Former president Donald Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has repeatedly said Christianity is under attack, alongside Trump family members and Christian nationalist pastors who preach that Democrats and the left are evil, endangering children and democracy.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Clay Clark, organizer of the right-wing ReAwaken America tour, which promotes apocalyptic right-wing politics and baptizes attendees, declare themselves Christian nationalists.
So what is Christian nationalism? It’s an ideology that says Christianity is the foundation of the United States and that government should protect that foundation. Political scientist Ryan Burge has found that the term “Christian nationalism” was mentioned in more tweets in July 2022 than in all of 2021.
With the surge of discussion and interest, can we say that more Americans are Christian nationalists than in the past? Not exactly. Here’s what our research finds.
Are more Americans embracing Christian nationalism?
As part of our research, we examined the percentage of Americans who, over the past 15 years, said they agree or strongly agree with this Christian nationalist statement: “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
We compared answers across a number of different national surveys. That included the 2007, 2017 and 2021 Baylor Religion Surveys, which are national, random samples of 1,648, 1,501, and 1,248 American adults, respectively. Both the 2020 Public Discourse and Ethics Survey (PDES) and the 2022 National Addiction and Social Attitudes Survey (NASAS) use national, random samples of 1,615 and 2,806 American adults surveyed online by the polling firm YouGov. We use the necessary survey weights provided so all analyses match U.S. census population estimates.
We did find that agreement grew slightly from 2007 to 2017 from 27 percent to 29 percent, as other scholars have found as well. But since then, the proportion of Americans who affirm this explicit Christian nationalist statement has mostly declined to somewhere around 19 percent, a statistically significant drop.
Five years isn’t long enough to determine if there’s been a real and lasting opinion shift. But there’s also no indication that Christian nationalism is exploding in mass appeal.
Why do fewer Americans want to declare the United States a Christian nation?
What might be going on here? Are some Americans slowly backing away from a more strident call to declare the United States a Christian nation?
The continued, modest decline from 2017 to 2022 could result from some Democrats and independents recoiling from Donald Trump’s Christian nationalist rhetoric from the White House. Trump’s polarizing rhetoric and persona could make some Americans more reluctant to link Christianity with American identity.
One recent study finds that Christian nationalism does increase and decrease in response to events. One of us, Whitehead, and another colleague found that perceiving Christianity as a signifier of who is a true American — one way researchers measure Christian nationalism — increased following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and then decreased again over the next decade. How Americans imagine the boundaries of national identity, symbolic markers of who truly belongs, responds to historical context.
Another partial explanation is demographic change. Americans who strongly embrace Christian nationalism tend to be older, which is also true for religiosity. Generational turnover is a very long and slow process, however, and so it is difficult to imagine this having such a noticeable effect in only five years.
Christian nationalism increasing in public discussion
But while fewer Americans say they agree with a core Christian nationalist tenet, its influence on our political life may nevertheless be expanding. The U.S. Census reports older Americans like those ages 65 to 74 vote at rates about 25 percent higher than Americans ages 18 to 24. Our research finds older Americans are also most likely to embrace Christian nationalism. And powerful people and lobbying groups like the Family Research Council, the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are working to promote Christian nationalist policy goals in government, the courts, and at the polls.
Recent experimental research shows when Christian Americans are told their numbers are declining, they respond with a greater commitment to Christian nationalism and Trump support. In other words, learning that they are or may soon be a minority pushes them toward extremist beliefs.
Recently, the right-wing Family Research Council hosted a town hall with Tony Perkins, Michele Bachmann and others to warn viewers that public criticism of Christian nationalism was aimed to “suppress voter turnout among Christian conservative voters.”
According to political scientists Stella Rouse and Shibley Telhami, most Republicans support declaring the United States a Christian nation. And Christian nationalists are running for office at all levels of government, from local school boards to presumptive presidential candidates.
Though the numbers of those who claim Christian nationalist beliefs may decline, Christian nationalism’s influence in public life only continues to grow.
Andrew L. Whitehead (@ndrewwhitehead) is an associate professor of sociology at IUPUI (Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis) and author of the forthcoming “American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church” (Brazos Press, August 2023).
Samuel L. Perry (@profsamperry) is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma and co-author (with Philip Gorski) most recently of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy” (Oxford University Press, 2022).
Together they are authors of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States” (Oxford University Press, 2020).