We’re now at a point when Americans are killed or injured in a mass shooting almost every month; by some definitions, almost every day. Despite this, resistance to stricter gun control in the United States remains fierce.
As researchers of religion, we know the power of religious identities and beliefs. And so we wondered: How does Christian nationalism influence Americans’ attitudes toward gun control?
In our newly published and freely available study, the connection between Christian nationalism and gun control attitudes proves stronger than we expected. It turns out that how intensely someone adheres to Christian nationalism is one of the strongest predictors of whether someone supports gun control. One’s political party, religiosity, gender, education or age doesn’t matter.
You could be a mainline Protestant Democratic woman or a highly educated politically liberal man — the more you line up with Christian nationalism, the less likely you are to support gun control.
But what is Christian nationalism?
Christian nationalism is an ideology that argues for an inseparable bond between Christianity and American civil society. It goes beyond merely acknowledging some sincere religious commitments of the Founding Fathers.
Rather, Americans who subscribe to Christian nationalism believe that America has always been ― and should always be ― distinctively Christian in its national identity, sacred symbols and public policies. What’s more, for adherents to this ideology, America’s historic statements about human liberties (e.g., the First and Second Amendments) are imbued with sacred, literal and absolute meaning.
How does this affect attitudes on guns? Consider these two responses to the Parkland, Fla., shooting in February:
- National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre claimed that the right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”
- State representatives in Alabama and Florida passed bills soon after the shooting that encouraged posting Christian symbols and writings, like the Ten Commandments or “In God We Trust,” in public schools.
These leaders responded to gun violence in our schools by asserting the Christian God’s role in our nation’s heritage and encouraging a greater infusion of Christianity into the public sphere.
For Christian nationalists, the gun-control debate isn’t just about guns. It’s about a perceived blessing by God of the right to bear arms. Any attempt to limit this right is a denial of the foundational liberties instituted by God.
Moreover, Christian nationalists believe that any government attempts to fix social problems such as gun violence are foolish. Governments can’t fix the wickedness in people’s hearts. For Christian nationalists, the only way to protect our nation from the menace of gun violence is to address the nation’s underlying “moral decline.”
We suspected that Americans who want the United States to be a Christian nation would be less likely to agree that gun control is a viable answer to the problem of gun violence. Similar to the leaders quoted above, many Americans might believe that the only way to combat gun violence is by rebuilding America’s Christian foundations.
To explore the link between Christian nationalism and gun-control attitudes, we examined a national population-based sample of 1,648 Americans. Respondents were asked whether they believed that the federal government should enact stricter gun laws.
To measure Christian nationalism, we combined responses to six separate questions that asked how much respondents agree or disagree with statements like:
- “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
- “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”
- “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.”
- “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”
- “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”
- “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”
We found that how much someone subscribes to Christian nationalism is one of the best predictors of whether they’re open to gun control. This relationship is very strong and exists even when we account for a host of other influences such as religious identity, beliefs and practices; political party and ideology; and socio-demographic factors.
The figure below shows the strong relationship between Christian nationalism and opposition to gun control across various religious traditions. For each group, greater adherence to Christian nationalism is linked to less support for gun control. The relationship is just as strong regardless of whether someone is an evangelical, mainline or black Protestant, a Catholic, or even unaffiliated with a religious tradition.
This means the influence of Christian nationalism is not specific to any one tradition, like evangelicalism, but instead operates similarly across traditions. In fact, evangelicals who aren’t Christian nationalists are more supportive of gun control than are Christian nationalist mainline Protestants or Catholics.
Also, we found that Americans who attend religious services more often are more supportive of gun control. It isn’t actively religious people who oppose gun control; it is Christian nationalists.
It is important to note that our peer-reviewed study uses data from 2007. It was the only data source available with the necessary measures. More recent data would obviously be ideal.
Regardless, what we found sheds light on why many Americans seem to be talking past one another and thus why the conversation isn’t moving forward: The gun-control debate is about a lot more than guns. Common approaches used by gun-control advocates — like appeals to public safety or the success of gun-control legislation in other countries — aren’t likely to convince Christian nationalists.
Sadly, it appears that mass shootings are not going away anytime soon. And unless we attend to the cultural divides among Americans, including our deeply held moral and religious frameworks like Christian nationalism, our inability to find common ground regarding gun violence won’t be going away anytime soon, either.