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Analysis | A new lens in the overlap of religion and right-wing politics


The very first words of the Bill of Rights try to draw a barrier between government and religion.

“Congress shall not make a law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” begins the First Amendment, before delving into the intricacies of freedom of speech, right of assembly, and freedom of the press. For all the public rhetorical wrangling over the meaning of the Second Amendment and its well-regulated militias, the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” has long been largely a matter of debate among attorneys and jurists. After all, most Americans worship as they please without worrying about government intervention.

In recent years, however, this has shifted. There has been a growing awareness among Republicans, in particular, of the threat to Christianity, leading to challenges to laws or directives perceived as restricting free worship. Last year, the conservative Supreme Court ruled in favor of Christians and Christian organizations in several First Amendment-related issues, including validating a high school public football coach’s prayer sessions. The coronavirus pandemic created a perception that the government was inappropriately crossing the church-state barrier; Church closures to limit the spread of the virus were presented, usually in good faith, as violations of the exercise of religion.

While this has happened, however, a more confrontational movement has emerged, one that aims to completely eradicate the wall between government and religion. This is Christian nationalism, a worldview that states that the United States must be explicitly Christian. New polls conducted by PRRI and Brookings Institution suggest nearly a third of the country is at least sympathetic to its aims.

A third of the country that overlaps strongly with the political right.

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To determine who might have sympathetic views on the establishment of a Christian country, the pollsters presented a number of arguments to a pool of more than 5,400 American adults. Respondents were then grouped into four categories, from ‘adherents’, those who largely agreed with the arguments, to ‘disagreements’, those who disagreed.

The arguments were explicit. For example, when asked whether the government should declare the United States to be a Christian nation, only about 1 in 10 respondents said they strongly agreed. However, three-quarters of supporters of Christian nationalism strongly agreed. The next most supportive group is the “sympathizers,” three-quarters of whom said they agreed completely or largely with that idea.

Over the course of the arguments, the researchers noted consistency: People who strongly agreed with one were likely to strongly agree with the others as well.

Overall, about 1 in 10 Americans were categorized as “followers.” Another 19 percent were “sympathetic” — meaning 3 in 10 Americans agreed completely or largely with most of the arguments presented in the survey.

We’ve seen a lot of percentages pop up in this range over the past few years. For example, the most ardent supporters of Donald Trump make up about 10 percent of the population. About 3 in 10 American adults voted for him in 2020.

PRRI and Brookings applied their categories of Christian nationalism to respondents by party, religion, and media consumption, again revealing consistent patterns. Most Republicans fell into the two most supportive categories. Two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants did as well. Those who said they trusted Fox News the most for news tended to reflect Republicans in general. Those who said they trusted the far-right media most overwhelmingly fell into the “supporters” and “sympathizers” categories, with nearly 4 in 10 fitting into the former.

Unsurprisingly, “adherents” of and “sympathizers” of Christian nationalism were more likely to think that America should be primarily a nation of Christians than to say that America should be religiously diverse. (That is the position of most Americans.)

Nor is it surprising that those sympathetic to Christian nationalism or adhering to its tenets (according to the poll) viewed Trump much more favorably than President Biden.

This has always been Trump’s gamble: present himself as a fighter for Christian America.

“Christianity is under tremendous siege whether we want to talk about it or not talk about it,” Trump told the audience at a Christian college in 2016. But, he added, “when I’m there” – in the White House – “you get enough power, you don’t need anyone else.”

Supporters of Christian nationalism, as identified in the PRRI-Brookings investigation, however, often go beyond Trump’s publicly stated positions. Seven in 10 reject the idea that generations of discrimination and slavery continue to affect black Americans; 83 percent of white “adherents” reject that idea. Most “followers” don’t think white supremacy is still a big deal, including two-thirds of white “followers.”

They largely reject immigration, with nearly two-thirds rejecting the idea that the growing number of immigrants makes the country stronger. Seven in ten say immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background, including eight in ten white “adherents.” Two-thirds think that people from some Muslim countries should be prevented from coming to this country.

The gender politics of the ‘adherents’ is particularly regressive. Six out of ten think society punishes men for behaving like men. Seven out of ten think that in a Christian family the man is the head and his wife submits to his leadership.

PRRI has long been asking respondents if they think the country is so far off track that “true patriots” might have to resort to violence to save it. Four in ten ‘supporters’ agree with that sentiment, as do 22 percent of ‘sympathisers’.

It is important to note that the “adherents” identified by the PRRI-Brookings study are not all right-wing. Some Democrats fall into that category. It is also the case that the group includes some Black and Hispanic Americans. In fact, about one-tenth of white, black, and Hispanic Americans fit into the “adherents” category — but since white Americans make up the majority in the country, they are similarly more likely to be part of the “adherents” group.

What is not clear from the research is to what extent these religious views are the driving force for political or cultural views. Do these Americans center their beliefs on religion, or do their views broadly lead them to agree with questions about the primacy of Christianity? In other words, if Christian nationalism is the chicken and right-wing politics is the egg, which comes first?

PRRI and Brookings may just be measuring the same right-wing group in a different way. Of course, this doesn’t take away from how disturbing the findings can be in the slightest.

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