A Powerful Minority, Christian Nationalism is Democracy's 'Greatest Threat'

A new study released Wednesday offers unprecedented insight into the breadth of Christian nationalism in today's politics, helping bring clarity to a burgeoning—but growing—movement that has shaped the contemporary Republican Party and raised new questions about religion's role in today's politics.

The survey, conducted by the Brookings Institute and the Public Religion Research Institute, represents the most comprehensive study yet conducted of Christian nationalism, a school of thought that believes the United States is defined by and should be governed by Christian principles.

While a relative minority in today's politics—only around one-third of U.S. adults consider themselves Christian nationalists or are largely sympathetic to its tenets, according to the survey—the demographic represents a significant share of today's Republican coalition, with beliefs that have become increasingly present in mainstream conservative rhetoric.

In Florida, former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn rode a platform of Christian nationalism to help conservative activists reshape a local school board in Sarasota County. Last fall, the increasing evocation of Christian nationalist rhetoric by figures like Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert raised fears she was promoting a biblically-inspired overthrow of the federal government.

Boebert Sanders
Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (left) and Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert (right). Both have deployed Christian nationalist rhetoric in some of their talking points in recent speeches. Newsweek Photo Illustration/Getty Images

And after President Joe Biden's State of the Union address Tuesday night, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders—who is currently championing a proposal to allow government funds to be spent on religious schools in her state—delivered a Republican response accusing Democrats of forcing the country to "worship false idols" in what some saw as a clear allusion to a spiritual battle conservatives will fight at the ballot box in 2024.

The number of people who consider themselves adherents of Christian nationalism or who are at least sympathetic to it is rather small. Just 10 percent of U.S. adults could be considered ardent Christian nationalists, according to the survey, while an additional 19 percent could be considered sympathetic to the ethos.

However, their potential for growth is boundless: According to the survey, approximately 39 percent of respondents are "skeptics," meaning they—to some degree—buy into some aspects of Christian nationalism, building on a previous survey by the Pew Research Center showing 45 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should be a "Christian nation."

It's also a predominantly conservative and predominantly white movement. According to the PRRI/Brookings survey, nearly two-thirds of white Protestants consider themselves Christian nationalists—the highest rate of any group—while an overwhelming majority lean conservative.

While approximately 54 percent of Christian nationalists report themselves as sympathetic to Republicans, nearly three-quarters of all Christian nationalists say they support former President Donald Trump, with a similar percentage saying they only consume "far-right" news.

Given their stature in the Republican Party—evangelicals still represent a key part of the Republican constituency, according to various polls, and made up a substantial share of former President Donald Trump's performance in the 2016 and 2020 elections—they have significant sway over the national conversation as well as the direction of their party.

"Those 29 percent 'punch above their weight' given the centrality of their particular political visions to the platform of the Republican Party," Andrew Whitehead, a professor of sociology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and an expert on Christian nationalism, told Newsweek. "Given how politics functions in the U.S.—two parties, primary system—if a small-ish group is motivated and resourced, they can have an outsized influence. And that is some of what we see here."

"For almost 50 years now the focus of various political activists on the right was to bring white evangelicals into the fold," he added. "So while they are small, if elections are close, their commitment to all vote a particular way can still have an influence."

That level of influence itself is a problem not just for the Republican Party, experts say, but for American society.

At its root, author Jemar Tisby said during a panel discussion of the survey results Wednesday, Christian nationalism uses religious symbolism to create a "permission structure" for the acquisition of political power and social control that exists to reinforce the worldview of those who practice it.

In this case, that group is defined as fiercely devout white people, with very strong views on how the country should operate.

According to the poll, few Christian nationalists believe in concepts like structural racism and gender inequality—and therefore oppose policies to address them—and strongly oppose pro-immigration policies as well as the proliferation of the Muslim faith.

Supporters of Christian nationalism also tend to support obedience to authority and the concept of authoritarian leadership at significantly higher rates than the rest of the country, and are more than twice as likely to embrace the use of violence to achieve their political aims.

While those beliefs are reflected at the federal level through issues like federal protections for abortion and LGBTQ rights, the Christian nationalist ethic can also be reflected in debates at the local level around education funding—like using tax dollars to fund private, religious institutions—or even what children are allowed to access in public institutions like their local library.

"White Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to democracy and the witness of the church in the United States today," said Tisby. "These data back it up."

And those episodes are becoming increasingly common.

In Michigan, a conservative group with clear religious leanings recently led a coordinated campaign in last year's elections to win control of an Ottawa County commission there, leading to abrupt and highly conservative changes in policy.

In Tennessee, Sumner County officials found themselves under scrutiny last fall for passing a preamble to an official document assuring commissioners act with "Judeo-Christian values," which some—including the county attorney—described as a clear violation of the First Amendment.

The question now is whether Christian nationalism can achieve a plurality necessary to win everywhere. While data shows the belief system now steers the direction of the Republican Party, it still maintains relatively few adherents, with a majority of Americans rejecting most of the ideals Christian nationalists uphold.

However, its supporters are a largely homogenous group: While a quarter of Hispanics and one-fifth of Blacks can be defined as Christian nationalists, they are a predominantly white, conservative group. Democrats and independents, meanwhile, are much more variable, presenting an inherent disadvantage in building a counterbalance to the influence of its movement.

"I think a lot of this has to do with how voters and party members on the right are much more homogenous—there is just less variation demographically, religiously, and socially that they have to overcome," said Whitehead. "On the left, there is a lot more variation and this can make it tougher to find common ground and form a focused strategy and vision."

What's worth watching, and what might make the difference, are those who are somewhat sympathetic to the movement's ideas. And which side they ultimately choose.

"In some of these circles, what is more important: Upholding democracy, or upholding God's law? And the answer is clear," said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University who has written several books and articles on Christian nationalism.

"But that's not the case for all who lean in this direction. The commitment to democracy varies here. But as we look at what threat this actually poses, and if we look to the future, what I have my eye on is these sympathizers, and precisely where their sympathies lie," Du Mez added.