The rise of ethno-nationalist movements around the world has been one of the most notable political trends of the past two decades. That trend certainly includes the United States. The American strain comprises interrelated populist movements with different emphases. These include “America first” chauvinism, antigovernment libertarianism, and authoritarian ethno-traditionalism that calls for a return to America’s Anglo-Protestant identity and values—what scholars and journalists call “Christian nationalism.” Across these emphases, the centrality of White ethnic identity is assumed, if not stated explicitly.
Neither such movements, nor their ideological contents, are new to the United States. In fact, as my coauthor Philip Gorski and I argue in our book, The Flag and the Cross, some elements are older than the nation itself. Moreover, there’s evidence that the number of Americans willing to affirm overt ethno-nationalism is shrinking within the general population. But recent electoral and judicial successes, combined with the growing overtness of ethno-nationalist rhetoric among far-right politicians, are worrisome. Radical ethno-nationalist elements exist in every democracy. But to gain a foothold they require coalitions, often in the form of support from traditional conservatives and other citizens in opposition to supposed “threats” from the outside. What facilitates their mutual recognition of insider status and outsider threat?
I argue that religious conceptions can play an important role in enlisting ethnic and racial minority groups in ethno-nationalist projects. In the United States, Christian nationalism represents, at minimum, a conflation of religious and national identities. And because religious and national identities are deeply racialized, whiteness is often implied. Yet Christian nationalism not only provides a unifying deep story and mobilizing vision for white Christian supremacy. To the extent that “Christian nation” rhetoric and ideas evoke feelings of “our group” or “Americans like us,” it can bind historically disadvantaged minorities to the majority group vis-à-vis another out-group.
One obvious example of this process is how Christian nationalism works uniformly across ethnic and racial groups in opposition to sexual or gender minorities. In our book, Taking America Back for God, my coauthor Andrew Whitehead and I show that Christian nationalist ideology inclines Americans of all races and ethnicities to oppose civil rights for LGBT persons. This is the case because the idea of a “Christian nation” implies for Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans as much as for White Americans a social order in which patriarchal, heterosexual relationships are privileged vis-à-vis romantic relationships they have traditionally viewed as “un-Christian.” In this context, racial minorities aren’t the out-group. They are part of the power majority.
But this phenomenon also applies to situations of ethnic or racial exclusion. Christian nationalism can link historically disadvantaged minority groups to Whites in opposition to threats, not to some moral order, but to racial status hierarchies.
Consider what we know from social psychology regarding the phenomenon of “group threat.” When resources are scarce and group status is on the line, in-group members are more likely to hold hostile attitudes toward out-groups who pose the biggest threat. We can immediately spot this tendency in research on affective partisan polarization. When competition for an elected office is close, interpartisan hostility is highest. This is also the case among ethnic and racial groups. Though Black and Hispanic Americans are typically less prejudiced than White Americans, members of either minority group are also more likely to be hostile to the other in contexts of heightened competition. Most often we see these conflicts among Hispanic or Latino immigrants and members of lower-income Black communities. Often at issue is whether members of either group perceive themselves to be among those who have something to lose in the status advancement of the other group.
Where does religion come into play? On the one hand, ethnographic work by sociologist Gerardo Marti shows ethnic and racial groups can bridge social divides if they share some transcendent religious identity. In this case, Christian identity and heritage represent prominent parts of community life for Black and Hispanic Americans, statistically even more so than for White Americans. Religious identities, myths, and symbols are thus available to unite minority and majority group members as Christians. And in fact, surveys show that members of both racial minority groups often affirm Christian nationalist views as much as or more than Whites. These Americans thus see the “Christian nation” as including them too.
What would activate solidarity among these group members? This is where out-group threats come into play. In a forthcoming study published with coauthors Andrew Whitehead, Kenneth Frantz, and Joshua Grubbs, we found whether Christian nationalism aligns Black or Hispanic Americans with White Americans depends on who’s being excluded.
My coauthors and I analyzed a series of questions from the General Social Survey that asked about certain ethnic or racial groups assimilating or being excluded from American civic life. We wanted to see if Christian nationalism shaped the attitudes of racial minorities similarly to those of White Americans depending on who was the implied target. First, we found as White Americans more strongly affirm Christian nationalist views, they are increasingly likely to favor domestic minority assimilation and the exclusion of immigrants. This isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s one of the most common findings in all research on Christian nationalism.
But we also found an interesting paradox that lends support to my theory that Christian nationalism can enlist racial minorities in White racial projects of ethnic exclusion. When Black Americans are more likely to be the target of views requiring minorities to assimilate to the majority culture, Christian nationalism makes Black Americans less supportive of such views. But it also makes Hispanic Americans look indistinguishable from Whites. And when immigrants (who are disproportionately Hispanic) are more likely to be the target of views that demand the assimilation or exclusion of outgroups, Christian nationalism makes Hispanic Americans less supportive of such views. But it also makes Black Americans look no different from Whites. What this means is that when Black Americans are the implied out-group, Christian nationalism seems to incline Hispanic and White Americans toward similar views. But when immigrants are the out-group, Christian nationalism seems to incline Black and White Americans toward similar views.
Put simply, Christian nationalism can be ethnically unifying even as it excludes. And this fact doesn’t just apply to “White Americans vs. Everyone Else.” Just like it does when sexual minorities are the target of exclusionary views, Christian nationalism can unify ethnic and racial groups to preserve a “Christian nation” against threats, just so long as “my group” isn’t the intended target. Christian nationalism thus builds multiracial coalitions against outside threats to White ethnocentrism.
This creates a fascinating paradox for historically disadvantaged minority groups. White Americans are more likely to be the in-group/power majority in every sense, and thus, Christian nationalism essentially always implies exclusion, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and racial hierarchy with Whites at the top. But for Black and Hispanic Americans, Christian nationalism can be linked with both inclusive/pluralistic views and exclusionary/assimilationist views, depending on who is the out-group—them or some other group.
This helps us understand a key aspect of “Christian nationalism” beyond white supremacy: Though white supremacy is almost always supported, American Christian nationalism is more directly about unity against threats to a social order.
Knowing this fact helps us understand the potential effectiveness of Christian nationalist rhetoric for political mobilization. Christian nationalist appeals to “Christian heritage” or “Christian values” are not simply dog whistles for White Americans if the targeted out-group is one that other ethno-racial minority groups can rally against as well. For example, it may be that Christian nationalist appeals within the context of an anti-immigrant speech citing “rapists,” “drugs,” and “gangs” can provoke Black Americans to share in White antipathy toward immigrants. Conversely, Christian nationalist appeals within the context of speeches against “race riots,” “critical race theory,” or “wokeness” may provoke Hispanics and Latinos to share in anti-Black prejudice.
Other possibilities include White Christian hostility toward ethno-religious out-groups like Muslims. Though we have yet to test directly for this, it is likely that Christian nationalist appeals that coincide with rhetoric against “Islamic terrorists” or “Jihadists” could provoke Islamophobia among Black and Hispanic Americans just as it would for Whites. This extends the utility of Christian nationalism as a political strategy, which only needs to be modified in a specific context to appeal to different American groups who associate “Christian America” with “people like us.”
As recent findings from Pew Research Center show, most Americans know little about the actual term “Christian nationalism,” and a large proportion who know about it view it negatively. But references to our shared “Christian heritage” and “Christian values” clearly appeal to racial minorities at some level, just as they do for White Americans. The rhetoric of Christian nationalism, then, likely doesn’t just mobilize reactionary White evangelicals to the polls. It may serve the political end of aligning historically disadvantaged minorities with Whites in strategic coalitions of exclusion.