Since the 2016 United States presidential election, numerous articles and books have been written that attempt to explain the role of religion in the surprising election of Donald J. Trump. Many writers cite the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump and ask why they, a group known for their concern for traditional morality, would so strongly support a candidate who openly rejected many of their most sacred values.
Samuel Perry (ThM, 2008) and Andrew Whitehead, however, contend that focusing on the category of “white evangelicals” misses a powerful cultural force behind many of today’s political issues. They argue that a belief system they call “Christian nationalism” is a stronger indication of stances on race, immigration, marriage, and sexuality than political leaning, religious affiliation, or religious practice. In other words, in their statistical models, being a white evangelical is not as strong a predictor of Trump support or anti-immigration sentiment as is holding Christian nationalist views.
Perry and Whitehead base their argument on large-scale quantitative data from two sources, the General Social Survey and the Baylor Religion Survey. These multi-year surveys ask large groups of Americans a variety of questions about religion, politics, and demographics, and sociologists use this data to draw correlations. Perry and Whitehead selected six statements (including “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,” “The federal government should advocate Christian values,” and “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools”), and used responses to them to create a scale of how strongly a person holds Christian nationalist views. This led them to group individuals into one of four categories: Ambassadors, Accommodators, Resisters, or Rejecters, where Ambassadors answer “strongly agree” to many of the statements, while Rejectors tend to answer “strongly disagree” to many or all of them. They then take this model and apply it to other items in the survey such as whether someone would want to take Muslim books out of a library, whether police treat blacks the same as whites, or a husband should earn a larger salary than his wife.
Perry and Whitehead first made this argument in 2018 an article in Sociology of Religion called “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election” (which remains the most read article on the journal’s website since its release). The book expands on this work by adding structured interviews with both those who strongly advocate for Christian nationalist views and policies and those who strongly reject them. They visit churches that host freedom, faith, and fireworks events as well as interview those who want to maintain a strong separation of church and state. The combination of broad quantitative data and qualitative information from interviews offers a nuanced portrait of American beliefs as well as some surprising correlations and patterns.
The authors note that “the answer to whether the United States ever was or still is a ‘Christian nation’ is not the focus of this book. Rather, we focus on how these beliefs, whether strongly held or barely acknowledged, influence the lives of those who hold them, as well as those who do not” (4). What they found is that while white evangelicals and those with high levels of religious practices tend to be Christian nationalists, not all Christian nationalists are white or evangelical or particularly religious in their behavior. However, those who rank highly on the Christian nationalist scale are also highly likely to have some of the following beliefs: to feel that one needs to be a Christian to be “truly American,” that the US government should spend more money on the military, that people should show respect for America’s traditions, that public schools should pray to the Christian God, all of which are borne out in interviews with people who argue that when “you remove God, you remove God’s blessing” (111). Christian nationalism also appears to be connected to believing that refugees from the Middle East are a threat to national security, that black people are shot by police because they are more violent, and that men are better suited emotionally for politics than women, leading the authors to conclude that under the hood, much of Christian nationalism is the assumption that “realAmericans are native-born white Protestants” (91).
At the same time, their data indicates a distinction between Christian nationalists and those who engage in religious practices such as believing in God, regular prayer, church attendance, and evangelizing. “As Americans show greater agreement with Christian nationalism, they are more likely to view Muslim refugees as terrorist threats, agree that citizens should be made to show respect for America’s traditions, and oppose stricter gun control laws. But as Americans become more religious in terms of attendance, prayer, and Scripture reading, they move in the opposite direction on these issues” (84). The authors follow several other issues such as abortion, divorce, and gay marriage, showing where there are similarities and differences. Certain other political issues, however, such as healthcare, tax policy, and other services are not covered.
For those who feel white evangelicals are solely to blame for the current state of American politics, Perry and Whitehead’s work shows that the situation is much more complex. Similarly, for those who feel that America is a uniquely Christian nation in danger of losing God’s favor, this book argues that this belief is often associated with positions that may be in conflict with their own faith.
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