Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead
In the past few years, and particularly in the past 6 months, “Christian nationalism” has become a bit of a buzzword. Recent op-eds describing and decrying (or in rarer cases defending) it have included the good, the bad, and the breathtakingly idiotic. A number of important articles have cited various findings from the burgeoning research on Christian nationalism. However, as we stand less than 10 months away from the 2020 Presidential election, there is an urgent need for synthesis.
After five years of empirical research, culminating in our forthcoming book, we believe the pieces combine to tell a larger and significantly more sinister story.
Simply put, Christian nationalism—an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity* with American civic belonging and participation—is a form of nascent or proto-fascism. Not full-blown fascism (yet), but a complex of ostensibly-religious ideologies, identities, and values that could potentially lead toward fascism given the right recipe of resources, political opportunities, and a population acclimated to its underlying ideals.
Don’t miss the asterisk. It denotes that the “Christian” content of Christian nationalism stands for something far beyond (and we believe altogether different from) mere orthodoxy. “Christian” in this sense represents more of an ethno-cultural and political identity that denotes a specific constellation of religious affiliation (evangelical Protestant), cultural values (conservative), race (white), and nationality (American-born citizen).
It is this subliminal, unrecognized content of the word “Christian” that gives Christian nationalism its fascist potential. Yet even in nascent form, the tell-tale characteristics are unmistakable. Consider the common features of fascist societies outlined by Yale Philosopher Jason Stanley in his recent book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Characteristics include:
- An ideology built on reference to a mythic past.
- Populist support for strongman demagogues.
- A culture of anti-intellectualism, including anti-education and anti-science beliefs.
- An ideology that views social hierarchies as normal and necessary.
- Idealization of patriarchal families.
- Peace maintained by authoritarian “law & order” tactics.
- Strongly pro-nativist/anti-pluralism.
- Foments cultural anxiety about sexual deviance.
- Pervasive victim mentality.
Reading Stanley’s description of fascist societies, we are struck by how our collective empirical snapshots of Christian nationalism combine to make one chilling mosaic.
- Christian nationalism is built on an interpretation of history that connects America’s founding and future success with its Christian heritage (reference to a mythic past).
Christian nationalist ideology is also among the strongest predictors that Americans…
- voted for Donald Trump in 2016 (strongman demagogue).
- oppose scientists and science education in public schools in favor of creationism (anti-education/anti-science).
- hold prejudiced views against racial minorities and show relative favor toward white racists (supports social hierarchies).
- hold traditionalist gender attitudes that envision women in the home and men leading at work and in politics (idealization of patriarchal families).
- hold views supporting capital punishment and the police “cracking down on troublemakers,” and even justifying police violence against African Americans (maintaining authoritarian law & order).
- hold anti-immigration views, expressing strong suspicion toward Hispanic immigrants and Muslims (strongly pro-nativist/anti-pluralism).
- hold views in opposition to same-sex marriage or civil unions and, as we show in our book, transgender rights (foments cultural anxiety about sexual deviance).
And while we have not quantitatively studied how Christian nationalist ideology is related to a “victim mentality” characteristic of fascist regimes, such a mentality is constantly on display among America’s most prominent Christian nationalist thought-leaders like Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee, Michelle Bachmann, or Tony Perkins.
Recognizing Christian nationalism as proto-fascism also helps us to disentangle it from religion itself.
Our research clearly demonstrates that Christian nationalism actually has little to do with religiousness per se. In fact, when we compare how Christian nationalist ideology and traditional measures of religious commitment (e.g., worship attendance, prayer, sacred text reading) influence Americans’ political attitudes and behaviors, we find they work in the exact opposite direction.
Consider Christian nationalism and Americans’ views regarding refugees from the Middle East. The more someone affirms Christian nationalism the more likely they are to believe such refugees pose a terrorist threat to the United States. However, as the chart shows, the more faithfully someone practices their religious faith, the less likely they are to hold such xenophobic and Islamophobic views. In fact, we see this countervailing trend between Christian nationalism and religious commitment for just about every attitude we measure―where Christian nationalism zigs, religiousness zags.
Why does Christian nationalism behave so differently from traditional religious commitment? Because it is a religion of white conservative America that worships power. It is “Christian” in name, but only as a code of sorts. Much like labels such as “terrorists,” “welfare queens,” “illegals,” and “criminals” become racially-coded dog whistle terms in our political discourse, so has the term “Christian” in the minds of many conservative Americans. It stands for “good and decent (white, native-born) citizens.” But it also stands for “us” who must defend “our” country from “them.”
And as Jason Stanley explains, when “us” and “we” become the sole defenders of national heritage and proper social order, the only ones preserving our glorious future and fighting off moral decay, “we” can become more desperate and willing to compromise any remaining moral scruples about means in order to accomplish the necessary ends.
Stanley concludes that one vital step toward full-scale fascism is its normalization; its menacing maturation depends on it remaining unrecognized. That is why contemporary Christian nationalism presents such a pernicious threat; it is already normalized in our public discourse.
Throughout all our studies, our measures of Christian nationalist sentiment seem so innocuous: whether Americans believe the government should advocate Christian values, whether they think religious symbols should be displayed in public spaces, whether they think our nation’s success is part of God’s plan, among others. Most Americans may not sense any underlying threat from embracing such views in isolation.
But in combination these beliefs undergird the characteristics of the Twentieth Century’s most horrifying fascist regimes―the populist demagoguery, the xenophobia, the oppression of minorities, the anti-intellectualism, the jingoist militarism, the authoritarianism.
Whether Christian nationalism develops further along its course will depend on whether Americans recognize it for what it really is. It may talk religion, but it walks fascism.