones’ book as an excellent way to understand where Christian nationalist sentiment comes from, for instance, but said more forward-facing work is needed to assess where it’s headed.

“The legacy of white Christian America is going to live on.”

Nevertheless, their preliminary findings strongly imply that Christian nationalist sentiment was not only a major factor in helping to elect Trump, but also a framework that housed or even promoted the various kinds of negative sentiment that catapulted him into power.

This research also indicates that Christian nationalist sentiment clearly extends beyond traditional religious categories, enveloping a curious coalition this is rooted in evangelicalism but that also touches Americans who may not fit the traditional definitions of pious Christians.

At the very least, these papers merit more attention from political analysts, as Christian nationalism seems crucial to understanding how America ended up with Trump — and where he might take us.

“The legacy of white Christian America is going to live on,” Whitehead said.

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