Sociologist Andrew Whitehead: How Christian nationalism drives American politics

Author of "Taking America Back for God" on why Christian nationalism isn't really about religion, or Donald Trump

Published February 29, 2020 12:25PM (EST)

Facade of the 'First Baptist Church' Southern Baptist megachurch in central Dallas at night. This evangelical church has a congregation of 10 000. (Getty Images)
Facade of the 'First Baptist Church' Southern Baptist megachurch in central Dallas at night. This evangelical church has a congregation of 10 000. (Getty Images)

In early 2018, after a year of confusion over why Donald Trump had been elected, Clemson sociologist Andrew Whitehead and two colleagues provided compelling evidence — which I wrote about here — that "voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States' perceived Christian heritage." That is, it represented "Christian nationalism," even when controlling for other popular explanations such as "economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment." The puzzle of why white evangelicals voted for Trump so overwhelmingly turned out to have a simple explanation: It wasn't their religion that he championed — Trump is conspicuously not a person of faith — but rather its place in society.

Now, Whitehead and one of those colleagues, University of Oklahoma sociologist Samuel Perry, have a new book taking their research approach much further: "Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States." Donald Trump doesn't figure as a central subject in the book, but then, he doesn't have to. By exploring and explaining the power of Christian nationalism, Whitehead and Perry provide one of the best perspectives possible on the 2020 race, and the larger forces that will continue to polarize America for some time to come. 

Significantly, the authors explore Christian nationalism's influence on society as a whole — not just on those who embrace it, but on those across the whole spectrum, from adherents to opponents — while not forgetting how extreme its animating vision is. They cite Corey Robin's "The Reactionary Mind" and Jason Stanley's "How Fascism Works," for example, in making the point that while "Christian nationalism seeks to preserve or reinstitute boundaries in the public sphere," its believers are "most desperate" to influence "Americans' private worlds," as is true of "all reactionary movements." 

This is both an extremely timely book and one that's likely to shape our self-understanding as a nation for generations to come. I recently interviewed Andrew Whitehead by phone. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book is about "Christian nationalism." Let's start with explaining what you mean by that. 

When we talk about Christian nationalism, we identify it as a cultural framework that is all about trying to advocate for a fusion between Christianity, as they define it, and American civic life. This Christianity is something more than just orthodox Christian belief — it contains and overlaps with a number of other things. It operates like a signal to those that hear it, to a certain population, to say "people like us," which is generally white, native-born, culturally Christian. So it intertwines not only with narratives about the Christian heritage of the United States, but also different traditions and symbols and value systems, and really is a fusion of these identities, put together to create what they see as the "ideal" America. 

As you note in your introduction, there's a large literature on Christian nationalism, including another book coming out next week, Katherine Stewart's "The Power Worshippers." What's distinctive and different about your approach, both in terms of methodology and purpose?

What we're doing that really hasn't been done before is quantifying and empirically defining Christian nationalism. "The Power Worshippers" by Katherine Stewart is amazing, and really a great journalistic look at who's pulling the levers, and who these power worshipers are. But what we do is we gather data from thousands of Americans through surveys, and then we interview them. What we're trying to do is empirically show this ideology and cultural framework of Christian nationalism: How does it affect and influence the views of all Americans, their beliefs, their values, their behaviors? There really hasn't been a sustained, empirical examination of this cultural framework and that's what our book does.

In your introduction you lay out three main arguments. First, you argue that "understanding Christian nationalism, its content and its consequences, is essential for understanding much of the polarization in American popular discourse." Your analysis doesn't just look at supporters of Christian nationalism, but those with a broad range of perspectives, which you characterize in four broad groups. I'd like to ask about each of them, starting with those you call "Ambassadors." What is distinctive or characteristic of them?

Ambassadors are those Americans who most strongly embrace Christian nationalism. We ask a series of questions of Americans and then we combine their responses across the six questions, and we are able to measure the strength with which they either embrace or reject Christian nationalism. Ambassadors are those who strongly agree with a series of questions like, "Do you believe that the United States or the federal government should advocate Christian values?" Or, "Should we allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces?" The more Americans agree with those, they score highly on our scale, and those Americans we call Ambassadors. So they are the ones that would want to see religious symbols in public spaces, they would want to see the government advocate for Christian values, declare the U.S. a Christian nation. They believe that the success of the United States is part of God's plan, so they would be those who most strongly embrace this idea of the U.S. as a Christian nation and would want to see Christianity privileged in the public sphere.

On the other extreme are those you call "Rejecters." What's distinctive or characteristic of them?

Rejecters are those Americans who completely oppose and repudiate any notion of a close relationship between Christianity and American civil society. They're in some ways a mirror image of Ambassadors, where for them to have a strong civil society, or pluralistic democracy, we should not be privileging any religion in the public sphere. They wouldn't necessarily say that religion shouldn't be a part of American life, but that in the halls of power one religion shouldn't have an upper hand over another. So they wouldn't want to see Christianity privileged in that sense. 

One thing we want to make clear is that these aren't just non-religious Americans. We show that there are evangelical Protestants who are Rejecters, and we interview them in the book. There are other Americans who are religious, who reject the desire to see Christianity privileged in the public sphere. Now, many Rejecters are pretty non-religious, but not all. So what we're looking at isn't just a religious/non-religious divide. It really is a divide about the role that they think Christianity should play in public life. Rejecters would say that while religion is fine to be part of people's lives, we wouldn't want to see Christianity privileged in some way.

In between these extremes there are two groups. Those called "Accommodators" are closer to the Ambassadors, but not the same. What's distinctive or characteristic of them?

Accommodators lean towards accepting this idea of a U.S. civil society that embraces or in some ways might privilege Christianity. So their support is undeniable, but it's not comprehensive. They would maybe be more equivocal about whether there should be certain religious symbols in public spaces. They might say that Christianity has been important to the history of the U.S., and that it generally is a good thing. But when you ask if other religious groups should be able to also integrate or be a part of it, they will be more open to that, whereas Ambassadors would say that this is a Christian nation, and if you don't like it you should leave. Accommodators accommodate the "Christian nation" narrative and Christian nationalism, but they wouldn't necessarily be opposed to other religious groups at least being able to live and operate here. So they are supportive of it, but it isn't as comprehensive as Ambassadors.

The other in-between group, called "Resisters," are closer to Rejecters but, again, not the same.  

Resisters are more of a mirror image of Accommodators, where they are uncomfortable with the idea of a Christian nation, but not wholly opposed. So they lean towards opposition. They might say that Christianity played an important role in the founding of the United States, but they're uncomfortable with any idea of trying to privilege Christianity in the public sphere. We find that there are a number of Resisters who are Christians, who think that Christianity can play a positive role in society, but it shouldn't be held up over any other religious group — that Christians and other religious groups should be able to work alongside one another. So compared to Rejecters, who might say no one religion should have the upper hand, Resisters might still see a positive role that Christianity can play, but they wouldn't want to see that formalized in any form by government.

You also make the point that these groups cut across all other demographics, although unevenly. One of the most notable findings is that the percentage of Rejecters rises with each succeeding generation, while the number of Ambassadors falls, pointing to a seeming waning of Christian nationalist influence. But there are contrary factors at work as well. Could you explain?

We do find, in other research, that Americans will respond to historical events, and might embrace Christianity as integral to American identity much more strongly. One example is when 9/11 happened. In the late '90s, a certain number of Americans would say that being Christian was important to being truly American, but after 9/11, when asked that question, a much larger percentage of Americans said that to be truly American you need to be a Christian. So they were responding in some sense to the 9/11 attack on America, trying to identify "Who are we, and what are we all about?" A lot of the rhetoric surrounding that revolved around religion. But we found that 10 years after that event, those levels decreased, back actually below the 1996 levels. 

Throughout history Christian nationalism has been a part of our cultural context, but it does wax and wane. Around the Cold War, trying again to identify who we are as Americans, Christianity was put on our coins — "In God we trust" — in this kind of push. Kevin Kruse shows in his book "One Nation Under God" how, in response to the New Deal and fears of creeping socialism, people pushed this idea that we're a Christian nation. With Jerry Falwell and others, the Moral Majority were responding to the civil rights movement and the gender and sexuality movements of the '60s and '70s. 

We see this current iteration of Christian nationalism responding to that. If there's uneasiness or if we're trying to define who we are, Christianity becomes kind of an easy go-to, to say, "This is what we've always been about." With recent demographic shifts in U.S. society, that is another example, where Donald Trump and others would say that we're a Christian nation and this is what we're all about, and others would be willing to hear and embrace that. Even as there are fewer Ambassadors today, Christian nationalism is still a very powerful cultural framework and ideology that will help them define themselves against the outside. It still is a really strong explanatory tool to understand why people see and think the way they do about politics, their own lives and whatever is happening in the world today. 

Your second main argument is that "to understand Christian nationalism, it must be examined on its own terms. Christian nationalism is necessarily part of a complex web of ideologies." What are the main ideological connections that are most salient, politically and statistically?

People usually will try to say, "Is it racism or authoritarianism that really explains these effects?" What we find is that while Christian nationalism does overlap with these different ideologies, like racism or authoritarianism, it has an independent effect. While there are aspects of Christian nationalism where people do want to see a highly ordered society, it isn't just that desire. There is something about wanting to see Christianity privileged in the public sphere that is an independent influence on how they see the world, or might view the criminal justice system or anything else. And the same with racism, where Christian nationalism is associated with generally prejudiced views towards nonwhite groups. It isn't just that there's racism. There's something about this idea of seeing Christianity privileged in the public sphere that tells us something over and above the other ideologies. So while they're related, they aren't one and the same.

It seems like Christian nationalism is something broader than these ideologies it is connected to. 

I think it is. I think it tells us something about the nature of this desire to see religion and especially Christianity privileged in the public sphere. It tells us something more about where that came from and why that's important, and helps to explain why Americans might believe one way versus another. 

Finally, your third argument is that "Christian nationalism is not 'Christianity' or even 'religion' properly speaking," and indeed that "Christian nationalism often influences Americans' opinions and behaviors in the exact opposite direction than traditional religious commitment does." In fact, as one table in your book shows, in virtually all areas of social policy — everything except personal fidelity to religion — the influences are at odds.

It's a recurring theme we see throughout our book. When we look at different hot-button political wedge issues in the U.S., or we look at views toward nonwhite groups or even non-Christian groups, we find that Christian nationalism encourages people generally to think and believe one way, while once we take that level of Christian nationalism into account, individual Americans who are more religious will actually be moving in the opposite direction. 

One example is fear of Muslims. We ask a number of questions about, "Do you feel threatened by Muslims physically?" Or, "Do you think they hold moral values that are less than yours?" The way I explain it is that if you could take a carbon copy of me and the only thing you change — increase or decrease — is my Christian nationalism, then I will be more fearful of Muslims as you increase that. But if you took a carbon copy of me, and my level of Christian nationalism stayed the same level, and all you increased or decreased was my religious practice — as you increase my religious practice, I would actually feel less threatened by Muslims. So these things aren't one and the same. While many Ambassadors and Accommodators are religious, it isn't necessarily their religiosity that's causing them to view immigrants or Muslims or nonwhite minorities this way. It's their Christian nationalism.

The one topic where we find religious practice and increasing Christian nationalism work similarly is when we talk about gender, homosexuality or transgender rights. We do find that more religious people tend to be less willing to be open toward gay marriage, as an example, even when we account for Christian nationalism.

I'd like you to talk more about that. Why do those views translate from Christian nationalism to religious practice, whereas when it comes to attitudes towards Muslims or people of other races, the same is not true? 

Christian nationalism is really focused on creating boundaries between "us" and "them." This idea of true American identity is white, Protestant, culturally Christian, native-born. So that's why we see religious practice and Christian nationalism work differently in that sense. But when we're talking about sexuality, what we see is that for those that are religiously active they're still seeing and believing that there should be some sort of ordering within gender and sexuality that is in line with what they see as traditional Christian beliefs. So Christian nationalism in the end works in the same direction with religious practice. 

We see that same thing in our interviews. Those who were strongly Christian nationalist, who were Ambassadors, they would oppose same-sex marriage really along the lines of trying to protect this Christian nation. They would see it as a threat to America's Christian nation. But when we talk to Americans who are very religious, but who reject or resist Christian nationalism, they might be opposed to gay marriage, but it isn't that they want to see it outlawed at the federal level. They would think that it's against the dictates of their Christian tradition.

I want to ask about two specific examples you discuss, which I think most observers don't have a good handle on, but make perfect sense in your analysis. The first is a lack of sympathy for black victims of police violence, even in the face of video evidence. What are the reasons behind this lack of sympathy?

What it comes down to is that Christian nationalism is fundamentally about preserving or returning to a mythic society where there are traditional hierarchical relationships — between white and black, or even men and women. The authority structures that are in place are instituted by God, so any claims by minorities — in this case, racial minorities — that there are inequalities, to Christian nationalists and to Ambassadors, they would see that as disingenuous. 

What we find is that when it comes to maintaining law and order, Christian nationalists are enthusiastic about that, so they're basically biased toward seeing and defending fairness in that force that's used against different people. They're more likely to think that police treat blacks the same as whites, or that police officers shoot blacks more often because they are inherently more violent. They're less likely to believe there are inequalities in policing, because to them that authority structure is put in place by God. So that is a little bit more about how Christian nationalism can uphold or encourage white supremacy, or specifically inequality in the criminal justice system.

The second example is attitudes towards guns, epitomized by the Florida legislature after the Parkland shooting, when they responded by overwhelmingly passing a bill requiring the prominent placement of "In God we trust" in all Florida schools. That bill is part of the Christian nationalist agenda pushed by Project Blitz. How does this make sense in terms of Christian nationalism? What's the logic involved?

For Christian nationalism, for Ambassadors, they would say the real issue with our country when it comes to violence or anything else is that individuals are not Christian or not following the Christian God. So if we're able, as a country, to encourage Christianity in the public sphere, that will heal a lot of the fracture in our nation, or these issues that make people want to inflict violence on others. They don't see where larger structural changes like limiting access to guns might change it, because they say — and you hear this over and over — that if somebody couldn't use a gun, they would use something else. But we can't just outlaw evil, it is always going to be with us, violence is always going to be with us. So the only way to reduce violence is through encouraging Christianity overall. 

Another reason they would oppose gun control is because they view the Constitution — and, by default, the Second Amendment — as ordained by the Christian God. So, to oppose the Second Amendment right to bear arms, they would say, is to oppose what God has instituted for this nation. The only way to heal our country is through encouraging Christianity, not limiting access to guns.

One thing that stood out for me was that Rejecters stand alone in seeing Christian nationalism as a threat — not spelled out as such, but in terms of those who support it. This seems problematic to me, if understandable. Could you talk about that?

We show that Rejecters are the only ones that are more likely to feel that threat or to be afraid of conservative Christians. The other groups are no different from one another. Even Resisters might see some room for Christianity to play a role in the public sphere. What is important to underscore is that Christian nationalism as a framework isn't just equal to conservative Christians, or religious people, but is something different, and we find that it's present across both the religious and non-religious groups and socio-demographic categories. So Americans in a lot of different places will embrace this, to different levels, and it can have profound impacts on how they might view policing of religious minorities or immigration or other issues. 

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer? 

A point I would want to make is that Christian nationalism has serious implications for two areas. One is American civil society, about upholding a pluralistic democracy. Christian nationalism, we find over and over again, doesn't encourage an ability to compromise or to work together across differences or to find a common way that we can all agree on. For them it's more and more about trying to defend a particular version of religion in the public sphere. So it's really difficult to have a pluralistic democracy, which should be founded on compromise, when increasingly Christian nationalists desire their way or nothing. So that has deep implications for our democracy. 

It also has serious implications for the American Christian church. With Christian nationalism in many ways subsuming common Christian traditions and symbols to its own ends, that really can go against the dictates of orthodox Christianity, like loving your enemy or your neighbors, or equality across all races and ethnicities. To the extent people are interested in or are trying to live out the dictates of the Christian scriptures, in many ways Christian nationalism is wholly opposed to them. 

So for those who are interested in defending a pluralistic, democratic society, non-religious Americans can find common cause with those Christians who reject Christian nationalism, because they are focused on trying to ensure religious freedom for all or to live in harmony with their neighbors. One example is the Baptist Joint Committee [For Religious Liberty] or Christians Against Christian Nationalism. Non-religious or secular Americans who don't want to see Christianity privileged in the public sphere can in some cases seek common cause with those who may be devoted to the Christian faith, but reject Christian nationalism.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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