"Apocalypticism": Polling expert reveals the root of "panic among conservative White Christians"

"That core belief explains so much of the extremism and the proclivity toward violence on the political right"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 6, 2023 6:01AM (EST)

Donald Trump | Supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump praying outside the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump praying outside the U.S. Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This year’s American Values Survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) with the Brookings Institution, shows that the American people are very conflicted and increasingly do not possess a shared set of beliefs or values across a wide range of political issues. Key findings include a growingly disproportionate amount of support for political violence, a willingness to ignore the rule of law to win political power, and a belief in untrue conspiracy theories amongst Republicans as compared to Democrats. Antidemocratic beliefs are even more acute, the survey found, among white evangelical Protestants who yearn for a return to “traditional American values” in a country they believe “is moving in the wrong direction." 

How can the American people and their leaders solve the many problems facing the country if they cannot even agree on what they are – or on basic facts and the nature of reality and the truth more generally?

I asked Robert P. Jones, founder and president of PRRI, to help make sense of the survey results that show a divided American public, the enduring power and growing dangers of Trumpism and the role of White Christian nationalism in House Speaker Mike Johnson's swift ascendence. Jones is the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future."

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

America and the world are facing multiple crises and great challenges. There is a war between Israel and Hamas. Russia's war against Ukraine shows no real signs of ending. Trump is tied with or leading Biden in the early 2024 presidential polls. Mike Johnson, a Trump MAGA loyalist and White Christian Nationalist, was just elected speaker of the House. How are you feeling? How is your hope tank doing? 

It's heavy. PRRI’s new American Values Survey was released in the wake of the Hamas terrorist attack against Israel and the same day the U.S. House of Representatives voted to make Johnson speaker. The findings, my emotions, and these events are all intertwined. 

The main findings of the survey are pretty stark, troubling and worrisome. We're clearly in for a pretty rough ride in this country over the next 12 months. There is all the awful violence in Israel and that is spilling over into the US. A child was stabbed to death near Chicago by his landlord in a hate crime against Palestinians. Many Jewish students are not feeling safe on university campuses. There are threats against both synagogues and mosques around the country. These are tough times. 

But I do have hope.

This fall, as I’ve been touring the country in the wake of the publication of my new book, The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, I’ve encountered countless people working in local contexts doing the hard work of reckoning with the injustices of our past, repairing the rifts in their communities, and protecting our democracy—not just in blue states but in places I feature in the book like Mississippi and Oklahoma.

What critical lenses are you using to make sense of these emotions? To navigate and understand these challenges?  

The American Values Survey, which PRRI has done for the last 14 years in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, reveals the tension and divides in this time of crisis. The American people feel that the stakes are high and there is deep worry about the future of the country and its democracy. Three-quarters of Americans believe that the future of democracy is at stake in the 2024 presidential election. It's one of the few things that Republicans and Democrats agree on, 84% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans. Now, of course, they mean very different things in terms of their concerns about "democracy." There is also great pessimism about the country. More Americans than not say that America's best days are now behind us, which is overwhelmingly coming from Republicans. There is widespread economic anxiety. But the deeper disagreement, coupled with deep divides about the country's identity. Who are we? Who is the country for? Who counts as a "real American”? These deeper disagreements, rather than policy differences, are driving our partisan divisions.

"Deeper disagreements, rather than policy differences, are driving our partisan divisions."

The new survey's findings about the rise in support for political violence are particularly troubling. We found that the numbers of Americans who say that "Things have gotten so far off track that true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save the country" has gone up over the last few years, from 15% to 23%. Those feelings are disproportionately on the right. One in three Republicans believe that as compared to only 13% of Democrats. We also found troubling links between white Christian nationalism and political violence. Among those who believe that America was intended by God to be a promised land for European Christians, nearly four in ten believe they may have to resort to violence to save the country. 

The American news media and pundits and the Church of the Savvy types are still vexed by why white Christian evangelicals and other white Christians are so loyal to Donald Trump. The answers are pretty obvious: it is an instrumental relationship about power. It is not a mystery. Why do you think their relationship is presented by so many people as something much more complicated than it really is? 

Here is what is so confusing to some people about Trump and white Christian evangelicals. He's not an evangelical; he's not one of them. Trump doesn't go to church, and he doesn't embody any of the central virtues conservative white Christians profess to value. And yet they have just gone all in for him. But this is all irrelevant to understanding Trump's real appeal to conservative white Christians. I always go back to this interview that this megachurch pastor in Dallas named Robert Jeffries gave in 2015. At the time, there was at least some debate among white evangelical leaders over whether they could or should support Donald Trump. Robert Jeffries basically said that things are so bad in the country, I want the meanest "son of a you know what” in the Oval Office, and that's Donald Trump. 

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What does Trump mean by MAGA, "Make America Great Again"? It is nostalgia for some a mythical past "golden age." They want a return to 1950s America when White Christians were the unquestioned dominant force in the country. Conservative white Christians want that America back. There is also this incorrect narrative that evangelicals held their nose and voted for Trump. But there is really no evidence for that. White evangelicals support Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric and his anti-black rhetoric and all those related racial grievance issues. They were breathing comfortably and freely when they pulled the lever for Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

Language is very important here. If we do not use correct and accurate language, then we will not be able to properly confront and resolve the problem. To that point, what work is being done by such language as "Christians" and "evangelicals" in these conversations about the Republican Party and "conservative" movement and American politics more generally? That language is very vague and lacks specificity. Very few of the news media and political class make that intervention. It is almost like they are afraid to do so. 

For many of these leaders, be it Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, or Mike Johnson, when they use the word "Christian", it is racially coded.  When they say "Bible-believing Christians" they are not talking about Black folks and the AME Church. They're not talking about Latino Catholics. They are specifically talking about white evangelical Protestant Christians.

"These narrow views, especially as represented by the likes of Mike Johnson, are really in the minority. What he represents are the beliefs of about 14% of Americans."

These narrow views, especially as represented by the likes of Mike Johnson, are really in the minority. What he represents are the beliefs of about 14% of Americans. Johnson and other white Christian conservatives who claim to have some type of monopoly on Christianity most certainly do not. And to insist that they do is another manifestation of white supremacy.

When these (White) right wing Christians look at American society, what do they see? What do they want? It is very easy for people outside of that world to mock and laugh at their beliefs, but these are literal life and death matters. Laughing at these Christian fascists and other members of the White Right will not stop them.

What they see is a society adrift from where they think it ought to be. That explains the reactionary language about "taking America back" and "(Re)Awakening America." It's basically a narrative of loss and decline. Trump repeats those themes of decline and American carnage and how he is the only person who can save America.

There is a real belief in Apocalypticism among conservative white Christians, specifically, and white conservatives and the right, more broadly. That is very much tied to changing demographics: we are no longer a majority white Christian country, and we were just 20 years ago. That has set off a visceral reaction, and a kind of panic among conservative White Christians in particular. As I document in The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy, most white evangelicals sincerely believe that God designated America to be a promised land for white European Christians. That is not a joke to them. If a person sincerely believes such a thing and the country is changing and is not in agreement with that vision, it opens the door to political extremism and violence to secure that outcome. Many conservative White Christians truly believe that they have a divine mandate and entitlement to the country.

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The historical record clearly shows that white evangelicals have long had an instrumental, rather than principled, relationship to democracy. As long as there were super majorities of White Christian people in the country, they could pay lip service to the principles of democracy knowing that they had sheer numbers that would guarantee an outcome in their favor. But when democratic processes were unlikely to uphold white Christian power, they historically supported all manner of anti-democratic practices, including white racial terrorism, slavery, segregation, severe voter suppression, and gerrymandering. With the continuing decline of white Christians as a demographic group, these attempts by White conservatives and their allies to undermine democracy are just more obvious and unrestrained, as seen on Jan. 6 for example. 

Donald Trump repeatedly talks about death, destruction, apocalypse, conspiracies, persecution, martyrdom, a final battle, and violence and suffering more generally. That is not an accident. Trump and his propagandists are very strategic and sophisticated. When white Christian conservatives hear this language from Trump and other leaders on the right, how are they making sense of it?  

PRRI’s American Values Survey asked respondents to say which of 20 issues are the most important. The single shared concerns among Democrats and Republicans were about the rising costs of everyday expenses and housing. Among Democrats, there was a very broad range of additional critical concerns. Among Republicans, there were only four. Republicans believe that crime, immigration, what children are learning in public schools, and human trafficking are the most critical issues facing the country. All of these Republican concerns center around a racially tinged sense of fear about a loss of power in an increasingly diverse and changing country.

Who is Mike Johnson and what does he represent? What is Johnson an example of?

Mike Johnson is a white Christian nationalist in a tailored suit. He believes that America is a promised land for white European Christians and that protecting that reality and future is above everything else. Johnson is deeply steeped in that white Christian nationalist worldview, which also includes not believing in the separation of church and state. Behind Johnson's polished public persona is a fairly extreme kind of vision of a white Christian America and a willingness to make the country fit that reality. And that includes overturning an election, such as on Jan. 6, which Johnson supported.

"Many conservative White Christians truly believe that they have a divine mandate and entitlement to the country."

If you listen carefully to Johnson and others on the right, they use the word "republic" and not "democracy." That is not just something pedantic. They believe in the rule of the virtuous, not in a "we the people" democracy where everyone is equally represented. What they're actually committed to is a particular outcome where America's laws and government and society correspond to God's laws as they see it. That's the only legitimate outcome for Johnson and other white Christian nationalists. Everything else is illegitimate. They will use the language of democracy and voting if it achieves their ends and goals, but Johnson and the other white Christian nationalists and many other conservatives at present are not committed to those principles and values if they come out on the losing side of a democratic election.

One of the common claims by centrists, Democrats, and many liberals and progressives is that Mike Johnson and the other White Christian evangelicals and conservatives don't really believe the "crazy" stuff they say. That it is all a performance and some type of culture war spectacle. I always rebut, so what? They are making public policy based on these beliefs. I don't care what is in their hearts. Moreover, that type of reaction is a function of fear and denial because the truth of what these Christofascists are doing right now and intend to do in the future is so utterly terrifying that most Americans cannot accept it. Please make an intervention if you would.

In many cases, these beliefs are sincerely held. They're sincerely taught; They're sincerely preached; They're sincerely sung even in hymns and liturgy in these churches. It's also worth remembering that it wasn't just white evangelicals who strongly supported Trump in the last two elections. Trump was supported by mainline white Protestants, the non-evangelicals. They voted six in 10 for Trump in both elections. White Catholics did too by the same percentage. While these white Christian nationalist tendencies are more pronounced among white evangelicals, this is more broadly a white Christian problem. These views sound extreme and crazy for people who are not of that world. But for members of this white conservative Christian community, they really believe it.

I think the deepest vein that they're mining is a belief and feeling that America was supposed to belong to European Christians, and they're desperately afraid that it no longer does. As they understand it, they were given the responsibility by God to create this Christian country, and it's slipping away from them. That core belief explains so much of the extremism and the proclivity toward violence on the political right today. 

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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