Study: When Christian Right and nationalism embrace, it’s dangerous

Study: When Christian Right and nationalism embrace, it’s dangerous August 13, 2020

New research published July 26 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSTOR) asserts what many of us already suspected: the wedding of nationalism with right-wing Christianity has produced a toxic union endangering all Americans during the current pandemic.

christian right nationalism covid-19 donald trump
White nationalist post: White supremacy, nationalism and the Christian Right have entertwined in a toxic brew. (Marvin Moose, Flikr, Public Domain)

The data is clear, the researchers assert in their abstract of the study, titled “Culture Wars and COVID‐19 Conduct: Christian Nationalism, Religiosity, and Americans’ Behavior During the Coronavirus Pandemic”:

During the COVID‐19 pandemic, Americans’ behavioral responses were quickly politicized. Those on the left stressed precautionary behaviors, while those on the (religious) right were more likely to disregard recommended precautions. We propose the far right response was driven less by partisanship or religiosity per se, but rather by an ideology that connects disregard for scientific expertise; a conception of Americans as God’s chosen and protected people; distrust for news media; and allegiance to Trump―Christian nationalism.”

This is unsurprising to anyone who has been paying attention. So-called “progressives” and “liberals,” which likely includes most humanists, atheists, agnostics and “nones” (those with no religious affiliation but who may consider themselves somewhat religious or spiritual), tend toward protecting themselves and other Americans by following the advice of objective public-health officials rather than subjective, overtly political politicians. Many right-wing Trump supporters on the other hand — tens of thousands of them are likely maskless and undistanced at the crowded annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as we speak — simply poo-poo the science, the experts, the growing national alarm and the common sense protections unanimously urged by experts during the worsening pandemic.

Still, the great anti-science Trump base continues to parrot the president’s bogus claim that the virus is a “hoax” perpetrated to injure his chances at re-election — despite the more than 5 million cases and 160,000 deaths from the disease so far in just several months.

“It will just disappear,” Trump promised when the coronavirus first emerged, and still promises to his nodding acolytes. Yet, the end of this pestilence is demonstrably not nigh.

“Analyzing panel data collected in the thick of the COVID‐19 crisis, we find Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior like eating in restaurants, visiting family/friends, or gathering with 10+ persons (though not attending church), and was the second strongest predictor that Americans took fewer precautions like wearing a mask or sanitizing/washing one’s hands. Religiosity, in contrast, was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in more frequent precautionary behaviors,” researchers explained in the abstract. “Findings document that Christian nationalism, not religious commitment per se, undergirded the far‐right response to COVID‐19 that disregarded precautionary recommendations, thus potentially worsening the pandemic.”

In their introduction to the study, researchers cited data supporting their conclusions:

“Among the many factors contributing to the comparatively high number of cases and fatalities in the United States throughout the COVID‐19 pandemic was how quickly the pandemic itself became absorbed into partisan culture wars (Newport 2020; Singal 2020). Polls quickly showed that Americans who were more on the political left were more likely to stress the need to protect physically vulnerable (elderly or immune compromised) populations by shutting down social and business activities, sheltering in place, and wearing masks (Igielnik 2020). Those on the political right, in contrast, were more likely to feel the mortal threat of the pandemic was exaggerated by the news media, businesses and social activities should resume as quickly as possible, and that mask‐wearing should either be voluntary or avoided as a useless or even freedom‐encroaching practice (Igielnik 2020; Newport 2020; Pew Research Center 2020).

This is not just a political phenomenon, the researchers pointed out. They explained that polls and rapid-response studies have revealed that “Americans who were more religious or religiously conservative (e.g., evangelicals) were more likely to distrust scientific and media sources over the President (Burge 2020a)” and as a result take fewer precautionary measures concerning the virus. More secular Americans behaved the opposite, behaving more rationally and, thus, cautiously.

“This religious divide may have exacerbated partisan divisions on strategies for overcoming the virus and potentially both heightened the morbidity and mortality threat as well as extending it over time (Hill et al. 2020),” researchers concluded.

The researchers said that while religious factors certainly played a role in “shaping American’s “divergent behavioral responses” to the pandemic,

“[W]e propose that pollsters and studies have utilized imprecise measures that might misattribute patterns to religious affiliations or religiosity per se rather than Americans’ specific political theologies or conceptions of public religion, which we argue are likely far more important. More specifically, we theorize that divergent behavioral responses to the COVID‐19 pandemic were more strongly shaped by a hyper‐partisan and ultra‐conservative ideology that has already been shown to lower Americans’ trust in science and scientific expertise (Baker, Perry, and Whitehead 2020a); promote a view of (conservative Christian) Americans as God’s chosen, divinely protected people (McDaniel, Nooruddin, and Shortle 2011; Whitehead and Perry 2020); bind them to siding with Trump (Baker, Perry, and Whitehead 2020b; Whitehead, Perry, and Baker 2018), and likely reject information put forth by mainstream news media (Thomson, Park, and Kendall 2019)―what we and others term “Christian nationalism.”

An excerpt teaser in Thehumanist.com to an upcoming edition of American Humanist magazine — “Racist Too Long: Measuring White Christianity — an Interview with Robert P. Jones” — discusses this theme in a slightly different way — specifically referencing the conflation of white supremacy with Christian Right nationalism, which many people consider inherent anyway.

The online piece refers to an interview with Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRR) about his new book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. The article notes that election of Donald Trump “brought to the forefront a politicized form of Christianity that combines white evangelicalism, white nationalism, and the prosperity gospel.”

Responding to a question about the title in the interview, Jones responded:

“So, yes, the problem is that American Christianity needs to excise itself from white supremacy—the practices and teachings that reveal a commitment to the idea that white lives are more valuable than Black lives—but that can only happen if Christians do the rigorous work of disentangling which parts of their religion are about being white and which parts are about being Christian. Given our history, this is no small task.”

To summarize: Scientific data reveals that the anti-science, anti-common-sense bias of white-supremacist, Christian Right nationalism is a clear and present danger to America and Americans.

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