Recently there has been a lot of talk about Christian nationalism. This discussion may have surged due to the rise of Trump since some have argued that the former president drew support from a rise of Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism has also been tied to problems such as racism, sexism, and authoritarianism. So, it is expected that many individuals would look to Christian nationalism as a source of many social problems.
But do we know what Christian nationalism is? To understand a concept of Christian nationalism we first must break it down to see what this concept means. Let’s take it word by word, then combine them. The concept of “Christian” is fairly simple if we merely assert that a Christian is someone who stated himself or herself as such. There is debate among Christians about who is a real Christian or not and I respect those debates. But as a scholar I prefer to allow Christians to self-identify themselves as such.
The term “nationalism” is trickier. An early treatment of the concept of nationalism envisioned it as primarily a form of politics. As such, nationalism is built on three assertions. First there exists a nation with an explicit character. Second, the interests and values of the nation take priority over other interests and values. Third, the nation must be as independent as possible. Bonikowski and DiMaggio developed these ideas by asserting four dimensions of nationalism that should occur simultaneously. Those dimensions are national identification (feelings of closeness to the nation); criteria of national membership (what makes someone “truly American”); pride in the nation’s heritage and in specific institutions; and national hubris (beliefs entailing often invidious comparison between the United States and other countries).
Nationalism has also been described” as “patriotism’s “invidious evil twin”, defining nationalism as “a perception of national superiority and an orientation toward national dominance” and patriotism as “the affective component of one’s feelings towards one’s country.” It has also been argued that nationalism is primarily a political principle that holds that the political and national should be congruent. Those in the nation share the same culture and recognize other members of the nation. Nationalism reinforces an identity which ties people to loyalty of a nation.
This is not an exhaustive literature review, but we can now see some aspects that help us to understand the characteristics of nationalism. Nationalism is about an identity by which one feels superior to those in other nations. One envisions his/her own specific nation as the best nation. As such there are specific interests for that nation and characteristics attached to it. As it concerns politics, those driven by this affection towards the nation look to politics to support their love of their nation. Those who are seen as enemies of the nation are to be defeated as the interests of the nation are promoted. Individuals are judged as members of the nation. Some members might be seen as traitors but otherwise they are to be held in higher esteem than non-members of the nation.
With this in mind we can now take a theoretical look at a definition of Christian nationalism. The attributes of nationalism based on loyalty to a nation should be replaced with a loyalty towards Christianity. The identity of individuals with Christian nationalism should result in certain characteristics. For example, specific attributes of Christianity should be uplifted and supported by politics or some other means. There should be an identity in which Christianity is seen as superior to other religions and anything that threatens Christianity should be opposed. There should also be an expectation that members of the Christian faith, except if they are seen as traitors, are held in higher esteem than the rest of society.
So, the qualities a person with Christian nationalism should have is 1) a powerful Christian identity, 2) the notion of the unique values offered by Christianity, 3) extreme loyalty towards Christianity, 4) a desire to protect Christianity from threats originating from non-Christians and 5) political efforts to interject Christianity into our society. This leads to a definition of Christian nationalism as having both extreme loyalty to Christianity and attempts to impose certain elements of Christianity into the government.
With this in mind, let us look at the most common instrument used in most articles and books to assess Christian nationalism – the Christian nationalism scale. Here are the questions on it.
1. The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.
2. The federal government should advocate Christian values.
3. The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state (reverse coded)
4. The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.
5. The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.
6. The federal government should allow prayer in public schools
As we look over the scale it first comes to mind that none of the questions deal with one’s identity as a Christian. Only the first two questions even refer to Christianity in any way. They are mostly attitudes about the role of the government but not about an individual’s identity. Perhaps this is why 21 percent of Jewish Americans score high in Christian nationalism. But this speaks to the first qualities I suggest we look for which is having a personal Christian identity. That quality is not captured by the Christian identity scale. We must ask serious questions about the face validity of this measure.
It is plausible to argue that the second question in the Christian nationalism scale does refer to extreme loyalty to Christians since there is advocation of Christian values. This question also assumes that there are unique Christian values that should be advocated by the Federal government. But it is not supported by any of the other questions. None of the other five questions indicate unique loyalty to Christianity or speak to unique Christian values. The closest may be the first question but it is very ambiguous to consider what is meant by “Christian nation.” So while the second question in the scale is good it is not adequately supported by the other questions in the scale for us to have confidence that we are capturing identity/loyalty to Christianity and thus that crucial element within Christian nationalism.
What about the element of imposing Christian values into the government? Here the Christian nationalism scale does a much better job. The idea of protecting Christianity from non-Christian influence may be captured by questions concerning religious displays, the success of the U.S. as God’s plan, and prayer in school which do suggest a desire for Christian influence in government and society, although in theory this also indicates support of general religious influence. Indeed, it can be argued that the scale is more about how much we want general religious influence than about a unique desire for Christian influence.
In short the scale seems okay on measuring Christian involvement in politics, in part to protect themselves, although the scale’s measurements can generally be applied to other religions as well. But it is very weak on assessing how strongly one identifies as a Christian and loyalty to Christianity. It also is not very strong in assessing promotion of unique Christian values. The Christian nationalism scale captures some elements of what Christian nationalism should look like, such as a desire to shape a government for Christian but weak on other elements, such as having loyalty to Christianity. Its assessment of this type of nationalism is incomplete.
To understand why that matters let’s say I wanted to capture loyalty to my alma mater – the University of Texas. So I developed an index based on dislike of Texas A and M and University of Oklahoma. Clearly such an index would correlate with loyalty to the Longhorns since these schools are seen as rivals. An antipathy towards the Sooners and Aggies is likely a core element of identifying as a Longhorn. But although it would capture some elements of Longhorn loyalty it would do so in an incomplete manner since there will be many who do not like those two schools (say those loyal to Baylor or Texas Tech) who also score high on the index but have no loyalty to the Longhorns. The face validity of the index indicates this is a measurement of attitudes towards Aggies and Sooners instead of Longhorns.
Likewise the Christian Nationalism index correlates incompletely with what can be called Christian nationalism – individuals with strong Christian identity/loyalty who seek to use the government to project unique Christian values and protect Christians. It captures the notion that some individuals want to incorporate “Christian” ideals into our government. But it fails to capture elements of a powerful Christian identity. Therefore, individuals without a strong Christian identity or loyalty to Christianity can score high on this scale. Ask the 21 percent of Jews scoring high on this scale if that is true.
The Christian Nationalism scale does measure something. The statistical analytics connected to it certainty show that. But we have to consider what it does assess. Looking at it I would argue it measures the degree to which people think that Christians, although probably other religious individuals as well, should get involved in politics. In other words, how important does a respondent think that Christians should become politically active and have a role in shaping the government. One can see this index measuring whether the political values of Christians are desirable. This would explain why non-Christians can score highly on the Christian nationalism scale. Those individuals may not identify as Christians but they approve of the political goals of conservative Christians.
Someone like Dennis Prager, who is an observant Jew but promotes political conservatism, would likely score high on the Christian Nationalism scale. Yet as a Jew it is difficult to conceptually see him as a Christian nationalist. More accurately he would be a Jewish man who agrees with many of the ideas within political movements created by conservative Christians and thus would like to see those ideas promoted in government. Clearly he is not attempting to set up a “Christian” government but rather his political agreement leads him to support those Christians’ political efforts. The example of Prager illustrates that this scale is not measuring what we would theoretically consider to be Christian nationalism. Rather, it measures the promotion of certain political interests, regardless of whether that person has any loyalty towards Christianity.
If the Christian nationalism scale is correlated with a group of self-identified politically active Christians, then why not use it even though not everyone who scores high on this scale will fit that category? In other words, does it really matter if those who score high in Christian nationalism do so because they have loyalty to Christianity or if they share certain political desires with conservative Christians? The first answer to that question is that it is a matter of accurately describing social reality. There is nothing wrong with talking about a scale of support for certain values that may be tied Christianity. There can be academic value in recognizing such a measure. But we should not presume that individuals supporting those values do so due to their Christian identity by using a Christian nationalism scale that fails to assess whether they have a strong Christian identity.
The second reason why making this distinction is important is the rhetoric often tied to the discussion of Christian nationalism. Nationalism is often used as an ugly word denoting a type of bigotry. Is that not what we often mean when talking about white nationalism? To this end, Christian nationalism produces an image of religious bigotry that resides within conservative Christians. But if loyalty to Christianity is not being adequately measured by the Christian nationalism index, then we are falsely making moral attributions unsupported by the labeling of this scale as Christian Nationalism.
The scale best captures whether individuals envision whether conservative Christians should be politically active and push for their values in political activism. One may have problems with Christians engaging in such activism. I have been critical of Christians engaging in politics to support President Trump and I will not defend all of the political efforts of conservative Christians. If the scale was accurately framed as an assessment of those pushing unwise political policies tied to the desires of certain groups of conservative Christians, such as the seemingly undying loyalty to Trump, then I would find it insightful and useful.
But seen in the light of measuring adherence to the political interest of a special interest group, is the Christian nationalism scale capturing a phenomenon unique to Christians? Just about all special interest groups engage in political activism to promote their social values. African-Americans, Muslims, feminists, sexual minorities, businesspeople, social workers, farmers and just about any other vested interest group do this. With a little work a competent academic can create a scale that measures a respondents’ willingness to support the values in any of these groups and how beneficial it is for them to engage in political activism. One can then name that scale Muslim nationalism, feminist nationalism, businessperson nationalism and so on. But of course that would not be what they are measuring. They are measuring the propensity of individuals to support the political activism of members of that group according to their stated political concerns.
We can see the conceptual difference between calling Christian political activity “nationalism” and calling it Christian political activity. The former is a stigmatized term and the latter is a general expectation we have for special interest groups. The mislabeling of this scale as Christian nationalism is unnecessarily stigmatizing and distracting from real issues of concern. Christian political activism may be tied to some of the negative outcomes linked to the Christian nationalism scale. It is unclear to me whether these outcomes are tied to unique elements within Christianity or whether the activism itself is the problem, regardless of which group is engaging in the activism. There seems to be a lack of a conversation about whether Christian political activism is significantly different than activism from other vested interest groups with methodological tools designed to detect such differences. That is the sort of analysis that can inform us whether Christians produce unique challenges to our political culture or if they are basically doing what everyone else is doing.
Regardless we should strive to correctly label the actions of certain Christian groups and then make more accurate assessments of potential social problems. We need to resist the urge to make Christian nationalism a catchall term for whatever current criticism we have of conservative Christians. The Christian nationalism scale is best at measuring adherence to the ideas promoted by conservative Christians and their political activism. But it is not a solid measure of anything that we would reasonably call nationalism. It would be valuable to develop an accurate Christian nationalism scale but we do not yet have one. Christian nationalism has become a buzzword that is being debated in our culture in this present moment. That is perfectly fine and we should have this debate on how it should be defined in public. But when academics weigh in with a defective scale, then that debate gets distorted. As academics, we should either work to create a more accurate Christian nationalism scale or be extremely careful in what we describe as Christian nationalism.