There’s a deeper reality at play
Among observers of the American religious landscape, the narrative of a surge of Christian nationalism has achieved the status of accepted knowledge in recent years. Journalists and academics have identified it as both a major driver of Trump-era politics and an existential threat to democracy. Anyone who performs a quick Google search on the topic might reasonably conclude that Christian nationalism is one of the defining challenges of our age.
Amidst all the furor, an important detail seems to have passed under the radar: Survey data show very little evidence of any rise in Christian nationalism, and in fact point more often toward gradual decline. Surveys are the workhorse of the social sciences and typically provide the empirical foundation for claims made about trends in American religion and politics. The lack of survey-based evidence for a growing Christian nationalism—and the lack of interest in that lack of evidence among researchers—is therefore rather curious. This appears to represent something of a glaring hole in what has become the dominant narrative. Yet the data across multiple sources and measures tell a similar story.
In the graph below I use data from the General Social Survey, Pew Research Center, the Public Religion Research Institute, and a couple of other surveys to show how agreement has changed over time with four statements that reflect Christian nationalist sentiment: (1) “It is important to be Christian to be truly American.” (2) “God has granted America a special role in human history.” (3) “The United States has always been and is currently a Christian nation.” (4) “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
Percent who agree with Christian nationalist statements—1996–2022*
For the first statement we see that the clear peak was in 2004, perhaps reflecting the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which fostered a temporary surge in religious nationalist sentiment. After that, and despite an inexplicable spike in 2015, the trend has been one of overall decline, reaching a low point in the 2020s. Over a shorter time span we see that agreement with Statements 2 and 3 has also declined, while Statement 4 is basically flat. On balance, these trends show very nearly the opposite of a surge in Christian nationalism.
While this is counterintuitive when considered next to the headlines, it is consistent with other evidence. Using more complex survey measures, recent academic treatments similarly note an overall decline in Christian nationalist attitudes (though they hasten to add that such attitudes have not declined in importance). In a partial exception, Paul Djupe and his colleagues find some evidence of an increase from 2017 to 2020 before a return to 2007 levels in 2021—though it is worth noting the measure they use has come under some fire for being difficult to interpret. Taken together, however, there is very little evidence of a recent surge in Christian nationalism, at least not in terms of beliefs professed by the American public.
So what is it that sustains the “rise in Christian nationalism” narrative? I can think of a couple of possibilities. One of them is consistent with common accounts, while the other goes more against the grain.
First, even if Christian nationalism hasn’t grown in the United States, Christian nationalists may have become more combative. If Christian nationalists have gotten more aggressive in their rhetoric and uncompromising in their politics, it would help explain why they have a higher public profile. Although conservative Christian voters showed some resistance to MAGA politics in its infancy, many have since embraced it. At the same time, some on the right with fewer religious attachments have nonetheless taken a liking to pugnacious religious symbolism, as exemplified in the impious 45th president’s Bible-waving in Lafayette Square during the Black Lives Matter protests. As political scientist Ryan Burge has argued, Christian identity has become more cultural and political than religious for many Americans, thus transforming the visible role of Christianity—or, as some would prefer, “Christianity”—in the public square. Thus, while Christian nationalism has not increased quantitatively, it may have undergone a qualitative shift toward more radical expression. Put differently, there may be fewer Christian nationalists than in the past, but those who remain might have gotten louder—and less religious. This shift may not jump out in survey data, but it is very much on display in journalistic accounts of how religious ideas and symbols operate in the Trump-era political right.
But a second factor is in play that has received much less attention, though I suspect it is ultimately more important. What has surged in recent years isn’t Christian nationalism so much as the rejection of religion in the public square. The percentage of Americans reporting no religious affiliation has skyrocketed in the 21st century, from little over 5% in 1990 to nearly 30% in 2021. Most of these people belonged to a religious community at some point. Many did not part on the best of terms and would be happy to see the status of American religion taken down a peg. As David Campbell and collaborators have shown, Americans haven’t just disaffiliated from religion, they have increasingly adopted an actively secular worldview less compatible with the presence of religion in public life. Thus, the prospect of America as a “Christian nation,” once widely accepted or at least considered benign, is seen by a growing proportion as some combination of obsolete and offensive. Such is the conclusion of British sociologist Stephen Bullivant, who writes of Christian nationalism, “Such views are nothing new in American society. Their recent prominence stems, rather, from the fact that they have become increasingly challenged and contested.”
In short, I suspect the hidden driver behind our growing preoccupation with Christian nationalism is that the Overton Window has started to close over it, at least everywhere except on the political right. The real story is one of secularization. In the journalistic and academic circles where concern over Christian nationalism is most acute, this may be hard to recognize for the same reason that fish tend not to recognize water. If we look at what has and hasn’t changed in American religion leading up to the Trump era, however, the empirical evidence doesn’t square with the narrative of a resurgent religious right. The data point much more clearly to religious decline as the defining religious trend of our political moment.
Jesse Smith is professor of sociology at Benedictine College. His research is focused on the intersection of family, religion, and politics in the modern United States.
*Data sources: the General Social Survey (1996, 2004, 2014); the 2019 Chapman Survey of American Fears; the Global Attitudes Survey by Pew Research Center (2016, 2020); the Baylor Religion Survey (2007, 2017); multiple data sources from the Public Religion Research Institute (2010, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020, 2021, 2022)