Christian nationalism—both gaining and losing ground?

There is much talk about the growth of “Christian nationalism” even as surveys and journalists report the decline of “white Christian America,” but several papers presented at the late October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Atlanta suggest that any such phenomenon is far from a monolithic or accelerating force in society. Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Christopher Scheitle presented a paper showing that while Christian nationalism, which they define as a position linking the importance of being Christian to being American, had shown growth between 1996 and 2004, the subsequent period up to 2014 had seen decline in this ideology. Using data from the General Social Survey in 1996, 2004, and 2014, the researchers found that 30 percent of Americans held this position in 1996, while 48 percent did in 2004, but then the rate dropped back to 33 percent in 2014. They looked at other variables that seek to maintain boundaries for true Americans, such as the importance of speaking English, and did find that this sentiment followed the same episodic pattern. Whitehead and Scheitle argue that the role of patriotism and attachment to America was stronger in 2004, which was closer to 9/11, than in the earlier and later periods. Although they didn’t have data for the last two years, they speculated that these rates may be increasing again.

Associated with the reports on the rise of Christian nationalism is the conflict over the role of religion in the American public square. In their presentation, sociologists Jack Delehanty, Penny Edgell, and Evan Stewart of the University of Minnesota noted that recent surveys have shown that the majority of Americans want more religion in public life. But they found that this desire for more public religion does not mean the same thing as a straight nationalist agenda marked by such concerns as school prayer, religious laws in the government, belief that the president should be Christian, and that to be American it is important to be religious. Delehanty, Edgell, and Stewart categorized Americans into four groups of strong secularists (representing the non-affiliated and including about 14 percent of Americans), passive secularists (also the non-affiliated and Jews and representing 24 percent), moderates (Catholics and mainline Protestants, at 35 percent), and religious nationalists (conservative Protestants at 25 percent). Using the American Mosaic Survey conducted between 2003 and 2014, the researchers found that even those considered Christian nationalists did not line up strongly for a measure such as school prayer.

The moderates had their doubts about whether being a good American means being religious and whether the president should be Christian. But even those favoring religious nationalism lined up more on the “symbolic” issues, such as linking being American with being religious and that the president should be Christian, rather than on issues needing special accommodation, such as school prayer, suggesting that even for religious nationalists, separation of church and state matters. Another paper in this session, by Troy Gibson and Mike Lavender, both of the University of Mississippi, argued that the majority consensus of allowing religious expression in the public square is changing, as “exclusive” religions face more rejection while inclusive religions are welcomed. Traditionally, strict church-state separationists and those calling for more accommodation of religion have shared similar ground in that government should not discriminate between religious groups. The political scientists looked over the last decade at case law on the state and federal level and policy changes in higher education and corporations according to the criteria of direct language, inconclusive decisions, as well as what they called “coded language” that may hint at future legal decisions. They found that legal elites are moving closer to the French position of “laicite,” where the state regulates and polices religion. As seen in cases such as Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2011), the Supreme Court has jettisoned religious freedom arguments in favor of those where religion is subordinated by the state, according to Gibson and Lavender.