Christian Nationalism and Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The depth and breadth of White evangelical support for Donald Trump before and since his election has perplexed most observers. But a team of sociologists, freshly-analyzed data in hand, may have the answer that has eluded journalists, scholars, and political consultants. They recently wrote an essay in The Washington Post titled, “Despite porn stars and Playboy models, white evangelicals aren’t rejecting Trump. This is why.”

Clemson University sociologist Andrew Whitehead and his colleagues Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma and Joseph Baker of East Tennessee State University say that religious support for Trump is driven by Christian nationalism, which is not so much about moral purity as it is about power––the kind of power to defend and to deliver the Christian nation that never was. Previously, pollsters and pundits have attempted to link religious identity with political choices by such measures as how frequently people attended church. However, the focus on analyzing the components of Christian nationalism is a departure that has revealed a powerfully animating element for the Christian Right, guiding their electoral choices and helping explain why they continue to stand by their man, despite everything. Analyzing data from the Baylor Religion Survey, conducted in the wake of the 2016 election, the trio wrote, “The more someone believed the United States is––and should be––a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.”  In fact, they found that it was the single greatest religious predictor that a voter would support Trump in 2016.

This may seem counterintuitive to many, since few observers believe that Trump is particularly religious himself. But Trump not only featured Christian nationalism in his campaign and during his presidency so far, but he has done so much in the manner of Christian Right leaders––casting perceived attacks on religious liberty as part of a broad attack on Christianity, and even faith itself.

Whitehead, et al., say the data they crunched from the Baylor Survey show that “Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.” This, they say, can be correlated, but is not synonymous with “a variety of class-based, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric views.”

They aver, however, that Islamophobia has also been independently well established as a strong predictor of whether someone would vote for Trump, and their own study, although focused on Christian nationalism, tended to bear that out. Thus, they say, “Christian nationalism and Islamophobia, with respect to the Trump vote, might be understood as two sides of the same coin.”

Their extended study, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election,” is forthcoming in the journal, Sociology of Religion. Such a report might not ordinarily get much attention but because its conclusions are so dramatic, and because it was billboarded in The Washington Post, it will be hard to ignore.

Taken together with a wealth of other data, the Baylor Religion Survey allowed Whitehead’s group to figure out if Christian nationalism mattered to Trump voters. The Baylor Survey asked many of the right questions, including giving respondents the opportunity to declare a measure of agreement or disagreement with such statements as:

  • “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,” and
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”

This contrasts with the approach of pollsters over the past decade or so, which Whitehead thinks has not helped us understand Trump voters. Whitehead explained to Paul Rosenberg of Salon, “Knowing how religious someone is, like how often they attend church or if they view the Bible as God’s literal word to them, doesn’t help us predict” whether they voted for Trump.  While one’s personal faith is not unimportant, Rosenberg reported, the connection between faith and voting behavior is indirect. Whitehead concluded, “So the influence of personal religiosity on whether someone voted for Trump ‘flows through’ Christian nationalism.”

All this may come as a revelation to many. But to longtime students of the Christian Right and to the Christian Right itself, it is not surprising. The political organizing manual of the Family Research Council emphasizes Christian nationalism in its justification for Christian political action. Christian nationalist authors, such as David Barton, William Federer, and John Eidsmoe (a longtime advisor to unsuccessful Alabama Senate candidate, Roy Moore, a famous Christian nationalist in his own right) have been fixtures of Christian Right political conferences for decades. Political Research Associates has been reporting on Christian nationalism and how it intersects with Dominionism as driving elements of the Christian Right since the early 1990s. Like Dominionism, Christian nationalism has been hiding in plain sight.

What’s more, although candidate Trump often sounded Christian nationalist themes during the campaign, Whitehead, et al., note that Trump’s appeals to Christian nationalism during and since the campaign have typically been “overlooked” by the media. Reporting, during the campaign, they say, “focused more on whether a relatively non-pious candidate could win the vote of the Religious Right.”

For example, coverage of a speech at Liberty University in 2016, focused on whether Trump quoting a Bible verse as being from “two Corinthians” rather than the conventional “second Corinthians” would hurt him with religious voters. The gaffe caused students to laugh and certainly suggested he was unaccustomed to discussing the Bible. But Trump’s direct appeal to Christian nationalism immediately afterwards was met with applause––largely unnoticed in news reports. Trump said:

But we are going to protect Christianity. And if you look what’s going on throughout the world, you look at Syria where they’re, if you’re Christian, they’re chopping off heads. You look at the different places, and Christianity, it’s under siege. I’m a Protestant. I’m very proud of it. Presbyterian to be exact. But I’m very proud of it, very, very proud of it. And we’ve gotta protect, because bad things are happening, very bad things are happening…Other religions, frankly, they’re banding together and they’re using it. And here we have, if you look at this country, it’s gotta be 70 percent, 75 percent, some people say even more, the power we have, somehow we have to unify. We have to band together…Our country has to do that around Christianity.

Trump returned to his Christian nationalist theme when he returned to campus to deliver a Commencement address in May 2017. He cast himself as the defender of the faith and U.S. Christian identity:

In America we don’t worship government, we worship God…America is better when people put their faith into action. As long as I am your president no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart. We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God and to follow his teachings.

A Feature, Not a Bug

Christian nationalism, according to Whitehead, “draws its roots from ‘Old Testament’ parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.”  This means that “Christian nationalism can be unmoored from traditional moral import, emphasizing only its notions of exclusion and apocalyptic war and conquest.”

This understanding of the immoral Trump: the destroyer of the enemies of Christendom and the unlikely defender of the faith, stands in the tradition of the kings of “Old Testament” Israel, just as Christian Right leaders portrayed him in justifying his candidacy in 2016. This ideology is significant not only because of its politics of nostalgia for a Christian nation that never was, but because, as Rosenberg emphasizes in Salon, it explains why people can support such a “vicious” leader as Trump. Rosenberg observes that Trump’s “impious leadership makes perfect sense, once you realize what’s at stake. It’s a feature, not a bug. And evangelical voters, Whitehead argues, know it.”

Although, it is premature to say much about it, the possibility for religiously motivated violence in this atmosphere cannot be discounted. There have been rumblings of theocratic violence emanating from neoconfederates and elements of the Christian Right in the Republican Party for a long time. But there have been no overt organized efforts, with the possible exception of Charlottesville. But these elements have never before had potential warrior king to follow. Whether they can view Trump as that figure, and whether he can envision himself in that role, remains to be seen.