How Christian Nationalists Perceive the State of Democracy

By Paul A. Djupe

[Image credit: Think Progress.]

From the beginning of the Trump Administration, observers have regularly wondered whether we can get a functional democracy back. The nature of the problem differs, but often includes living in a “post-truth” society, prizing partisanship over all else, the use of coarse, vile, dehumanizing language to describe people, and the list goes on. But restoring democratic norms would require recognizing and admitting that there is a problem. And this is where the problem lies – the very attachments are self-reinforcing such that exclusive identity boundaries are preventing people from seeing these trends as problematic.

This is a followup post, as promised, from one of mine a few weeks ago where I looked at religious support for democratic involvement. The focus here is on how religion is implicated in views about the state of democracy. I’ll focus on one key differentiator among religious adherents that has gained considerable attention over the last few years (see Andy Lewis’s twitter thread about this with links and empirics): Christian nationalism. Some believe that the US is a Christian nation, that it is the federal government’s responsibility to promote and protect Christianity. As a result of a determined campaign to bring the Christian Right on board from early in the nomination process, they tend to be strong Trump voters and supporters. As Burge and I recently found, Trump has now received theological covering from many in this camp, believing that he has been anointed to fulfill a Godly purpose. All told, a combination of partisanship, media sourcing, theological conviction, and social networks work to insulate Trump’s base from dissent. How do they believe that democracy is functioning in the US? Do they perceive problems?

We included items from Brightline Watch’s survey efforts to cover a range of democratic dimensions in our survey of Protestants from earlier this year. The figure below shows how committed Christian nationalists differ about the state of democracy compared with those who oppose that view. The results show some differences, but not on all items. The greatest differences in views come on those items that tap group power. So, Christian nationalists are the most likely to disagree that it is the government’s responsibility to reduce income inequality and the most likely to agree that all adult citizens have equal opportunity to vote. To believe otherwise would encourage the federal government to rearrange the social hierarchy.

Brightline Watch features surveys of elite observers as well as average citizens to assess the state of democracy in the US. On several of the items, the expert observers reported slippage during the first year of the Trump Administration, though they have rebounded a bit since 2017 when the first surveys were conducted. Christian nationalists are likely to believe that the elected branches respect judicial independence (recall Trump attacking a “Mexican” judge, among others). They are also more likely to report that large campaign donations do not shape public policy; there is good political science work that shows public policy is *only* responsive to the preferences of the wealthy.

It is surprising that there is no difference across Christian nationalism on the last three dimensions. The sample believes that government officials are sanctioned for misconduct, that people can still protest, and that public officials are not lining their pockets. Of course, some of these responses may have changed in the last 6 months as Trump is facing impeachment for using his office for his private gain. What the figure doesn’t show is the level of agreement with these statements; to be clear, the sample agrees with the last 3 statements – First Amendment liberties are not being abridged in the US and the elements of the rule of law are intact.

We should be able to pick up differences in emotional responses to American democracy by Christian nationalists as well. At this point, all cylinders are firing on conservative media that Trump has made America great and the status quo is just simply the best. That should tamp down anxiety, anger, and fear, and boost pride, which is exactly what we see among Christian nationalists in the figure below. It is notable that the information gathering and action emotions (anger, anxiety, fear) are more commonly felt overall, and certainly among those who are likely to oppose the Trump Administration.

If there’s not much anxiety about the status quo among Christian nationalists, there appears to be quite a bit being generated about the future from conservative media. Right Wing Watch is posting regularly about how conservative commentators are arguing that Democrats will strip the rights of Christians if they’re elected, that those pushing the impeachment inquiry are demonic. The goal, it seems, is to whip the base into a frenzy to keep white Christian turnout historically high, as Robby Jones of PRRI has shown repeatedly.

If Christian nationalists are being exposed to this sort of rhetoric, they are surely convinced of existential threats – that the other side will strip them of their rights if they gain political power. We asked just that, “Would you think that members of the groups listed below would respect your right to hold rallies, teach, speak freely, and run for public office?” (Response options ranged from 1 [they would] to 6 [they would not] and had no middle option). Below I show how the responses vary by Christian nationalism and party affiliation for 2 of the 5 groups asked about: “Democrats in Congress” and “Atheists – those who don’t believe in god.” Party affiliation makes very little difference in the evaluation of atheists – there is widespread belief among Christian nationalist Protestants that atheists will strip their essential political rights if they gain political power. [This belief stands at odds with the consistent finding that atheists are some of the most politically tolerant Americans.] However, party matters a tremendous amount in the evaluation of Congressional Democrats. Democrats, regardless of their Christian nationalism, believe their rights are secure from Democrats, whereas Republicans are not so sure. Their beliefs, though, depend on Christian nationalism, which drives up the notion that Democrats will move to curtail their rights in line with the arguments from conservative media and Republican office-holders.

If there was any uncertainty remaining about why religious conservatives (and Republicans more generally) were going all in for Trump, then this evidence should remedy it. Christian nationalists see the next election as apocalyptical. If they win, then democracy continues; if they lose under the Trump banner, then they are destined for the gulags. Whether or not these claims are true probably doesn’t matter at this point (and look for the next post to explore that evidence). The important point is that conservative media are fulminating against Trump’s opponents with Old Testament vehemence and a large constituency of the Republican Party has adopted these views.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (check out his posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

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