Webinar

The Rise of Christian Nationalism

Tuesday, February 9, 2021
REUTERS / Terray Sylvester
Speaker

Associate Professor, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

Presider

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Andrew L. Whitehead, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and co-author of Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, discusses the proliferation of Christian nationalism and its influence on American politics.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Julissa. Good afternoon to everyone. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. As a reminder, today's webinar is on the record, and the audio, video, and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. We're delighted to have professor Andrew Whitehead with us today to talk about the rise of Christian nationalism. We've shared his bio with you but just to give you a few highlights: Professor Whitehead is an associate professor of sociology and director of the Association of Religion Data Archives at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. His research focuses on how religion both shapes and is shaped by contemporary American culture. He's the coauthor of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, as well as over three dozen peer-reviewed journal articles. In 2019, Professor Whitehead's article "Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election" won the Distinguished Article Award for both the Association for the Sociology of Religion and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. He's also currently associate editor for Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review and was elected to the board of directors of the Religion Research Association. So Andrew, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought you could set the table by talking about how you define the term Christian nationalism, and I know you also want to share some slides with us to illustrate your thesis.

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, thank you so much for the warm introduction and for inviting me today. I'm excited to be part of this discussion and share a little bit about what we've been studying with Christian nationalism. And so I will share my screen here. And I, too, want to highlight my coauthor, Sam Perry. This was a true collaboration and much of our work  we do together. And so, yes, when we talk about Christian nationalism, and especially in the events of the last month with the Capitol insurrection, seeing so many Christian symbols like "Jesus Saves 2020" or praying around a cross or a flag, "Jesus is My Savior: Trump is My President," and then to when the insurrectionists breached the Capitol and were on the Senate floor praying. And if anybody has spent time in an evangelical congregation in the U.S., that prayer sounded familiar. And so we see religion suffusing a lot of what we saw at the insurrection. And so Christian nationalism we wouldn't say is the only explanation to what happened, but we do think it is a key explanation, is a key part of what we saw take place at the Capitol. And so in our book Taking America Back for God and also in the number of peer-reviewed articles that we have and published on Christian nationalism, we define Christian nationalism as a cultural framework. So it's a collection of myths and traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems that idealize and advocate for a fusion between Christianity, and you can place an asterisk by Christianity, with American civic life. So the reason we placed an asterisk there is—I'll show a bit today and as we talked about in our book—is that it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, authoritarianism, militarism, and it sanctifies and justifies violence in the service of what they deem the greater good or even God's plan.

 

So Christianity in this definition really refers to a certain population, people like us, which tends to be white, native born, culturally Christian Americans. And so it's really more of a cultural package overall. Now, when we talk about Christian nationalism, how do we measure it? Well, in our work, we survey large numbers of American adults, and we asked them six different questions. And these questions are really rather benign but asking for a level of agreement around their views towards the relationship between religion, or especially Christianity, and American civic life. And so we'll ask them questions like, "Should the federal government advocate Christian values? Should they allow prayer in public schools? Or is the success of the United States part of God's plan?" And so the degree to which our respondents agree or strongly agree or disagree or strongly disagree with the six questions, we assign them a point value and combine those together into a scale, and then we're able to see a distribution of responses and orientations towards Christian nationalism across the U.S. population. And as we can see here, it is very similar to a normal distribution where most Americans find themselves somewhere in the middle. We have people that strongly embrace it, they're at the upper end, or strongly reject it, they're at the bottom. But we won't say, and we don't say, that Christian nationalism is either an either/or proposition, that there's a spectrum of how strongly Americans embrace it and we find that that's really key. So rejecters, we see there at the left-hand part of the figure, are those that are below one standard deviation below the mean. And then resisters are the next group, accommodators, and ambassadors. And so when we combine these together into these four orientations towards Christian nationalism, we'll use these categories from here on, and we can see that rejecters and resisters, taken together, are about 48 percent of the population. So rejecters completely repudiate any notion of a close relationship between Christianity and American civil society. And they're about 22 percent of the population, as you can see. Resisters are slightly larger and they're uncomfortable with this idea of a Christian nation, but they are not wholly opposed. They lean towards opposition. Accommodators are actually our largest group, about 32 percent of the population, and they're a mirror image of resisters but lean towards accepting the Christian nation narrative and cultural framework. So their support is undeniable, but it isn't comprehensive. And finally, we have those on the very right of the screen. These are our ambassadors. These are Americans who are wholly supportive of Christian nationalism. They believe either that the U.S. was or still is a Christian nation and that we need to reestablish that connection in order for the United States to flourish.

 

Now, in the interest of time, I won't share the demographic differences between these groups, but they are fascinating, especially where they're similar. But we do find that these four groups are well represented across socio-demographic groups in the U.S., religious traditions, and even political party. And so it isn't as though one of these groups only fits within a certain socio-demographic group, but we see them represented all over. Now, one part of today, as you know, we were thinking about what we would study or look at, was this idea of the rise of Christian nationalism. And so the size of these groups, have they changed over time? Well, we actually find when we collected data in 2007 and then in 2017 and compared across the decade, that for the most part it's been relatively stable. Now, the bold numbers are those that, you could say, are a significant change from 2007 to 2017. So rejecters have grown by a couple percent. Resisters have also grown by about 4 percent. Accommodators are essentially the same size, they're not significantly different from '07 to 2017. And ambassadors have shrunk just slightly. And so we do see some shift overall over the course of the last decade but not large-scale shift. And so it will be interesting to continue to follow this as we go forward. But we wouldn't say that over the last decade there's been a dramatic increase overall, but it is relatively stable.

 

Now, as we look at Christian nationalism, define it, but then also start to think of, well, does it matter, these next bit of slides that I would like to share kind of set the table in a little way of why Christian nationalism matters in what ways. So when we talk about support for Donald Trump, as we saw in the insurrection in 2016 and even in 2020, Christian nationalism was not the only story but is a key part of explaining Americans' attitudes and support for Donald Trump. So when we look at 2016, we can see there on the left in the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey, that if someone was a rejecter, resister, accommodator, or ambassador, was key to understanding whether or not they voted for Donald Trump. And in 2020 the story stayed the same. Christian nationalism was a key predictor of whether Americans supported Donald Trump. We see that for the most part, it's a similar distribution and the same number of people were supporting him overall, with ambassadors being those that are most likely to support Donald Trump in both those years. Now, what's very interesting about this is it isn't just that Christian nationalism predicts support for Donald Trump, but then it does so even when we account for socio-demographic variables, political ideology and party, and also religious tradition.

 

And so in this next slide, we can see that across religious traditions, Christian nationalism is a key variable to explain whether they supported Donald Trump. So a couple things stand out. The white bars are for white, born-again Protestants. And again, this is data that we collected just after the 2020 election. You can see that whether somebody is rejecter, a resistor, an accommodator, or an ambassador, is key to explaining whether or not they voted for Donald Trump. Now, the dark blue bar are white liberal Protestants and you can see the same relationship. If somebody is rejector versus an ambassador, that tells us a lot about whether they voted for Trump, and the gray bar are white Catholics. And so for those groups there on the right around the ambassador bars, you can see that whether somebody is an evangelical Protestant, white Catholic, or white liberal Protestant, really, there's no difference between those groups. The fact that they're ambassadors, they're much more likely to support Donald Trump. And they're more similar to each other than to coreligionists, other Catholics, white liberal Protestants, or white evangelical Protestants, who reject Christian nationalism. So we can see that Christian nationalism cuts across religious tradition and is very key to explaining whether or not a religious American supported Donald Trump.

 

Now, another big social issue, obviously, that we're still living with is the COVID-19 pandemic. And we know that this was something that was quickly politicized with people drawing tribal lines. And we find, in a number of articles that we published just this year, that Christian nationalism is a key explanatory variable, again, for understanding how people are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. So really quickly, we can see that wearing a mask or avoiding touching your face when we gather data in May of 2020 during the one of the first peaks of the COVID pandemic, we can see that ambassadors, especially the accommodators, were more likely to say that they never took these precautions. Whereas resisters, but especially rejecters of Christian nationalism, were more likely to say that they were taking precautions. When we asked Americans about governmental restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether the government should try to protect the economy, or protect liberty, or if it should protect the vulnerable, we see that, again, our Christian nationalism scale is a strong predictor of where Americans believe the government should be focusing. Where the more that they embrace Christian nationalism, the more likely they are to say that we should protect the economy and protect liberty, and they're much less likely to say that we should protect the vulnerable. So you can see those lines moving in dramatically different directions.

 

Now, beyond COVID-19, another big social issue that we've been struggling and working with in the United States, especially over the summer, was racial injustice and protests. So we asked a number of questions, but one that I'll share with us today, is when we charted the percent of whites and Blacks who agree that reports of police brutality against Black Americans are exaggerated by the media, we can see that for white Americans, who more strongly embrace Christian nationalism, they're much more likely to believe that these reports of police brutality are exaggerated. So they're less likely to say that injustice towards Black Americans is a real thing. But for Black Americans, as they embrace Christian nationalism more strongly, we can see relatively no change in those blue bars. Christian nationalism doesn't work the same for Black Americans as it does among white Americans. But we can see that for white Americans, this idea of a Christian nation is wrapped up in their views towards racial inequality, especially police brutality towards Black Americans. Now, when we talk about Christianity in the U.S. and its influence on social policy or the society at large, we need to understand and clarify that for many Americans, Christianity means something more than perhaps just orthodox religious beliefs. But that, again, it comes with this cultural package, this cultural framework. of Christian nationalism. And we need to know and recognize that for many Americans, especially white Christian supporters of Trump or Trumpism, they're primarily motivated by fear of loss of privilege within this culture in the social sphere. And Christian nationalism is something as a cultural framework that speaks to that and works in such a way that really pushes them towards wanting to and desiring to keep themselves at the center of politics and in this culture. And with that, I will stop sharing. Hopefully, that worked. And there and look forward to the discussion.

 

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Andrew. That was really fascinating data. And let's turn now to all of you to share questions and comments with us. So as you all know, just click the "raise hand" at the bottom of your screen. And you can also type your question in the Q&A chat if you prefer to do that. And I'll call on you, and if I call on you, please announce your name and affiliation to give us context for who you are. Oh, my goodness, we have many questions. Many, many questions. So I'm going to start with Reverend Peg Chamberlin. And Peg, if you can unmute yourself?

 

CHEMBERLIN: Thank you. I'm Peg Chamberlin, former director of Minnesota Council of Churches, now retired and head consultant in Justice Connection. Andrew, I wonder if you had asked the question, "Do you self-identify as a white nationalist, as a Christian nationalist?" what kind of response you would have gotten? Thank you.

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, that's a wonderful question. Thank you for that. You know, we do not ask respondents to self-identify as either white nationalists or self-identify as Christian nationalists. I would assume that for many Americans, this idea of "are you a Christian nationalist?" wouldn't be something that's really on their radar. I'm sure that the self-identification there'd be very few that would know what that is or even want to self-identify in that way. And so for us, what we wanted to try and do was really measure the, you know, cultural framework as a whole and in some of those aspects that make up that cultural framework, that, you know, if I asked somebody, "Are you a Christian nationalist?" they might say no, but if I asked them our six questions, they might strongly agree with each one. And when we performed interviews for our book, that's what we found over and over. I don't think Christian nationalism is something that they would identify with as Christian nationalists. But when we asked them the measures that make up that scale, they, by and large, you know, those that strongly agree with it will do that. And so that's how we measured it, but wonderful question.

 

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Bruce Knotts, who raised his hand and typed his question. So Bruce, why don't you unmute yourself and just ask it yourself.

 

KNOTTS: Hello, my name is Bruce Knotts and I direct the Unitarian Universalist Association Office of the United Nations. We hosted an event with Robert Jones and his book, White Too Long, which comes to some similar conclusions. And I'm wondering if you're familiar with that book, if you could compare and contrast your work with Robert Jones's work?

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, I am familiar with that book. I bought it right when it came out and read it. And Robert Jones, yes, it was a wonderful book and really, yes, really well done and I'm a big fan of him and his work. And so I think there are a lot of very similar overlaps. I think we're looking at the same, in many ways, the same cultural framework and talking about it perhaps in slightly different ways and using some different methodological strategies. So he has a chapter in that book where he really draws on the Public Religion Research Institute or PRRI data. And so I think our book in that sense, you know, is in the spirit of that chapter where we're serving large numbers of the American population and trying to operationalize Christian nationalism and understand it. But what we find over and over that I think is very similar to his book and his work, is that Christian nationalism is, to a very large degree, racialized within the U.S. context. So when we're talking about Christian nationalism and as Americans are thinking about, again, this idea of Christianity in the public sphere, it's in many ways raced, where for white Americans it means something like, you know, this us, those are white Americans, this culture was made for us. And so in that sense, saying that we're a Christian nation and we need to then defend those Christian values has historically and over time been a way for them to, in some ways, cloak, you know, some of the racialized beliefs in religious symbolism and talk about race without talking about race in that sense. And, Robert Jones's book I would recommend, if you haven't read it, to buy it and read it. I think he's really drawing that out historically but then also with social scientific data and his personal autobiography, which was really provocative and a great, great work. So hopefully that kind of helps, but we have a chapter on boundaries and racial boundaries are a key part of Christian nationalism.

 

FASKIANOS: So I'm going to group two questions from Kathryn Poethig at California State University, Monterey Bay, who wanted to know what was the geographic and age range of your survey. And then Laura Alexander, who's at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who wrote, "Has your work given any insight into why someone who doesn't identify as Christian would nevertheless support Christian nationalism even being an ambassador for that ideology?"

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, definitely. So the first one, our surveys we primarily draw on two within our book. And then since then there's a number of other surveys that we use in our peer-reviewed research articles. But for our book, we use two [inaudible] of the Baylor Religion Survey, which is a national random sample of American adults. And so the geographic scope covers the U.S. and age ranges from anywhere from eighteen to, I don't know the exact upper bound or who is the oldest in the survey, but basically all American adults eighteen and up. And then the second part of the question about people who are not affiliated or perhaps not religious also, perhaps, drawing into this cultural framework, we do find evidence of this where we have Americans. And granted, it's not a large number of unaffiliated or non-religious Americans who are ambassadors of Christian nationalism, so it is small. The majority of ambassadors are pretty religious or largely religious Americans. But what we find is those that are unaffiliated that still identify with this cultural framework, they can take on a number of different, kind of, I guess, flavors, but one is this idea of what we see in some parts of Europe where this idea of, kind of, Western civilization, who we are as a people, and again, that can be racialized in some ways. But that Christianity, again, is a stand-in for this culture and this people that, kind of, started this country. And so for them, when they say that we should advocate Christian values, really they're talking about, again, this cultural framework of basically white, native-born, politically, maybe even religiously conservative Americans. And so it doesn't require them to be personally pious in that way. And so, you know, when we look at the years of Trump when he was running for the presidency, and when he was president, we see him as kind of the perfect test of Christian nationalism and the strength of that cultural framework, because he makes really no attempt to be personally religious or pious. Whereas other Republican presidents have utilized the language and rhetoric of Christian nationalism, but then also tried to say that, "Yes, I am personally religious." So one example is George Bush. When he was running for president, first saying that Jesus was his favorite philosopher in a debate, right? So he's talking about his personal faith. Whereas Trump really didn't care to do that. But over and over, Trump would say, "We need to defend Christianity. They're coming after you. We need to defend your culture and this culture. It's so key to being an American is being Christian in this great Christian nation." And so for him and for other Americans who are nonreligious, there are still aspects of Christian nationalism that they find useful and that they buy into and they can be ambassadors for that in that sense. So, I think, that's one way that these things overlap where the majority of ambassadors are religious, but there are Americans who are not religious personally but are still ambassadors of Christian nationalism.

 

FASKIANOS: So there are a few questions in the chat about ambassadors, so I'm just going to group them and if you can work your way through them: "Ambassadors are 20 percent of the general population, more so than the majority of the subpopulation. Can you talk about the early percent who voted for the Trump side who are the non-Christians who are ambassadors of Christian nationalism? And finally, can you clarify how people of other faiths can be Christian nationalist ambassadors?"

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, so I'm not sure if I follow the first question exactly what they're asking for.

 

FASKIANOS: Yes, I just read it directly. I think he saw in your survey that ambassadors are 20 percent of the general population and that's more than a majority of a subpopulation.

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes. So it's that last part that I'm not clear on. So I'll try. So 20 percent of the U.S. population, and we find this across a number of different national surveys, not just in one, which makes us, you know, pretty confident in those point estimates. But I guess if we look at different subpopulations—so let's look at religious traditions. So if we're looking at evangelical Protestants, a large number of evangelical Protestants right around 40 percent are ambassadors. So depending on the subpopulation, you can see the number of those people rise and fall depending on whether they embrace Christian nationalism really strongly. But again, with mainline Protestants or Catholics, that number is still higher than the national average, so over 20 percent. And so, across some subpopulations you see those changes. And we demonstrate some of those characteristics throughout one of the chapters in our book and so, I guess, I would turn there, too, just in case I didn't answer the question perfectly this time. And then what was the next one, Irina, I'm sorry?

 

FASKIANOS: No, that's okay. I threw a lot at you. So the next one was the differentiation between the percentage who voted for Trump that were non-Christians who were ambassadors of Christian nationalism. So in 2016 versus 2020.

 

WHITEHEAD: Okay, so what it says there?

 

FASKIANOS: Yes.

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes. So let's see, we find there were similar numbers. So again, the number of ambassadors who are unaffiliated, if you're looking at the whole population, is rather small. But what we find in 2016 and 2020 that that small number of people overwhelmingly voted for Trump even though they were nonreligious. If they were ambassadors the likelihood they voted for Trump was really high. I forget right now, I'd have to open up the PowerPoint again, but in 2020, I think, it was 70–80 percent of unaffiliated or secular Americans who are ambassadors that voted for Trump. And we find that was true in 2016 as well, and so that was a consistent finding over those two election cycles.

 

FASKIANOS: Great, and how can people of other faiths be Christian nationalist ambassadors?

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, so this is interesting question. And one part—I'm not trying to just punt on the question—but we are limited somewhat by the data at our disposal. So with these national surveys, because other non-Christian faiths are a small slice of the American public, we tend to not pick up as many, right? So they're small in our surveys as well. And so I hate to speak too strongly or beyond the data with a small sample size that we have. But when we pull all them together, we do find similar things that work. Now, with that, what we also have to keep in mind is that there are very different reasons why different non-Christian groups might embrace Christian nationalism. So one group that we find, and this is drawing on data that others have collected out west, but among Latter-day Saints, we do see that they will strongly embrace Christian nationalism, that that is a cultural framework that is definitely present within the Latter-day Saints community. And so for them, I think it does operate very similarly to what we might find in other conservative Christian groups overall. Now, when we look at other religious groups, I think then we would have to turn more towards qualitative interviews or research techniques where for us in our large samples, we just have so few of those people that I hesitate to draw any strong conclusions or make any strong claims over why somebody who might be a non-Christian faith would also embrace Christian nationalism as a whole.

 

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go next to Razi Hashmi. And Razi, can you unmute yourself?

 

HASHMI: Sure. Can you hear me okay?

 

FASKIANOS: We can.

 

HASHMI: Hi there. Thank you, Andrew. Again, my name is Razi Hashmi. I work at the State Department and I'm a term member with the Council on Foreign Relations. I am also with the Office of International Religious Freedom covering South Asia. My question is actually not related to my work, but more of interfaith and interfaith dialogue. So what is the perception that you've, kind of, ascertained from your conversations, whether through your actual survey or just maybe informal conversations with folks on interfaith and intrafaith dialogue? And then how has the broader Christian community or Christian nationalists come to terms with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that has been pervasive especially amongst Christian nationalist figures, preachers, and pastors? Thank you.

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, thank you for the wonderful question. And so I think the first and second part to your question are, at least in my mind, strongly interrelated. So we're talking about interfaith and interfaith dialogue. I think among Americans that embrace Christian nationalism there isn't much and I don't think they really have any interest in doing that to really find areas of compromise or working together. They tend to because Christian nationalism is about creating more of a tribal identity of an "us" versus a "them," and again, at least culturally, Christianity is a key part of that. And so any types of dialogue, I think, run into issues because as we find with Christian nationalism, it really is predicated on power. And they see it as a zero-sum game where for us to have power and be at the center of the culture, we have to ensure that others don't have access to that. And so in many ways, it's anti-democratic, it really has no interest in compromise, because, again, they're locating their desired outcomes in the will of the Christian God. And so they really aren't interested in any sort of give and take. Now, again, Christian nationalism is a spectrum and so Americans that are accommodators might be more open to that. But when we talk to them about, even accommodators or ambassadors, if we talked to them about one example, like praying before a football game, right, they'll say, "Well, of course, the Christian prayers should be there." And they become much more hesitant with any other religious group being a part of that ritual. And so that's one way that it gets lived out, I think, in their minds, as we think of how the, I guess, in one way the rubber meets the road.

 

Now when we talk about anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, what we find in our book, but then other scholars in the social sciences that are working alongside us on Christian nationalism, we find over and over that, just like you said, there are really high degrees of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia where accommodators, and especially ambassadors, when we talk about or ask about fear or threat towards Muslims, they're much more likely to not only fear them, but feel as though they're physically threatened by Muslims, that there's going to be a physical attack, are much more likely to fear that. And then when we ask about Jews and Jewish Americans, we find that Americans that embrace Christian nationalism are even more likely to fear physical attack or believe that that Jews don't share the same morals and values that they do as  embracing Christian nationalism, which, again, is very interesting when we think about that in terms of the support for Israel that they'll often talk about the nation state. When we talk about actual people, again, that is part and parcel with this. And so, as I mentioned in my short presentation how Christian nationalism is interested in drawing boundaries around who is a true American, what it means to be a true American, those are racialized but then, too, those boundaries are religious as well. So in thinking about any non-Christian group or groups of people they believe are non-Christian, they draw those boundaries that exclude them from, you know, equal participation in civil society and in the culture.

 

FASKIANOS: Thank you, I'm going to ask Kim Vrudny's question: "What lessons might we derive from Nazi Germany and South Africa under the Christian nationalists? What can be done to interrupt the trajectory toward which all this might be heading?" And Kim is with the University of St. Thomas—Minnesota.

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, that's a really good question. And so I would want to say at the outset that I'm not an expert in Nazi Germany or South Africa. And so while I know a lot about Christian nationalism in the U.S., and being able to draw consistent comparisons to those, I hesitate to do that. I think as we're thinking about Christian nationalism in the U.S., I think what's key to understand and to realize is that, perhaps in those other countries, that what seemed to be somewhat benign beliefs like the U.S. as a Christian nation or the federal government should advocate Christian values, realizing and recognizing that strongly adhering to those have real repercussions towards how people view immigrants, or people of their religious faiths, or racial minorities, or gender and sexuality minorities. I think those are key because from what limited I know about, let's say, Nazi Germany or South Africa, religion was again a part of a larger project to draw lines around who we are and what we should all be about. And so as desires for certain groups get legitimated in the sacred, like Christian nationalism saying, "This is God's desire for this country," it really creates a situation where, again, compromise or allowing others to share in power and finding a common path forward become almost impossible. And so to the degree to which that draws similarities to other, you know, regimes and other countries, I think that is a key part of what we see here in the U.S. and that we need to be aware of and not take it lightly were even trying to draw lines around "this is who we are and this is what we've always been about" can be difficult and can have, again, real-world implications to how they imagine what America should be or who a true American is.

 

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Charles Randall Paul, who typed a question and also raised his hand. So why don't you ask it yourself. If you can unmute yourself and identify yourself.

 

PAUL: Hi, I'm the president of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and we work on building trust between religious rivals who remain rivals. The question I ask is related to your research, I don't know if you can help us with it or not, but what is the endgame among most Christian nationalists? Are they believing that the Second Coming will be soon and that the bad guys will all get wiped out and we need to hold firm till then? Or are they proselytizers? Do they believe they can convert people to Christ and save the world that way? In other words are they hunkered down or are they reaching out? Is there a tension between them? What would they say is the endgame for Christian nationalism?

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, that is a great question. And I think in some ways we see that when we talk to Americans that embrace Christian nationalism, it becomes, and this maybe unsurprising, becomes a little more muddled where I think even in our own minds it's a little bit of both, where, in some ways, this is highlighting the pre- and postmillennialist kind of histories and trajectories within Christian nationalism where for some that were really strongly advocating this as a Christian nation and should become even more of a Christian nation, they were postmillennial, they were thinking that this was a part of bringing around the Second Coming of Christ, converting people, or bringing the U.S. under the will of Christians and Christianity. But we see another strong strand within Christian nationalism and Americans that embrace it that is premillennial, where they feel as though the culture and everything is essentially heading to hell in a handbasket and we need to maintain our faithfulness, but at that point of time, as we're faithful, we'll be stashed away. We do find among Americans, they tend to espouse more premillennialists views, those that strongly embrace Christian nationalism. So this idea of "We need to be faithful. We need to hunker down, but, you know, Christ's Second Coming will come." But I think within that and you can see this—one example is Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas. He had a book that he published a little while back, Twilight's Last Gleaming, where he essentially makes this case where the U.S. is headed away from what we always should have been. But we still need to maintain our faithfulness, we still need to fight for the culture, we need to be a part of it. But we need to ultimately understand that it's probably a losing battle, and we just need to be faithful within it. And so in that sense, it is a little of both. And so I think the endgame for many Americans is somewhat muddled where they want to be faithful to what they see is the dictates of the Christian faith but also try to influence and stave off the U.S. moving in this direction for as long as possible because for them the fear is that's when God will turn His back on the U.S. and then it will be really a difficult country to live in and one that nobody wants to be in. So in that sense, there's a lot going on and interwoven, but I think that is a lot of how many Americans, at least, tend to see those relationships

 

FASKIANOS: Okay. I might have frozen. I've been having trouble with my internet connection. So I'm going to go next to Shaik Ubaid who has his hand raised in the queue? And if you can unmute yourself.

 

 

UBAID: Thank you so much for taking my question. You know that the numbers are, even though I have been involved in, you know, in human rights work and monitoring the rise of extremism, the numbers are almost intimidating. But the good thing is they are declining. I think one of the reasons is that, except for the new analogy like white supremacist, the other group such as the evangelicals have been accorded recognition and they will not, you know, look down upon. So how we describe them is very important so that people are aware. For example, Christian nationalist. Christian is a good term; nationalist is also maybe a good term because Gandhi was a Hindu nationalist but he is completely different than the Hindu supremacist who killed him and are now ruling India. And we support the same things that we are seeing here in America. So calling them as ambassadors, whereas the other word for people who are resisting them is rejecters, which is a negative term, so I'm talking about the semantics of this bringing this to attention. And my question is, supporters from other groups, especially among the immigrants, isn't the common theme, Islamophobia, for example, the Hindu supremacist, or the settlers from Israel, or the Burmese Buddhists involved in the genocide, the extremists among them, they all support Trump even though in their own countries they are persecuting Christians. So that's a fascinating point that I have been noticing for a long time. So did you come across this pack in your interviews of people who belong to other faiths and who are supporting Christian nationalists?

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, it's a great question. I think one of the things that we wish we could have done was spend more time among different racial ethnic groups interviewing a broader cross-section of people within those different groups to see how Christian nationalism functions. I think that's one area in our research that we're starting to unpack now in more peer-reviewed outlets that we hope to other social scientists will really push into because we do find evidence that Christian nationalism will operate similarly among different racial ethnic groups or even immigrants, as you point out, in white Americans. And then on other issues, they work completely in opposite directions. Christian nationalism doesn't operate the same way for white Americans as racial ethnic minorities or immigrant groups. So I think being able to really be able to draw out those differences is a key aspect that we're exploring now and that we don't do much in the book. But yes, I think when we look at support for Trump, there were immigrant communities, that was one of the surprising parts, was among different, even within Hispanic communities, even within that grouping, very different trajectories for who would support Trump and then who didn't and the reasons why, which I think will be of importance going forward and more work is starting to really look into that.

 

FASKIANOS: Thank you. So I'm going to go next to Reverend Jonathan Barton, who is a retired general minister of the Virginia Council of Churches. He asks, "Is there a relationship between Christian Zionism and Christian nationalism?"

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, I think there is a relationship, I think historically, so there are a number of books that are helpful with this. Julie Ingersoll, she's looking at Christian reconstructionism and this idea of dominionism and Christian nationalism. And then when we're thinking about Zionism, I think there are relationships overall. We see some of those play out. Now, in our book, again, of a broad cross-section of American society, for many Americans this idea of Christian Zionism there are relatively few of them and so it doesn't get drawn out in those large surveys. But there is a common refrain, like pastor Robert Jeffress at First Baptist, kind of a noted Christian nationalist pastor, who also is strongly supportive of Israel and that's a common refrain among white evangelical Protestants but to especially Christian nationalists, that having America be on the right side as they see it, of Israel or being alongside Israel, is key to keeping America on God's good side. And so those definitely overlap. Now among kind of rank-and-file Americans how strongly those things are coupled could be very different, but for the most part you do see those connections.

 

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Anuttama Dasa who says, "You describe the problem is a sense of loss and central to American culture. My question is what is the way out? The country is more diverse racially, religiously, culturally, and that will continue. How will this group become pacified and feel their interests and identity are not under attack, especially in this age of divisive media that further emboldens their fears and views?"

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, I think that last part is the key part, that there's so many—it's such a multifaceted issue where the media landscape and the diversification of information sources that they can go to and in many ways people are self-selecting into those, that are feeding into a fear narrative, I think trying to change or  shut those down is obviously a Herculean task. But beyond that, I don't know that for Americans that strongly embrace Christian nationalism, if there really is anything that's going to make them truly feel as though there is nothing to worry about because, again, their networks of people they're with and congregations they are a part of that, especially where they're getting their information, for the most part will continue to feed into that narrative. And so, if their networks, not like TV networks, but their interpersonal networks changed, that could be one thing. But I think right now, the key is understanding that Christian nationalism is predicated on power, and again, trying to maintain privileged access and control to power in the levers of power. And so it will respond to power. And so I think being aware of that and understanding that it may not be a person-to-person trying to turn people away that's going to ultimately help change things but that it's recognizing that only through protecting democracy and the sharing of power and compromise and ensuring that minority groups of all different types are protected, really is going to be the only way. And then hopefully as time goes on maybe making inroads culturally, but I guess I'm cynical of any plan, and not that you are suggesting that, but any plan that thinks there's going to be broad-scale changes in people's attitudes and that will then lead us forward, I think that is too rosy an outlook. These are cultural frameworks that are central to how they see themselves as an American. And so those that are interested in a society with fair and free elections and protecting minorities of all different types, I think, then it's just about ensuring that the levers of power are not just in the hands of those that want to just protect their tribal in-group, if that makes sense.

 

FASKIANOS: So, there's a question in the Q&A box that got three thumbs up, so I'm going to ask it because people want to know about this. From John Thatamanil, excuse my mispronunciation of your name, with the Union Theological Seminary. He is still thinking about your asterisk on the word Christian. "What, if any, are the doctrinal theological convictions of these Christians? Your remarks suggests there's very little actual Christian content." Is he understanding you correctly? And if so what work does the category Christian do? So boiled down, what's Christian about Christian nationalism?

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, that's a great question. And I think one thing that we don't want to do is create a thing where Americans that embrace Christian nationalism, those that disagree with it can then be like, "Well, those aren't real Christians," right? We don't want to do that. It's kind of a no true Scotsman fallacy, where if they embrace Christian nationalism, then they were never a true Christian. We want to be clear that these are church-going, Bible-believing, Jesus is the Son of God they'll hold Orthodox Christian beliefs. But with that comes with all of these, again, cultural assumptions that are really rooted in our history as a nation, especially with, for example, race. So those come as a part of and are kind of added on to this understanding of some Orthodox Christian beliefs. And so, if we were to ask them, again, a list of what maybe many people would say are Orthodox Christian beliefs, they would assent to many of those. It isn't as though they don't believe those—they do. It's just they believe, too, as a part of living out their faith, this is what it means to be a faithful Christian is to vote one way with one party and law and order,  all these things that are coded and have been coded in our culture for different policy beliefs or to basically serve the interests of one group and keeping one group in power and that's been added on to it. And so, I think being aware of that is key and really being a part of, and we see some of this happening now, Christians within, let's say, white evangelical Protestantism, trying to really wrestle with how Christian nationalism can lead to outcomes that they believe are antithetical to the gospel and trying to understand why that is and why that's important. And so I think the work that we're trying to do is, is to really lay out clearly, Christian nationalism leads to these ends. Now, whether you think that is Christianity or not, we don't necessarily delve into as much. We leave that to theologians,  as you all are at union, to really be able to make that case. But I think what is clear is that Christian nationalism and adhering to this cultural package tends to make Americans draw much sharper boundaries around who is the “us” or who we are that are racialized and lead to fear of other groups that for some, as they look at the Gospels or Jesus' teachings, believe that they don't align with what Jesus taught. And so, I think, then that work we leave to others. But I think the evidence is clear that more of the kind of prosocial, loving your enemies, loving your neighbors, that type of thing, can look very different in many ways doesn't align with what, you know, some orthodox or historic Christian beliefs are.

 

FASKIANOS: Elias Mallon of Catholic Near East Welfare Association asks, "Racism and anti-Semitism share a great deal in common, yet I feel there's significant differences, which need to be taken into account. There seems to be something deeply American to anti-Black racism. How do you think the two are related yet different?"

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, that is a big question and one that, again, I wouldn't say that I'm an expert on in really being able to distinguish similarities and differences at a deep level. I think, a part of that history that we see in one great book, the name is escaping me now, is Kelly Baker. She wrote a book on basically in the 1920s the Klan in the U.S. She actually had interview in the New York Times, I think, yesterday so you could go and find it with Elizabeth Dias. But she's writing, and we know that in the history with the KKK, there were distinct anti-Semitic and obviously anti-Black narratives that were a part of how they saw the world. And so the close relationships of those, I think, are clear. Now how exactly those are different or play out differently, I'm not an expert in that area so I wouldn't want to hazard a guess. But I think the fact that they are so closely related and for many are a part and parcel of what really Christian and white supremacy through the decades and through the centuries in the U.S. has been a part of that we need to attend to it and be aware of that, like at the Capitol insurrection, you're going to see the Confederate flag, you're going to see sweatshirts, I think, it was like a "Camp Auschwitz" or something like that. I mean, a very anti-Semitic—especially you're going to see all those things together. And this is something that, you know, at the extreme levels is, you know, they're drawing together.

 

FASKIANOS: I'm going to go to Tom Walsh, he has his hand raised. If you can unmute yourself.

 

WALSH: Thank you, Irina. And thank you, Professor Whitehead. Excellent discussion and great, great topic. I mean, there's so many thoughts going on in my head, but I guess one of the thoughts is, the previous person asked what is the Christian aspect of Christian nationalism. The other is nationalism itself is a kind of generic term. And it's not just an -ism in the sense of something that leans toward, let's say, fascism at one extreme but that it's commonplace. That somehow there's a sense in which every nation state needs some degree of nationalism, if we think of it as the solidarity of the citizens. And then you get faith people who probably all apply their faith background to that project in some way. So there's Christian nationalism, you can say the social gospel movement of Walter Rauschenbusch or Washington Gladden, was a kind of nationalism but of a different sort, for sure. So I guess it's a little bit that's, you know, kind of a typology of nationalisms from, you know, there was a major article in the Wall Street Journal on the weekend in that review section about Catholic social thought. Could Catholic social thought under the Biden administration kind of bring America together? So we're living in this post-secular environment where all the religions are trying to fill a gap or a vacuum that has been emptied out with perhaps an overreaching secularism. So these are just thoughts. So I really appreciate your presentation and maybe would ask you about that. Isn't this going to continue because we do need to find the foundation or basis for solidarity. We can say it's the Constitution. We have constitutional nationalism, but it's very rational and kind of unfeeling. And so people do want to bring their entire being into their life in the world and if they're Buddhist, or Muslim, or Christian, or Jew, there's aspects of that that fit in. And it's not all pathological, I guess is my point. Anyway, thanks, again. Great program and great presentation.

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, thank you. I think, too some of what I hear in your thoughts is this distinction between civil religion and Christian nationalism and the fact that with civil religion it's kind of drawing on this shared heritage or idea that there are things that we come around as Americans that are important to us that might highlight Providence or God in some sense, but really tries to highlight where we're more similar than might be different. Whereas Christian nationalism tends to be much more tribal of “us” against “them,” rather than trying to draw us together. And two, I think, a part of what I hear there is, you know, a distinction between patriotism and nationalism, where patriotism is love of fellow country, men and women, whereas nationalism is trying to ensure that our nation is at the top at the expense of other nations. So I think those are key aspects and a part of as we try to understand civil society and how it operates that, yes, I think there are different strains but we might be able to label them somewhat differently, and they definitely have different outcomes and what that means for a pluralistic democratic society.

 

WALSH: Thank you.

 

FASKIANOS: Andrew, one last question from Jason Morton, who is at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: "Did any of your questions have a foreign policy component? Did explore whether Christian nationalists are more isolationist? And is there any correlation between Christian nationalism and opinions about foreign aid?"

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, that is a great question. I would say that for most of our book and our research thus far is looking at really domestic issues. We do ask about militarism,  it might be the "war on terror" or wars in different parts of the world. I think that touches a little bit on some of your concerns where Christian nationalists or Americans that embrace Christian nationalism tend to be much more militaristic, and again, trying to enforce, in some way, what they see as American ideals elsewhere and ensuring that we are dominant in that sense. And as far as foreign aid, I'd have to go back but recent data we've collected, too, asks about kind of fears of globalism or other economic systems. And in Christian nationalism, they're afraid of things that they view, again, as un-American. So capitalism is excellent. Anything else or any sort of interaction with the global community they tend to be much more afraid of. And so that's a really broad question, but I think that would probably if we asked a lot more follow-up questions we would draw out how those things would connect to some of those foreign policy issues.

 

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Well, that should be the questions that you incorporate for your next survey that you do, so you can come back and report on it. And we actually have to have you back because we had over, I still have about thirty-five questions in the chat and hands up, and I apologize to all of you for not being able to get to you because we'd love to hear from each and every one of you, of course. But we're respectful of everybody's time and so we do need to end, but thank you, Andrew Whitehead, for your insights today and to all of you for your great questions and comments. We encourage you to follow up Andrew Whitehead's work by following him on twitter @ndrewwhitehead. We also encourage you to follow CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter @CFR_Religion as well as reach out to us. Send us an email with ideas for topics and speakers you would like us to cover in future webinars. You can email [email protected]. So again, thank you all for today's discussion. And Andrew, really thank you for your invaluable research. It really is insightful, especially in what we've seen this past month.

 

WHITEHEAD: Yes, thank you so much for having me. It was really wonderful.

 

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

 

 

Top Stories on CFR

Taiwan

Differences over Taiwan’s status have fueled rising tensions between the island and the mainland. Conflict over Taiwan also has the potential to be a flash point in U.S.-China relations.

Ethiopia

Women and Women's Rights