America & Christian Nationalism: Let’s Talk About It

By Jyl Hall Smith

February 7, 2021

The events of January 6th and the popularity of Donald Trump and his “Christianity will have power” emphasis, for many is a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage.  American Christians are defensive about the fact that their worldview is becoming increasingly less dominant—an attitude that fuels nationalism and even a false sense of “persecution” largely because they are experiencing religious decline: something they caused. Yet in reality, American Christians arguably have more political power than any other people group in history across multiple measurements.

I also allow my Christian values to impact my public concerns—such as justice for the marginalized—but I also recognize we live in a pluralistic, multicultural society where not everyone will think exactly like me. 

Paul Miller, Georgetown professor, said: “We need to advocate for Christian principle, not Christian power.” By contrast, Trump capitalized on the dream of Christian power.

It is not Christianity per se that causes nationalism (because research shows that white Christians and non-white Christians both in the U.S. and internationally have very different views on this matter), but the long historical formation of an ethnoreligious identity. This is similar to the history of many Eastern European nations where religion and politics go hand in hand—culminating, for example, in a war in the Balkans in the 90’s that was spurred on by Serbian Christian nationalism. 

It seems clear that the perceived offense currently rallying Christian nationalists in the U.S. is a sense of persecution. Yet when it comes to actual persecution, study after study shows that this particular group is uniquely blind to structural racial issues, and further, is angered by the mere mention of such issues.

This unfortunately leads to significant overlap with White nationalists, though Christian nationalists statistically claim they are not racists, and that they are in fact “colorblind.”  In part, I believe this nationalistic trend reflects a widespread theological emphasis on the values of self-enhancement and individualism in the White American church that unfortunately makes people “justice blind.”

The political capital of American Evangelicals has proven both extremely powerful and extremely divisive, since we are all unavoidably incarnated into political lives. As public citizens, Christians are responsible for bringing about corrective measures through advocacy and voting when government fails to fulfill its traditional and accepted responsibilities, such as provision of public safety, basic education, public health, and infrastructure. There is no viable alternative mechanism for achieving these results.

However, if more children go hungry in this country than in any other economically prosperous nation (1 in 4), then there is a disconnect between the White Evangelical gospel and their action on the street. The public emphasis of Evangelicals is a litmus test of their spiritual health and points to a learned hermeneutic of individualism and authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is the significant problem I want to emphasize that is behind Christian nationalism.  Egocentric individualism and authoritarianism go together. Data indicates that when those who knowingly or unknowingly ascribe to an individualistic worldview feel threatened by an outside force, they are likely to react with intolerance and look for leaders who support their views. Authoritarianism is particularly associated with fear, aversion to change, and a preference for systems that make sense of the world.  A strongly-held conviction in this worldview is that conventional systems of authority and government are best, even if they do not create equity for others.

In 1987, a poignant demonstration of the characteristics of right-wing authoritarianism emerged from an experiment that revolved around the simulation of a nuclear-war situation. The experiment used mock NATO teams on international exercises with co-teams who represented the Warsaw Pact. The NATO teams were made up of those from both ends of the authoritarianism scale. High-scoring authoritarians consistently (if not actually) brought the world to the brink of total nuclear annihilation ten times more often than low-scoring authoritarians. In similar experiments, high-scoring authoritarians will usually support perceived authorities in violating human rights, resorting to violence, or going to war.

Unfortunately, research shows conservative White Christians are the most authoritarian group in the U.S.  Additionally, authoritarianism, and a related value whereby authoritarians hold on to a personal fear of terrorism, were the only two characteristics that predicted voting for Trump with any statistical significance.

When people are full of fear, ill-informed, and dogmatic, it is very difficult to change their minds. Research presents the following unfortunate (and non-exhaustive) list of the characteristics of the authoritarian personality: authoritarian submission, aggression, conventionalism, superstition and stereotyping, preoccupation with power and toughness, destructiveness and cynicism, and exaggerated concerns about and a likelihood of personal struggle with sexuality—in particular porn addiction or misogynistic violence.

Obedience to an established authority and a strong aversion to an assumed illegitimate authority are fundamental traits, along with improbable fears, aggression, challenges to facts and logic, tremendous self-righteousness, blindness to self-referencing, hypocrisy, ethnocentrism, and dogmatism. According to the data I collected, authoritarian personalities are highly predisposed to follow a strong leader, subscribe to conventional values, and are prone to prejudice against any outgroup.

While these characteristics are highly correlated with the far-right, the extreme left can be guilty of authoritarianism also.  The reality is that neither group can tell us exactly how to think!  And, all researchers are unanimous that there is no good fruit from authoritarianism, no positive outcome for families, etc.  In my view, authoritarianism is both cause and symptom of Christian nationalism and it raises the important question: how do we change people’s minds?

While calls for unity without truth are bound to be ineffective, we do need to emphasize our common goals and ways of working together. The currently contested dialogue between the right and the left fuels misunderstanding, because both sides assume that they are operating from within the same worldview: as Americans.

Division is increasing, and researchers have even claimed that it would be mathematically impossible for Congress to be any more polarized. Those who are desperately concerned by Christian Nationalism and how it affects the most vulnerable are less inclined to engage in unity talks. Many have cut off friends, but all we really accomplish is raging at the darkness or preaching to the choir.

We have to keep our Christian nationalist friends, and as difficult as it is, encourage them in turn to get to know people outside their usual friend group…to make extended contacts.  Research shows the only way to reduce authoritarian blindness to both ethnocentrism and structural injustice is through extended contact with an outgroup.

Many of us know Christians who are not nationalistic, and who are not authoritarian, precisely because of the time they spend with people who not exactly like them, and precisely because they have spent a lot of time walking in other people’s shoes.

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