The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new poll gives us insight into a troubling anti-American movement

White nationalists and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
5 min

When you hear the phrase “Christian nationalists,” you might think of antiabortion conservatives who are upset about the phrase “Happy Holidays” and embrace a vaguely “America First” way of thinking. But according to a Public Religion Research Institute-Brookings Institution poll released Wednesday, Christian nationalists in fact harbor a set of extreme beliefs at odds with pluralistic democracy. The findings will alarm you.

“Christian nationalism is a new term for a worldview that has been with us since the founding of our country — the idea that America is destined to be a promised land for European Christians,” PRRI president and founder Robert P. Jones explained in a news release on the survey of more than 6,000 Americans. “While most Americans today embrace pluralism and reject this anti-democratic claim, majorities of white evangelical Protestants and Republicans remain animated by this vision of a white Christian America.”The poll used the following beliefs to gauge how deeply respondents embraced Christian nationalism:

  • “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.”

PRRI found that 10 percent (“adherents”) of American adults believe in these ideas overwhelmingly or completely; 19 percent agree but not completely (“sympathizers”); 39 percent disagree (“skeptics”) but not completely; and 29 percent disagree completely (“rejecters”).

Who are these people? “Nearly two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants qualify as either Christian nationalism sympathizers (35%) or adherents (29%).” Put differently, Christian nationalist adherents are a minority but when combined with sympathizers still comprise a stunning 29 percent of Americans — many tens of millions.

Christian nationalists also make up the base of the Republican Party. “Most Republicans qualify as either Christian nationalism sympathizers (33%) or adherents (21%), while at least three-quarters of both independents (46% skeptics and 29% rejecters) and Democrats (36% skeptics and 47% rejecters) lean toward rejecting Christian nationalism.” In total, “Republicans (21%) are about four times as likely as Democrats (5%) or independents (6%) to be adherents of Christian nationalism.” Some promising news: There are fewer adherents and sympathizers among younger Americans. “More than seven in ten Americans ages 18-29 (37% skeptics, 42% rejecters) and ages 30-49 (37% skeptics, 35% rejecters) lean toward opposing Christian nationalism.” Support is also inversely related to educational attainment.

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Christian nationalist adherents are emphatically out of synch with the pluralist majority. “Americans overall are much more likely to express a preference for the U.S. to be a nation made up of people belonging to a variety of religions (73%).” They also are much more likely to hold authoritarian and racist views.

“Adherents of Christian nationalism are nearly seven times as likely as rejecters to agree that ‘true patriots might have to resort to violence to save our country’ (40% vs. 16%),” the news release said. In addition, “While only about 3 in 10 Americans (28%) agree that ‘because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set thing right,’ half of Christian nationalism adherents and nearly 4 in 10 sympathizers (38%) support the idea of an authoritarian leader.”

There is also a strong racist/white grievance element:

Around four in ten Americans (41%) agree that discrimination against white Americans is as big of a problem as discrimination against Black Americans and other minorities, compared to 58% who disagree. Approximately two-thirds of Christian nationalism sympathizers (66%) and more than three-quarters of Christian nationalism adherents (77%) agree with this statement. Among Christian nationalism sympathizers and adherents who are white, agreement with this sentiment rises to 73% and 85%, respectively.

Moreover, a stunning 83 percent of adherents think “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world.” Two-thirds of Americans overall reject this explicitly racist statement

More than 70 percent of adherents embrace replacement theory, nearly one-quarter harbor the antisemitic view that Jews hold too many positions of power and 44 percent believe Jews are more loyal to Israel than America, the poll found. More than 65 percent think Muslims from some countries should be banned. Almost 70 percent believe “the husband is the head of the household in ‘a truly Christian family’ and his wife submits to his leadership.”

If you think this sounds like MAGA tripe, you’re right. This is the hardcore MAGA base. More alarming: “Nearly six in ten QAnon believers are also either Christian nationalism sympathizers (29%) or adherents (29%).”

The findings highlight challenges to those who cherish the American creed that “All men are created equal” and who embrace the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment. And because Christian nationalists adopt their views as articles of religious faith, they might be far less willing to reexamine them. The task of inculcating American values of inclusion, democracy and rule of law will have to come, in all likelihood, from within church communities.

The survey also confirms that Christian nationalism is not tied to any specific candidate. Rather, a vast number of like-minded Americans could be receptive to an authoritarian, racist, dogmatic message donning the cloak of Christianity. Defeating a single candidate won’t end this movement.

Given their numbers and potential staying power, the response to this threat to pluralistic democracy must be cross-partisan. And it will have to go beyond politics. To counteract Christian nationalism we will need a positive, optimistic message that celebrates an inclusive, diverse democracy in which no American is more “real” than another.

What makes us unique — or “exceptional” as the right likes to say — is that America isn’t defined by race or religion. Believers in American values have their work cut out for them.