Even after the Capitol riot, violence isn’t the only way Christian nationalism endangers democracy

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A year ago, during the Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021, the world witnessed a way in which Christian nationalism is jeopardizing American democracy. We have all seen photos and images of mob violence perpetrated by Americans waving Christian flags, dressed in Christian clothing, reciting Christian prayers. As some increasingly isolated and radicalized religious conservatives react to their loss of power, the threat of their political violence is real. But that’s not the only way Christian nationalism is jeopardizing our democracy.

The point is, Christian nationalist ideology – especially when championed by white Americans – is fundamentally undemocratic because its goal is not “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Its goal is power. Specifically, power for “real Americans like us”, Christians in an almost ethnic sense, those who belong – the worthy. Hence, the most significant threat that white Christian nationalism poses to democracy is that it seeks to undermine the very foundation of democracy itself: the vote.

We can see this connection long before the 2020 presidential election or recent efforts to restrict access to voters across the country. As historian Anthea Butler recounts, at a conference in 1980, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, spoke about electoral strategy to leaders of the Christian right, including Tim LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson. , Jerry Falwell Sr. and then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. .

Weyrich explained:

“Many of our Christians suffer from what I call goo-goo syndrome. Good government. They want everyone to vote. I don’t want everyone to vote. Elections are not won by the majority of people. They have never been since the beginning of our country and they are not now. In fact, our influence over elections increases quite frankly as the number of voters decreases. “

In Weyrich’s own words, the goal of these Christian right-wing leaders was not more Americans exercising their democratic rights. The goal is “leverage” and, with it, victory. Over the following decades, Weyrich and other organizations he co-founded, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, tirelessly promoted legislation to restrict voter access, guided by the belief that the vote should be controlled. , lest the wrong people determine the outcome.

In a recent study I conducted with co-authors Andrew Whitehead and Josh Grubbs, we documented this same strong connection between Christian nationalist ideology and the desire to limit voter access. We polled Americans just before the November 2020 election and therefore before Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” began to dominate the narrative on the right. We use a scale to measure Christian nationalism which includes questions about the extent to which Americans think the government should declare the United States a Christian nation, that America’s success is part of God’s plan and of other similar opinions.

Even after accounting for political partisanship, ideological conservatism, and a host of other religious and socio-demographic characteristics, Christian nationalist ideology was the primary predictor that Americans thought we were already making it “too easy to vote.”

You may ask, “Who exactly votes too easily?” The obvious answer is the bogeyman trope of fraudulent voters – those pets, those dead, and those undocumented immigrants that Trump warned about in the spring of 2020. This myth of widespread voter fraud dates back decades and has been completely debunked on several occasions. Yet, unsurprisingly, we have also found that Christian nationalism is the primary predictor of Americans believing that “voter fraud in presidential elections is becoming more and more prevalent these days.” And it bears repeating: Americans who assert Christian nationalism already felt it before the 2020 presidential election.

But other evidence suggests that Christian nationalism doesn’t just hope to exclude fraudulent voters. For adults who believe America should be a “Christian nation,” their understanding of who should vote is even closer. For example, we asked Americans if they would support a policy requiring people to take a basic civic education test to vote or a law that would deny some criminal offenders the right to vote for life. These questions relate to Jim Crow’s arbitrary restrictions that white Southerners used before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Once again, Christian nationalism is the primary predictor that Americans would prefer both restrictions.

But why?

Part of the reason is, as Weyrich explained in 1980, electoral influence. Americans who subscribe to Christian nationalism probably assume that those excluded by civic education tests and life deprivation (young Americans and ex-convicts who are disproportionately black) would be political threats. , not allies.

Yet another reason also involves the way white Christian nationalists view voting in general. In the data we collected in August 2021, we asked Americans to indicate whether they thought voting was a right or a privilege. Although constitutional language repeatedly states that voting is a citizens’ right, Americans are still debating the issue. The more Americans embrace Christian nationalism, the more likely they are to view the vote as a privilege (something that can be extended or taken away) rather than a right (something that should not be violated). Indeed, at the extreme extremity of Christian nationalism, the majority hold this view.

Other evidence beyond voter access suggests that Christian nationalism inclines Americans to favor institutional arrangements that preserve their political power. In the same October 2020 poll that we used for the previous study, we found that the more white Americans asserted Christian nationalist ideology, the more likely they were to reject the popular vote as a means of choosing the president, favor the Electoral College and disagree that gerrymandering should be addressed to ensure fairer congressional elections. Why? Almost certainly because these arrangements currently give white, rural, and conservative Americans an electoral advantage even when they are digital minorities. Again, the goal is power, not fairness or democracy.

As scholars of right-wing political movements point out, democracy is gradually eroding under a certain ideological cover, which stokes populist anxiety with threatening tropes on cultural decline and justifies anti-democratic tactics to “save” or “restore” the nation – to make the nation become great again. In the United States, white Christian nationalism is that ideological cover. In the minds of white Americans who believe America should be for “Christians like us”, growing ethnic and religious diversity is a threat that must be overcome for God to “return His grace to you.”

Moreover, Americans who subscribe to Christian nationalism already believed that electoral fraud was rampant before November 2020. Today, in the aftermath of Trump’s “Big Lie” on a stolen election, which is still believed by over 80% of the most fervent supporters of Christian nationalism. , electoral integrity is seen as hopelessly compromised. Thus, they see restricting voters’ access to those who prove worthy, and maintaining the institutional advantages provided by the electoral college and gerrymandering, as necessary strategies to preserve power and prevent what they see. as their own looming persecution under Democratic administration.

The threat of Christian nationalist violence like the one we saw on January 6 is real. Yet, because such threats are so obvious and shocking, and the role of Christian nationalism in them is so blatant, they make it harder to bring them to light (although Republican leaders are certainly trying, just the same.) In contrast, the threat of Christian nationalism as an ideological cover for voter suppression is perhaps more destructive because its influence is more subtle and its effects (electoral results) are more substantial. Demagogues like Trump will no longer need to mobilize Christian nationalist violence after an election defeat once they make sure they never lose in the first place.

Samuel L. Perry is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of two books on Christian nationalism, including the award-winning “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States” (with Andrew L. Whitehead) and the forthcoming “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the threat to American democracy. ”(with Philip Gorski) The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

This article is part of Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.


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