Most critics of Christian nationalism, polemicists and academics alike, grossly inflate the number of Americans who adhere to anything that may reasonably be called Christian nationalism. The most prominent example of this distortion comes from sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry. They contend that 51.9% of Americans are fully or partially supportive of Christian nationalism, which they define as “an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture” that includes assumptions of “nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.”
I am not a number-crunching political scientist, but I have nevertheless pointed out what seem to be obvious flaws with Whitehead and Perry’s methodology. As an alternative, I have argued in these pages that roughly 20% of Americans embrace a far more benign (but still problematic) version of Christian nationalism. Now, two recently released studies offer support for this conclusion.
Perhaps most striking, the Pew Research Center reported in October of 2022 that 54% of Americans haven’t even heard the phrase “Christian nationalism.” Pew also reports that 5% had a favorable view of the phenomenon, while 24% had an unfavorable view. If even 5% of Americans adhered to the toxic stew that Whitehead and Perry call Christian nationalism, that finding would be troubling. But it is entirely possible that these Americans embrace something better called Christian patriotism. I concede that a person could be a Christian nationalist by some definitions and not identify as such, but this Pew report should at least give pause to those who warn that “Christian nationalism is an existential threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States.”
More substantially, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Brookings Institution recently released a sensible study that attempts to measure American Christian nationalism. Unlike Whitehead and Perry, who had to utilize responses to statements written by other social scientists to measure Christian nationalism, these researchers wrote their own. They wisely avoided focusing on whether or not one strongly supports the strict separation of church and state (three of the six statements utilized by Whitehead and Perry were of this nature). Instead, they asked those surveyed to respond to the following statements:
- The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.
- U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
- If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
- Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
- God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.
The survey research team then created a point system to judge answers to each of these five statements. If respondents completely agreed with a statement, they were awarded one point, if they mostly agreed they earned 0.75 points and so on. The numbers for all five were then averaged, and the respondents were placed on a Christian nationalism scale using the following metric:
Score 0.75-1: Christian Nationalism Adherents
Score 0.5-0.74: Christian Nationalism Sympathizers
Score 0.01-0.49: Christian Nationalism Skeptics
Score 0: Christian Nationalism Rejecters
Using these measures, the authors conclude that 10% of Americans are “Adherents,” i.e., fully supportive of Christian nationalism, 19% are Sympathizers, 39% are Skeptics and 29% are Rejectors. Collectively, 29% of Americans are fully or partially supportive of Christian nationalism, a percentage far lower than Whitehead and Perry’s 51.9%, but not quite as low as my estimate of 20%.
Before proceeding, it is worth noting that the PRRI study makes the interesting decision to count as Rejectors only Americans who “completely disagree” with all five statements, but Adherents include a mix of citizens who “completely agree” and “mostly agree” with all five statements. If their scale was symmetrical and Adherents had to “completely agree” with all five statements, the percentage of Americans labeled as such would be lower—although it is impossible to tell from the information presented in the report how much lower that share would be.
Two of the statements used in the PRRI study overlap with the statements used by Whitehead and Perry. I agree that the first of these, “The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation,” gets at something reasonably called Christian nationalism. Clearly, such a declaration privileges Christianity above other faiths and suggests a fusion between God and country (as do statements three and four). In fact, I use responses to the first statement in my own attempt to measure Christian nationalism.
The third statement, “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values,” could be understood to privilege Christianity above other faiths, but it needn’t be taken in that way. Many Christians believe values such as peace, justice and equality are Christian values (although they are certainly not distinctly Christian) that should inform U.S. laws. One could easily imagine the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day “completely agreeing” with this statement, and yet neither of these influential leaders are reasonably classified as Christian nationalists—at least as the term is generally used today.
The last statement, which includes the language of “dominion,” certainly sounds scary, but in some Christian communities it means something along the lines of bringing the light of Christ into areas of society such as publishing, movie making and music production. Indeed, there are entire publishing houses and studios dedicated to making Christian books, movies and songs. Some advocates of taking dominion over such areas would undoubtedly be pleased if these works crowded out their non-Christian counterparts, but currently they constitute just a fraction of the market.
Although the PRRI report’s title, “A Christian Nation? Understanding the Threat of Christian Nationalism to American Democracy and Culture,” is suggestive, the report generally avoids the hyperventilating language of those who claim that Christian nationalism is an “existential threat to a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” Nevertheless, in an event hosted by the Brookings Institution to discuss the report, the historian Jemar Tisby averred that “White Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to democracy and the witness of the church in the United States today.”
Christian nationalism is problematic, but it is simply not widespread enough to pose an existential threat to America’s constitutional order or the Christian church. In order to address the dangers posed by it, we need an accurate understanding of the phenomenon rather than exaggerations and fear mongering. Fortunately, the recent Pew study and the PRRI report are important steps in the right direction.