The 2016 election and the rise and fall - and rise? - of Christian nationalism

11/23/2016 08:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does the 2016 election portend the rise of Christian nationalism?

Only two years ago, the percentage of Americans identifying being a Christian with being an American had dropped precipitously from its post-9-11 hike.

Just one-third of Americans in 2014 said being Christian was very important to being a "true American." That was down from the nearly half of Americans who felt that way in 2004, the General Social Survey found.

But the pendulum appears to have swung back with the presidential election of Donald Trump.

Exit polls indicated he won more than 80 percent of the white evangelical Christian vote with the slogan "Make America Great Again" accompanied by harsh words for Muslims and immigrants.

Two new studies shed light on the conditions that appear to predict support for Christian nationalism, and how Donald Trump's presidential run may have played a substantial role in its revival.

It didn't matter if the fears of groups such as Muslims and immigrants articulated by Trump were real, said Clemson University researcher Andrew Whitehead, lead investigator in one study.

"Whether there was really a threat ... he was trying to say there was a threat," Whitehead said. "A certain section of America felt it really resonated."

What is real are the consequences of defining America as a Christian nation, Whitehead said.

It can matter, Whitehead noted, in ways such as "who gets what, who is a part of and who can take part" in the body politic.

Religion and patriotism

The United States from its founding has dealt with the tension of seeing itself both as having a special covenantal relationship with God and as a home for the free exercise of religion.

For example, Trump's populist rhetoric attacking Muslims and immigrants and even proposing a religious test for immigration can be seen to have parallels in the 19th century nativist movement deriding Catholic immigrants as a threat to the American way of life.

In their study, Whitehead and researcher Christopher Scheitle of West Virginia University analyzed more than 3,000 responses to questions on the qualities of being an American and patriotism from the 1996, 2004 and 2014 waves of the General Social Survey.

They presented their findings at the recent joint annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and Religious Research Association in Atlanta.

Consider how the ties between religion and nationalism can change dramatically in different time periods:

• In 1996, some 38 percent of respondents said being a Christian was very important to being an American.
• In 2004, just three years after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and a year after the invasion of Iraq, nearly half, or 48 percent, of Americans, attributed the same significance to being a Christian.
• In 2014, a period of relative calm, the percentage dropped to one-third.

The importance of other boundaries to being American - being able to speak English and being born in America - also rose from 1996 to 2004, but reverted back to 1996 levels in 2014.

In contrast, the odds that Americans would say being Christian is important to being truly Americans were about 1.4 times lower in 2014 than in 1996, Whitehead and Scheitle reported.

Feeling close to America had no significant effect in 1996 or 2014, periods of relatively low levels of Christian nationalism.

In 2004, however, feeling close to America was significantly related to the odds of respondents rating Christianity as important for being truly American.

In a separate study, researchers examining varieties of American popular nationalism with data from the 2004 General Social Survey found that individuals who believed being a Christian was very important to being a true American were more likely to be what they termed ardent or restrictive nationalists.

Respondents in both of those groups also were more likely to say immigrants increase crime rates and take jobs from Americans. Ardent nationalists held stronger views that the country should do more to keep out immigrants.

Evangelical Christians were strongly represented in both groups, while mainline Protestants were more likely to be ardent nationalists and black Protestants were more likely to be restrictive nationalists.

When compared to groups of Americans who show little patriotic sentiment or embrace pluralism and diversity, "Disagreement about the importance of Christianity as a criterion of national membership is a central axis of division," researchers from Harvard University and New York University reported in the current issue of the American Sociological Review.

So how did we go from the relative trust of 2014 to having a substantial part of the electorate receptive to anti-immigrant and anti-Islam appeals in 2016?

Fear appears to be one major reason.

This could be attributed in part to recent terrorist events such as the bombings in Brussels and Paris and the tensions in many European nations over waves of refugees fleeing violence in nations such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

But many signs also point to the president-elect, researchers indicate.

Closing ranks

The religious teachings and texts of the major world religions overwhelmingly promote peace and pro-social values such as love of neighbor, compassion and forgiveness.

Yet when religious groups feel directly threatened, there also can be an inclination to close ranks against outsiders, research has found.

In a climate of fear, political appeals "based on populist rhetoric coupled with nativist and racist claims" may be successful, researchers in the Harvard study suggested.

"Trump's campaign has used a particular vision of the nation that emphasizes the superiority of the American people, the moral corruption of elites, and dire threats posed by immigrants and ethnic, racial, and religious minorities," they wrote.

The consequences of a renewed Christian nationalism may be considerable.

A great deal of research finds that limits on religious freedom, both legal and social, can lead to a downward cycle of violence and distrust.

Studies also have indicated that higher levels of Christian nationalism are associated with more negative attitudes toward immigrants, disdain toward religious diversity, less favorable views of interracial families and antipathy toward same-sex marriage, Whitehead and Scheitle note.

The apparent revival of Christian nationalism, the research suggests, appears to have brought the nation to another critical crossroad in defining what it means to be an American.

Image by DIAC images, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.