New Survey Illuminates Little and Misses the Real Story
Neighborly Faith has published a new study on Christian nationalism. It began making the rounds this past week. The report is branded as a “new approach,” an improved measurement. You can read the whole thing for yourself, so an exhaustive breakdown is uncalled for. There are some things worth discussing, however. Most commentary on the report has fixated on the fact that, as the Washington Times put it, “Christian nationalists may not be the demons that some claim.” Whilst that’s obviously true and there are commendable elements to the report, we shouldn’t be so easily impressed. There are deeper problems with the report’s approach, and, in the end, it misses the real narrative of the data completely—and these things are always telling a story.
Groupings in the report are as follows: Christian nationalist adherents and sympathizers, Christian spectators, pluralistic believers, and zealous separationists. Of course, there is an undecided category as well. The percentage breakdown is a fairly even split, 11%, 19%, 18%, 19%, 17%, and 16%, respectively.
Everything in the survey is geared toward openness, tolerance, multiculturalism, and democracy. None of these things are defined but rather assumed as normal. This conforms to the culture, we might say, and mission of Neighborly Faith which, per their website, is dedicated to interfaith dialogue in a pluralist society, the latter being the assumed baseline—that is, an assumed good.
The tenor of the report reveals the apparent audience, the concerned observer. At many points, this posture makes it hard to take the report seriously. Imagery of January 6 MAGA enthusiasts and the like fill the graphics of the document. We will return to this point of partisanship shortly, but note, for instance, that the first topic addressed after outlining the percentage breakdown is the “threat” of Christian nationalism. The first line in that explanation points out that adherents and sympathizers “generally lack the aforementioned commitments so essential to a pluralistic society.” (p. 5). And, “Naturally, CN threatens institutions, legislation, and cultural norms that protect or promote pluralism in its many forms—such as religious diversity, multiculturalism, etc.” Not exactly dispassionate, is it? That does not invalidate the data presented but it is worth noticing.
The report’s executive summary tells us that only 30% of respondents are either adherents or sympathizers to Christian nationalism. The smallest population is that of adherents. Only 11% are true believers and only 5% self-identify as Christian nationalists. The import of these stats, given the reports intended audience, is to assure everyone that Christian nationalism, as (very roughly) defined by the report is probably not a big threat, even though it contains definite threats to democracy et al.
And yet, the survey has some “surprising findings” which amount to the unexpected fact that Christian nationalists are not rabid racists and are willing to work across socio-political and religious lines for the good of society (p. 5).
We must also note the problematic and confusing style of the questions presented in the survey to the some 2000 participants. As with any survey data, there are obvious limitations inherent in any questions included. That goes with the territory and shouldn’t be overly criticized. In this case, however, the report is frustrating for its perpetuation of bad question forms.
For instance, all Christian nationalist surveys to date fixate on the activity of federal government, e.g., “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.” Participants were asked to answer on the typic “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” scale. I’ve self-professedly embraced the Christian nationalist label, but I could easily disagree with the proposition. I would not disagree in principle. The idea of this federal declaration is desirable. But my answer, given our federalist polity, would be that the proper place for such declaration is the state level. In those jurisdictions I would also be pro-establishment of religion. Again, its not that I would disagree in principle, but what if someone did disagree for these reasons? They would then not fit the Christian nationalist bill per the report, at least in this regard. All that to say, surveys usually lack nuance and are therefore of limited utility.
Similarly, the proposition that the “federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.” A non-Christian nationalist adherent could easily answer in the negative purely on the basis of constitutional theory. Similarly, asking whether prayer should be allowed in public schools—the survey scale doesn’t specify whether Christian or non-sectarian—or whether religious symbols should be allowed in public spaces gets you almost nowhere. The Satanist club in Iowa might affirm both. (Neighborly Faith did provide a follow-up question pertaining to exclusively Christian symbols in attempt to round out the data, so that is commendable.) Another strange set of questions that allegedly correspond to Christian nationalism: 1) is American culture fundamentally Christian? 2) Do you desire to live in a religiously homogenous society? Sober and honest secular scholars would affirm the first one. Muslims and Jews could easily affirm the second one.
Perhaps most frustrating, from my perspective, “the success of the United States is part of God’s plan.” What does this mean? This type of question is usually included in this kind of research. Are people who affirm it equivalent to David Barton or do they simply hold to a traditionalist providentialism? The data doesn’t tell you that, so what’s its real use? (Affirmative answers are likely owed more to the influence of dispensationalism on boomer evangelicals than any substantive political vision for the country. It would have been interesting to see questions on the eschatological significance Israel and America’s relationship thereto for these purposes.) This approach to the Christian nationalist question also has a tendency to be over inclusive. Such data without more detailed denominational breakdown is relatively unilluminating.
The ”improved measurement” of Christian nationalism amounts to adding a few words into questions used by others like Perry and Whitehead, e.g., instead of asking about Christian values generally, Neighborly Faith asked about uniquely Christian values. Maybe this is an improvement but its not an obvious one.
To the report’s credit, it does include quotations from actual adherents and sympathizers (e.g., Stephen Wolfe and Josh Daws) but does not seem to incorporate their explanations into the substance of the report itself.
Here’s a big, narrative-defying whitepill from the report that is expected by some but not all of us.
The Christian nationalist “profile” is largely male (53%), married (62%), white (70%), evangelical (71%) or at least Christian (76%), obviously, and not particularly well-educated or wealthy, nor are they all that interested in government affairs generally. Their biggest influences are their family, religious texts, and religious leaders (p. 28).
Religion is central to the Christian nationalist’s life. Statistically, they attend church weekly, pray daily, read the Bible regularly. The are more involved in church life than sympathizers or any of the rest of the groups. No surprise there, or it least there shouldn’t be. They are not married or equivalent to the republican party even if they view democrats as political enemies.
All this cuts against the sort of unthinking, brash, disingenuous, bar stool conservatism narrative some have slung at Christian nationalists. Turns out, they are generally sincere, serious Christians. Who knew?
Returning to the earlier point about the report’s partisanship. Notice in the report that Christian nationalism is bad because it’s a threat to democracy. It’s a threat because it is violent.
Never mind that 1) no one until yesterday thought “democracy” was a good idea, or 2) that the language of “threat” is itself violent othering. This is political enemy stuff. Imbedded in this rhetoric is an unacknowledged but obvious presumption of a certain way of life, the socio-political yardstick.
Again, from the outset the report assumes the threat, i.e., that Christian nationalism is bad, even if all its adherents and sympathizers aren’t bad insofar as they exhibit “surprising” behaviors and dispositions that are coded as non-threatening to pluralist, multicultural, democracy. Christian nationalist are more likely to hold a “problematic view.” (p. 34). (“Threats,” such as “concentrated political advocacy for a non-pluralist democracy,” are further explicated beginning on page 36.) Strategies for pulling people out of Christian nationalism, and preventing sympathizers from totally converting to Christian nationalism, are then presented in the final section (pp. 43-44) just before “expert responses” are given—the “experts” include Kaitlyn Scheiss of Holy Post and Lutheran pastrix, Angela Denker.
But there’s something more disappointing about the report than its question begging and partisan posture.
The real story told by this data is completely missed or ignored by the report. Namely, the strong polarity represented in the data. That is, the divide between the adherents and the zealots. Both occupy relatively the same statistical positioning and they are diametrically opposed to one another in their vision for the American way of life. Each considers the other a political threat and, on this point, they are right.
The strict separationist, secular zealots cannot share nothing in common with the Christian nationalist adherents. Their sources of authority are different, the way they devote their time is different, their expectations for fellow citizens is different, their mode of socio-political assessment (for success) is radically different. Likely, their respective readings of history contains few commonalities. These are not people that can easily live together. That’s the source of the emerging phenomenon—it has incubated for awhile—observed by astute people, namely, national balkanization and regional realignment, one tracking not necessarily along voting pattern lines, but those things intricate to what I’ve already called ways of life. Indeed, a lot of the self-sorting is instigated by things surrounding child rearing like public education curriculum, abortion, and transgenderism. None of this is owed to a lack of mutual understanding or poor exposure to others. This is the return of true politics, the questions fundamental to a polity.
In truth, neither the adherents nor the zealots think proceduralist pluralism will solve the deepening divide, nor do they (probably) think said divide is ultimately bad, even if its occurrence is strenuous. In a sense, a more honest dynamic is emerging. You don’t have to be an accelerationist or yearn for societal collapse to see this. Creative, workable, and stabilizing solutions can then be pursued. In a word, the adherents and zealots get it and the rest of the meaty middle of the bell curve are either reluctant or have their heads in the sand.
What do the adherents and zealots get exactly? They get that the mechanism designed to mitigate against conflict in our written constitution presume for their functionality a certain level of agreement and homogeneity as to the unwritten constitution. That threshold, at some point less recent than most think, was crossed. The battle for the unwritten is underway and it is not obvious to the adherents and zealots alike that the written can do much about it. Indeed, the written may end of being rewritten; that’s a possibility the two poles aren’t afraid to admit or consider, at least in theory. The battle then, on each side of the spectrum, is for the sympathizers and the pluralists, the proximate, winnable person. Whoever laps their respective field up first will gain the upper hand. That’s basically a possible picture of political dynamics for the foreseeable future.
Image Credit: Pictorial Life of George Washington, 1847