The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new lens into the overlap of religion and right-wing politics

A U.S. flag, an image of Jesus and an image of former president Donald Trump are seen on a pet-grooming building in McConnellsburg, Pa., on May 28, 2021. (Rosem Morton/The Washington Post)
6 min

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

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the First Amendment begins, before getting into the niceties of free speech, the right to assembly and the freedom of the press. For all of the public rhetorical wrestling over the meaning of the Second Amendment and its well-regulated militias, the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” has long been largely a point of debate among lawyers and jurists. After all, most Americans worship as they please without worrying about government intervention.

In recent years, though, this has shifted. An increased sense among Republicans in particular that Christianity is under threat has prompted challenges to laws or guidelines seen as constraining free worship. Last year, the conservative Supreme Court ruled in favor of Christians and Christian organizations on several First-Amendment-adjacent issues, including validating a public high school football coach’s prayer sessions. The coronavirus pandemic goosed perceptions that the government was inappropriately crossing the barrier between church and state; closures of churches aimed at limiting the spread of the virus were presented, usually in good faith, as infringements on the exercise of religion.

As this has happened, though, a more confrontational movement has been pushing forward, one bent on eradicating the wall between government and religion entirely. This is the Christian nationalism, a worldview that argues the United States should be explicitly Christian. New polling conducted by PRRI and Brookings Institution suggests that nearly a third of the country is at least sympathetic to its aims.

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

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In order to determine who might hold views sympathetic to 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 “rejecters,” those who disagreed.

The arguments were explicit. Asked if the government should declare that the United States is a Christian nation, for example, only about 1 in 10 respondents said they completely agreed. Among adherents of Christian nationalism, though, three-quarters completely agreed. The next most-supportive group are the “sympathizers,” among whom three-quarters said they agreed completely or mostly with that idea.

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

In total, about 1 in 10 Americans were categorized as “adherents.” Another 19 percent were “sympathizers” — meaning that 3 in 10 Americans completely or mostly agreed with most of the arguments presented in the survey.

We’ve seen percentages in this range emerge a lot in recent years. The most fervent supporters of Donald Trump, for example, 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, too. Those who said they most trusted Fox News for news mostly mirrored Republicans overall. Those who said they most trusted fringe-right media overwhelmingly fell into the “adherents” and “sympathizers” categories — including nearly 4 in 10 who fit into the former.

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

Also unsurprisingly, those sympathetic to Christian nationalism or adhering to its tenets (per the poll) were much more positively inclined to Trump than to President Biden.

This was always Trump’s gamble: present himself as a warrior for Christian America.

“Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it,” Trump said to the audience at a Christian college in 2016. But, he added, “if I’m there” — in the White House — “you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else.”

Adherents to Christian nationalism as identified in the PRRI-Brookings research, though, often go beyond Trump’s publicly stated positions. Seven in 10 reject the idea that generations of discrimination and slavery continues to affect Black Americans; 83 percent of White “adherents” reject that idea. Most “adherents” don’t think that white supremacy is still a major problem, including two-thirds of White “adherents.”

They largely reject immigration, with nearly two-thirds rejecting the idea that the growing number of immigrants strengthens the country. Seven in 10 say that immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background, including 8 in 10 White “adherents.” Two-thirds think people from some Muslim countries should be prevented from coming to this country.

Gender politics of the “adherents” are particularly regressive. Six in 10 think society punishes men for acting like men. Seven in 10 think that a Christian family has the man at the head, with his wife submitting to his leadership.

PRRI has long asked respondents whether they think the country is so far off track that “true patriots” might have to resort to violence to save it. Four in 10 “adherents” agree with that sentiment, as do 22 percent of “sympathizers.”

It’s important to note that the “adherents” identified by the PRRI-Brookings research are not all right-wing. Some Democrats fall into that category. It is also the case that the group includes a number of Black and Hispanic Americans. In fact, about a tenth of White, Black and Hispanic Americans fit into the “adherents” category — but since White Americans make up a majority of the country, they similarly make up more of the group of “adherents.”

What isn’t clear from the research is the extent to which these religious views are the motivator for political or cultural views. Are these Americans centering their beliefs on religion, or do their views broadly lead them to agree with questions centered on the primacy of Christianity? To put it another way, if Christian nationalism is the chicken and right-wing politics the egg, which comes first?

PRRI and Brookings may simply be measuring the same right-wing group in another way. Of course, this doesn’t diminish how unsettling the findings might be in the least.