By Paul A. Djupe
Christian imagery was everywhere in The Insurrection of January 6, 2021. Someone had lugged and then erected a cross. The so-called “QAnon Shaman” (Jake Chansley – the guy with the horns) carried a poster telling “patriots” to hold the line so that “God wins.” Emma Green reports that overheard in the crowd was, “Shout if you love Jesus!” The Insurrection was launched from participants in the “Jericho March,” a reference to the Biblical story of Israelites marching around the city of Jericho 7 times blaring trumpets so God would make the walls crumble. Though I do not have data specifically from the marchers, rioters, and insurrectionists from January 6, it is not a stretch to call this a Christian Insurrection, though Christians of a particular sort.
These are Christian nationalists – a group that sees the state as instantiated by and for Christians. Though they were committing violent acts against the state, in their minds it was for cause as dark forces had conspired to steal votes from their candidate for president (but apparently not for Congress). They aimed to “stop the steal,” perhaps institute extrajudicial killings of lawmakers, including the execution of Vice President Mike Pence, as well as damage the property of people they don’t like, such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Just what democracy entails is a long debate, but all expert observers would agree that violent incursion to stop a vote count in the national legislature is not part of it. Unfortunately, that is not true among all Americans. In the aftermath of the Insurrection, a YouGov poll found that only 27 percent of Republicans found it a threat to democracy, while 45 percent of Republicans actively supported the Insurrection.
The Trump Administration has been a master class in the value and weakness of democratic norms. It was news to most Americans that the survival of democracy was not just about institutions of marble, but voluntary adherence to some ground rules in which opponents are afforded equal rights and are not treated as traitors, and office holders do not use their offices for personal gain or to punish opponents. There are other specific instances of democratic norms, but they all fall under the conceptual umbrellas of mutual toleration (refusal to use threats and violence to bar political opponents from competing for office) and institutional forbearance (“elected officials cannot exercise legal action that intentionally privileges one group of individuals at the expense of another”). These concepts are elucidated in How Democracies Die by Levitsky and Ziblatt. How do Christian nationalists stack up on these two components critical to democratic maintenance?
I’ve covered the first before. Conservative Christians, who have been fed a steady diet of fear and future threats to their fundamental freedoms, appear to follow the Inverted Golden Rule – do unto others as you suspect they would do to you. That is, since they believe that Democrats will not allow them to profess their Christian faith, they want to strip the rights and liberties of people on the left. They don’t all fail the mutual toleration standard, but intolerance is quite high.
I have new measures about what democracy should entail from our October 2020 survey that we borrowed from the World Values Survey. The figure below shows how Christian nationalism is linked to these six statements. The first two (top row) concern the primacy of majorities, that they get their way and can say what they want. Christian nationalists are clearly much more likely to believe in majoritarianism than those opposed to Christian nationalism. They are also less committed to the principle that all citizens should have equal opportunities to participate in democratic processes (3rd panel, top row), though on balance they think this is part of democracy (if barely above the midpoint of the scale). So far, this evidence is in accord with my post from a month ago that Christian nationalism is about dominance, that groups should stay in their presumably ordained lane.
But the battery also included items about how groups should be treated by the government – whether they should be treated equally, whether government should pursue equality, and whether government should guarantee basic necessities (these can be loosely conceptualized as forbearance). On two of these items, the ones discussing equal treatment, Christian nationalists do not differ from others. And on the third concerning pursuing equality through reducing gaps in wealth and income, Christian nationalists actually see this as more essential to democracy.
Though surprising, these are not incompatible findings. It is entirely consistent to desire a Christian dominated nation to establish and maintain a Christian charity system. Where I think Christian nationalists run into problems supporting safety nets is that they see them existing outside of a system of Christian values and may represent politics that boost the power of groups opposed to their project. I would say that Christian nationalism is concerned primarily about power and dominance, but that is not incompatible with some measures of equality and Christian charity within that system.
Do these visions of what constitutes democracy matter with how they evaluate the US? I’m focusing on the first two questions about majorities getting their way and free speech and calling it majoritarianism (I made a scale of the two questions). Then we can assess how they answer this question: “On a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is least democratic and 100 is most democratic, how would you rate the political system of the United States as of today?” In the figure below, those who are more Christian nationalist think the United States is more democratic. But, that evaluation heavily depends on what they think democracy should entail. Christian nationalist majoritarians (those in power should exert their will on those out of power) think the US is quite democratic (an 80 rating), whereas those Christian nationalists who see more of a role for minority rights think less of American democracy at the end of Trump’s term, rating it only a 60.
Christian nationalism is a worldview in which the Christian majority is rightfully in power to protect the group and make their US into their vision. That may include some measure of equality in their needs and wealth. When this worldview is well developed and they understand that majorities get their way at the expense of minorities, then they think the US was quite democratic and on the right path in October 2020. Those with a more Constitutional point of view that reserves rights for minorities, even among those with a Christian nationalist stance, were less enthused with where Trump had taken the country. Clearly the operative question is whether the experience of being in the minority is poignant for 2021’s Christian nationalists. Do they change their view of what constitutes democracy to emphasize minority rights? Do they reset their evaluation of American democracy? Perhaps their worldview will follow Mitch McConnell’s who once crowed about ending the filibuster, but now is its most ardent defender of Senate minority rights. Time will tell, especially if we can gather more survey data.
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.