Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told the conservative Next News Network in June, “I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.” While the sentiment may appear to be uncontroversial, academics and extremists use the term Christian nationalism to refer to an ethnocultural nationalist ideology — in this case, defining American identity as exclusively White and Christian and aiming for a government that supports that group’s beliefs. A government of this nature would be incompatible with liberal democracy.
No nationally known public official had openly claimed the Christian nationalist label prior to Greene’s remarks. However, Christian nationalist ideologies have become more visible since the Capitol insurgency. Far-right leaders have increased their calls for violent retaking of Christian America. According to some observers, recent Supreme Court decisions have bolstered the far-goal right’s of elevating Christianity above liberal democratic norms.
Some Republicans have used rhetoric that suggests there is an ongoing religious war against White Christian national dominance to court Christian nationalist voters. Overt religious war rhetoric, popularized most recently by former President Donald Trump, has spread to other Republican officials. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis advised Republicans to go to the polls in November wearing the “full armor of God,” a phrase used in the Christian Bible to exhort followers to battle the devil — implying that Democrats are the devil.
Despite the fact that most Republican leaders have not claimed to be Christian nationalists, Republican elites are increasingly using religious war rhetoric. That may make it easier for Christian nationalist extremists to mobilize followers, gain adherents, and build coalitions to gain political power.
We examined 12 years of U.S. public opinion data collected from 2008 to 2020 in our book “The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics” to investigate alt-right and undemocratic views. We discovered that prejudiced and antidemocratic attitudes are associated with belief in the ideology of American religious exceptionalism, which includes historical myths about the nation’s divine origin, purpose, and place in the world.
We included our questions in seven national and two state surveys: a GfK survey of 1,273 people in 2010; a 2012 GfK Religious World Survey of 1,146 people; three Cooperative Election Studies panel-based 1,000-person surveys in 2008, 2018, and 2020; a 2016 Survey Sampling International Poll of 4,800 people; and a 2019 Qualtrics 600-person panel survey.
We commissioned the GfK and RWS surveys in 2010, which were probability-based and nationally representative. The ARE questions were added to the remaining national surveys. The CES, SSI and Qualtrics surveys are opt-in, online surveys that use quotas to achieve samples that match national demographics with respect to race, gender, age, ethnicity and region. While not fully representative of the American public, the non-probability sample results provide diverse samples that are similar to our two representative national surveys. We also used two original state surveys, a 2011 Oklahoma Poll of 500 people and a 2014 Kentucky Poll of 601 people, both of which were probability samples of likely voters in their respective states.
We recruited 600 respondents in December 2019 through Qualtrics’ online panel, using quotas to match respondents to national demographics such as race and gender, to investigate whether those who support this belief want to move the United States away from democracy. We cannot assume that these proportions accurately reflect beliefs in the general population when using non-probability samples. Nonetheless, the findings reveal some intriguing associations.
Strong believers in American religious exceptionalism were twice as likely as non-believers to favor undemocratic rule. However, strong adherents, like all groups, continued to support representative democracy. Americans have many different traditions of national identity in the United States, and they hold a variety of sometimes conflicting and overlapping definitions of who “counts” as an American. Politicians can use these mixed beliefs to garner support from fringe believers.
Our work suggests that American religious exceptionalism myths can be powerful tools through which far-religious-right can mobilize White Christian nationalists who aren’t necessarily aware that Christian nationalism has violent and undemocratic strains. With religion prominent in American political discussions, Christian nationalist ideologies are likely to continue to spread unless confronted.