By Paul A. Djupe
If you listen to even a bit of Christian conservative commentators these days, you get the sense that there are legions amassing at the gates impatiently waiting to oppress them. Their fundamental rights are at stake, they claim, and point to evidence from court cases about religious freedom and, of course, adverse rulings that have expanded gay rights. But (at least!) two things are curious about this tale. For one, conservative Christian perceptions of discrimination against Christians are higher in states with stronger Christian majorities. And conservative Christians are willing to strip the rights of groups (e.g., atheists) who they think would oppress them, but are not nearly in positions of power to have done so. I called this the inverted golden rule: do unto others before they have the chance to do unto you.
That is, are conservative Christians concerned simply with equal rights or are they actually concerned with maintaining a dominant position in society? Fortunately, we have the data to sort this out.
“Politics ain’t beanbag.” Instead, politics is a hardball game not for the weak of spirit. Because the stakes are perceived to be so high, it pays to have a motivating force to match. That is, politics is about winning, it’s about achieving dominance of institutions in order to enact a vision into law. In this post, I’m interested to see 1) how one vision for the US – Christian nationalism – is intimately bound up with a desire for dominance and 2) how together they might drive Christian nationalists into political activity.
Christian nationalism replaces the universal appeal of American democracy with a particularistic goal that the state exists to defend and promote Christianity. Its various proponents infuse political choices with religious symbolism, advocate the defense of Christian interests, and reject equal rights for all. Not far removed from this depiction, Perry and Whitehead suggest: “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” (italics theirs).
One essential element of this proto-fascism is “An ideology that views social hierarchies as normal and necessary.” Often inferred by how Christian nationalists view racial minorities, immigrants, and women, there are ways to capture a desire for social dominance more directly and that is my task in this post. In our survey from late October, 2020, we asked a set of questions about “social dominance orientation” that affirms that group hierarchies are desirable and right, as well as that working toward equality is not a priority. We used agreement with these four questions; the last two are reverse coded so that higher scores reflect a higher social dominance orientation (the final range is 0-1):
- If certain groups stayed in their place, we would have fewer problems.
- It’s probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups are at the bottom.
- Group equality should be our ideal.
- We should do what we can to equalize conditions for everyone.
Do Christian nationalists have higher social dominance orientations (SDO)? Yes, they sure do (see the graph below). The average SDO score for someone who fully embraces Christian nationalism is more than 2.5 times that of someone who rejects Christian nationalism. Compare that to the effect of partisanship, which only increases 10% of the SDO scale from Strong Democrats to Strong Republicans. The effect of Christian nationalism is quite a bit stronger – increasing by 35% of the SDO scale.
One of the key questions is whether social dominance is really about who Christian nationalists are rather than what they believe. That is, perhaps white conservative Christian men rate social dominance as normative and Christian nationalists (among others) just happen to be white conservative Christian men.
For one, that assumption is simply wrong – Christian nationalism is spread out across the US population and is not exclusive to whites, conservatives, or men, though it’s obviously concentrated among Christians. But, second, the link between Christian nationalism and SDO remains very strong (the black line in the graph above) even after accounting for demographics and partisanship (the red line shows the “unadjusted” relationship without accounting for those factors). That is, the preference for social dominance is about what Christian nationalists believe and not just who they are.
It’s one thing for the Christian nationalist worldview to be linked to a social dominance attitude, but it would be more convincing if their conjunction motivated behaviors to pursue and enact dominance. Political participation need not be dominance seeking, but group identity and attachment do tend to encourage it. Do Christian nationalists who score higher on SDO participate in politics at higher rates?
Yes. The figure below shows that SDO only has an effect boosting political participation among Christian nationalists . Among those who reject Christian nationalism, SDO has no effect. (Note, this also holds at less extreme values of Christian nationalism – political participation rates among those with Christian nationalism one standard deviation above the mean respond positively to SDO, whereas the rates do not shift among those one standard deviation below the mean of Christian nationalism).
The savvy social scientist might reply that this interpretation isn’t a lock because equality seeking is part of the SDO scale – perhaps Christian nationalists are particularly motivated by the equality side and not the dominance side. It’s quite possible. The two sides of the scale are barely correlated (r=-.04) and the entire SDO scale has a rather low, if still acceptable, alpha score (.60) which measures how well scales hold together statistically. So, what does the evidence show?
The results are the complete opposite of that affirmative defense – Christian nationalists are actually particularly responsive to dominance beliefs and equality seeking is immaterial. That is, it doesn’t matter to their political activity levels if they think equality seeking is important or not. Instead, their belief in the rightfulness of group dominance quite strongly motivates their political action. Without that sense of dominance, they participate at low levels.
Social dominance is inherent in the Christian nationalist project. They believe in a social order with (white) Christians at the top. Though their advocacy may be packaged as seeking protection from the state to simply live their lives, the data indicate otherwise. Christian nationalists are strong adherents of the tenets of social dominance and are motivated to participate at much, much higher rates when they hold those views. Without it, Christian nationalists blend into society, which also indicates where progress needs to be made. Perhaps this explains why Trump and MAGA were such an appealing package.
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.
- These political participation results come from a model (a negative binomial model which is suitable for count data) that includes controls for partisanship, partisan strength, political interest, church involvement, worship attendance, religious tradition, gender, age, race, and education.