The insurrection on January 6, 2021, ignited widespread concern about the health of democracy in the United States. Alongside this concern, discussions arose about whether Christian nationalism was weakening American democracy. As we enter the start of the 2024 presidential race, it is critical to consider how Christian nationalism plays out in the political sphere and when and how it may trigger anti-democratic attitudes and behaviors. Doing so may help us better understand (and challenge) growing anti-democratic sentiment. For example, Donald Trump, who is running for president in 2024, was recently associated with the ReAwaken America Tour, a far-right Christian nationalist movement that promotes conspiracies ranging from election fraud to QAnon. Other presidential candidates have also used threat-laced Christian nationalist rhetoric while appealing to their bases. Ron DeSantis recently drew upon Christian nationalist iconography in his political speech, using phrases such as “put on the full armor of God.” Similarly, DeSantis’s campaign ad for reelection featured direct references to the Christian nationalist theme of spiritual warfare.
Christian nationalism is a key contributing factor to the decline of US democracy
Democracy has been declining globally for fifteen years. During this time, 75 percent of the world’s population experienced a decrease in personal freedoms such as freedom of speech. The United States is now categorized as a “flawed democracy” instead of a “full democracy” and fell by eleven points on the 100-point democratic index in the past decade, including three points in 2020 alone. Should this trend continue, in the next ten years, the United States will be considered only “partly free” and further entrenched as a “flawed democracy.”
One understudied source of anti-democratic sentiment is adherence to Christian nationalist ideology. In the aftermath of the 2021 capitol insurrection, the Baptist Joint Committee released a report calling attention to the role Christian nationalism played in the insurrection. A similar report was written for the January 6 congressional committee that investigated the attack on the capitol. Although the insurrection was just one case of anti-democratic behavior, it is important to consider if and how Christian nationalism may influence democratic sentiment more broadly.
Christian nationalism is an ideological belief that politics and society should be rooted in and guided by Christian values. The Public Religion Research Institute released an extensive report in 2023 on Christian nationalism, providing deeper insight into what supporters of Christian nationalism look like demographically and their beliefs. Americans who endorse Christian nationalism are more likely to believe church and state should be integrated. Critically, this view is specific to adherents of Christianity and does not encompass adherents of other religions.
Moreover, Christian nationalism is associated with support for voter suppression, belief in conspiracy theories, and exclusionary views about religious rights and freedoms. Yet Christian nationalist views are not inherently anti-democratic. In some instances, people who maintain Christian nationalist beliefs are more civically engaged and hold other pro-democracy ideals; they prioritize religious freedom and state rights. The question then arises: When does Christian nationalism spur anti-democratic sentiment?
Investigating the role of Christian nationalism in anti-democratic sentiment
My current line of work further explores how threats to Christianity can trigger anti-democratic attitudes and behaviors among those who endorse Christian nationalist ideology. Recent findings from this project show that endorsement of Christian nationalism and perceived threats to Christianity are both important factors in anti-democratic sentiment.
In my ongoing work funded by the Social Science Research Council and the Fetzer Institute, I had three primary goals: (1) to determine whether Christian nationalism and other conservative ideologies such as right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation were related to a variety of anti-democratic sentiments, (2) to determine which of these ideologies were the most potent predictors of anti-democratic sentiments, and (3) to examine how the perceived threat to Christianity might strengthen anti-democratic attitudes among those who more strongly endorse Christian nationalist views. To do so, I collected data from a sample of 500 White Christian Americans.
I first tested whether several ideologies and beliefs were associated with anti-democratic sentiments. I found that Christian nationalism, social dominance orientation (a preference for social hierarchy), right-wing authoritarianism (a preference for and submission to authority figures), and populism (anti-establishment views), but not affective polarization (the relative disliking of the opposite political party to the liking of their own), were largely associated with anti-democratic sentiments. However, the pattern of trust in democratic institutions was less clear, which is consistent with other work that suggests the limitations of examining general support for democracy versus more specific instances of democratic support. Trust in democratic institutions may be more complex and require a more nuanced assessment.
I then compared these ideologies to one another to determine which were the strongest predictors of anti-democratic sentiments. Doing so would help us know how important Christian nationalism is in anti-democratic sentiments, and whether our attention should be directed toward Christian nationalism or other ideologies. I found that among White Christian Americans, a preference for social hierarchy and Christian nationalism were the most potent sources of anti-democratic attitudes and support for political violence toward a political out-party, and right-wing authoritarianism and populism were the strongest ideological predictors of trust and mistrust, respectively, in democratic institutions. These findings suggest Christian nationalism is associated with anti-democratic sentiment, but not necessarily trust in democratic institutions.
Finally, I tested whether perceived threats to White racial identity or Christianity strengthened the associations between Christian nationalism and anti-democratic sentiments. I based this prediction on previous work by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry showing that perceived threat to Christianity is a central feature of Christian nationalism. In Taking America Back for God, Whitehead and Perry discuss how Christian nationalist rhetoric is often cloaked in narratives of threat to Christianity—for example, Christian nationalist politicians often describe gay marriage as an attack on Christian values and the traditional family. Prior empirical work also supports this idea. Using data from four samples, I found that people who endorsed Christian nationalism perceived greater threats from immigrants, which was in turn associated with stronger anti-immigrant attitudes.
Perceptions of threats to religion can also influence the endorsement of Christian nationalist ideology. In another set of studies, I found that reminding Christian Americans that Christianity is declining in the United States led to greater endorsement of Christian nationalism, which also increased support for Trump (who has largely espoused anti-democratic sentiments) in the 2020 presidential election. Taken together, threat, particularly threat to Christianity, is important to understanding how Christian nationalism emerges and when it becomes important for sociopolitical attitudes, including support for anti-democratic politicians.
Data from my ongoing project suggest religious threat uniquely triggers anti-democratic attitudes among those who endorse Christian nationalism and social dominance, but not authoritarianism. Additionally, perceived threat to White racial identity patterned the same way as perceived religious threat did; that is, those who more strongly endorsed Christian nationalist views and perceived their White racial identities to be under threat also reported more anti-democratic attitudes, greater support for political violence, and lower trust in democratic institutions. However, the strength of associations between Christian nationalism, racial threat, and anti-democratic outcomes was weaker than those for perceived religious threat. Together, this suggests that primarily religious and racial threats appear to be potent sources of anti-democratic sentiment among White Christian nationalists.
Why does this matter? Politicians may purposely evoke religious threats that spur anti-democratic attitudes and behaviors to be in their interest. Consider claims by politicians and right-wing news anchors that Christianity is under threat in the United States; they complain about the “War on Christmas” and how Christianity is under attack. Generating perceptions of threat to one’s group appears to be a particularly useful strategy to gain support: when people feel their social group is under threat, they may seek to defend their status by manipulating support for democratic norms to be in their interest. An example of this is when US Senate Republicans suppressed the vote for a Supreme Court justice, stating it was inappropriate to conduct the vote in an election year (when their party was not in the congressional majority). Only a few years later, when Republicans held the majority, they nominated a Supreme Court justice during an election year. Politicians may strategically frame certain democratic institutions as threats to Christians when those institutions do not serve them.
My ongoing work suggests that those who endorse Christian nationalist ideology hold more anti-democratic attitudes, specifically toward the political out-party. Additionally, perceptions of both religious and racial threats seem to strengthen these attitudes. However, the recent data described in this essay are correlational and cannot demonstrate a causal relationship. I plan to implement experimental designs to further elucidate these associations in the next two studies of this grant-funded research. Based on these preliminary findings and previous literature, we should pay attention to how politicians might use perceptions of threats to Christianity and Christian nationalist rhetoric as we enter the 2024 election season.