Christian Nationalism is Authentically Christian — And According to a New Poll Most White Evangelicals are Supporters

Lee Greenwood, as American as an eagle. Maybe more.

When I attended K-12 evangelical Christian schools in the 1980s and 1990s, we didn’t call ourselves Christian nationalists; we just called ourselves Christians. As the pious Christians we were (compelled to be), we memorized Bible verses for assignments, attended mandatory weekly chapel services, and held an audience sing-along of Lee Greenwood’s god awful country hit “God Bless the USA” as the grand finale of our school talent shows.

High school students were also put to work mailing out right-wing voter guides on school time, while elementary students dutifully pledged allegiance to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible each morning. I’ve belabored the point here at RD before, and it’s worth stating again: the political activities and ideology were an integral part of our religion, just as our Christian faith informed and infused our rabid right-wing politics. American evangelicals are socialized via homeschooling, Christian schools, churches, and the subculture in general to apply the Bible and Christian teachings to every aspect of their lives. That includes attempting to implement a theocratic policy agenda, so that our nation might be “blessed” for its “obedience to God’s authority.”

It’s been frustrating watching pundits actively struggle not to understand this over the last few years. Not wanting to face that White evangelical support for Donald Trump does, and always did, make perfect sense with respect to White evangelicals’ version of the Christian faith, many have clung—against the available evidence—to the corollary notions that “real” Christians could never be authoritarians and insurrectionists, and that Trump-loving Christian nationalists must not darken the doors of churches very often. The data tell a very different story.

We’ve known since 2016 that a majority of frequent churchgoers voted for Trump in that year’s election, and since 2017 that among White evangelicals specifically, frequent church attendance correlates not with lower, but with higher Trump support. A new report by PRRI now confirms the trend with respect to the broader phenomenon of Christian nationalism, the preferred ideological vehicle for evangelicals’ pervasive authoritarian attitudes. 

The report, “A Christian Nation? Understanding the Threat of Christian Nationalism to American Democracy and Culture,” divides Americans into Christian nationalism adherents, sympathizers, skeptics, and rejecters using an index derived from their agreement or disagreement—and the strength of their agreement or disagreement—with the following Christian nationalist statements:

  • The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.
  • U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
  • If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
  • Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
  • God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.

The report reads in part: 

“Americans who lean toward supporting Christian nationalism are not, as some have theorized, Christian in name only. They are significantly more likely than other Americans to be connected to churches and to say religion is important in their lives.”

And which Americans are most likely to support Christian nationalism? To (what should be) no one’s surprise, White evangelicals are America’s most Christian nationalist demographic with nearly 2/3 identified as either adherents (29%) or sympathizers (35%), compared with only 10% adherents and 19% sympathizers among the general population. Jewish and religiously unaffiliated Americans tie for the least Christian nationalist demographic, with 61% rejecters in each group. Meanwhile, PRRI’s survey finds that, at 54%, a majority of Republicans are also Christian nationalist adherents (21%) or sympathizers (33%).

Also among PRRI’s findings is that “Christian nationalism adherents are nearly twice as likely as Americans overall to report attending religious services at least a few times a month (54% vs. 28%).” Further, “44% of Christian nationalism adherents report that religion is the most important thing in their lives, compared to 24% of sympathizers, 10% of skeptics, and 3% of rejecters.”

On the basis of this data, it appears that, far from mitigating Christian nationalist impulses, most evangelical churches are incubators of Christian nationalism. This may come as a surprise to those who have operated under the assumption that support for Trump or Christian nationalism—or indeed anything patently harmful—must come from poor or nonexistent church attendance, or a similar lack of commitment to the faith. But those expectations, which editors of major outlets have routinely provided space for, have never been realistic, as any exvangelical could have told them years ago.

And yet, rather than face the truth about the nature of conservative, mostly White evangelicalism, some continue to rehearse the same tired arguments that do nothing but reinforce Christian privilege—and, presumably, help those who are defensive about Christianity to feel better about themselves. For example, in light of the data cited above, it is unequivocally false to state that evangelicals’ “political ambitions and their deeply held religious beliefs and ethical beliefs are in conflict right now,” as Bob Smietana of RNS recently told NPR’s Scott Detrow. The context was a discussion of the disingenuous evangelical “He Gets Us” ad campaign, which seems to present a more humane and loving Jesus than the muscular Jesus of evangelicalism—though only at a surface level.

Bait and switch tactics are common for authoritarian religious groups, including evangelical ministries. When you’re convinced you have the one and only salvific capital-T Truth, the ends justify the means when it comes to “bringing people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.” You can thus easily justify running some vaguely inclusive ads and letting “the unchurched” who view them think the Jesus represented in them is “woke.” 

Then, once you get them through the doors of the right kind of church, you’ll introduce them bit by bit into the harsher aspects of your theology (and its attendant politics), by which point they’ll be too invested to leave. (For a detailed firsthand account of how this strategy works by an adult convert to evangelicalism who is now an exvangelical, as someone who received a review copy, I highly recommend Gloria Beth Amodeo’s new book God’s Ex-Girlfriend: A Memoir about Loving and Leaving the Evangelical Jesus.)

One other aspect of the PRRI report that struck me is the extent to which Christian nationalism adherents and sympathizers have now embraced the term, while skeptics and especially rejecters are largely repelled by it. More than a third (36%) of adherents have a very favorable view of the term Christian nationalism, while another 18% have a somewhat favorable view. The respective percentages for sympathizers are 12% very favorable and 27% somewhat favorable, but it’s noteworthy that 47% of sympathizers (compared to 37% of adherents) indicated that they either didn’t know how to answer or hadn’t even heard of the term.

To me, this looks like the term is probably gaining popularity among those who hold Christian nationalist views, more of whom will likely become aware of it and start to identify as Christian nationalists as influential right-wing evangelical leaders like Marjorie Taylor Greene continue to publicly embrace the identity.

A couple of things, in any case, are very clear. Christian nationalism is as mainstream as apple pie among evangelicals and Republicans. And Christian nationalists are by and large churchgoing believers whose authoritarian Christianity is a very real and powerful expression of the faith that drives their ascendant anti-pluralist, anti-democratic politics. These are the same religion and politics I was socialized into back in the 1980s, only now with far more power. Pretending this is not the case and insisting on the equation of “Christian” with “good” only reinforces the Christian privilege that pervades American society and gives Christian nationalists cover. The only way to fight Christian nationalism effectively is to recognize it as an authentically Christian phenomenon. Let’s hope the punditocracy figures that out soon, for all our sakes.