Religious demographic change shifts support toward Christian nationalism, study finds

LAWRENCE — The proportion of Christians relative to non-Christians in the United States has been declining for decades. For those identified as “Christian nationalists,” this religious falloff is considered inseparable from the decline of America itself. Simultaneously, the nation is becoming more racially diverse.

While some might assume this implies a correlation between Christian nationalism and racism, a new study indicates the relationship is more complex.

Don Haider-Markel
Don Haider-Markel

“This paper reveals that a big part of what’s driving support for Christian nationalism is in fact this fear and anxiety over religious demographic change and not specifically about racial demographic change,” said Don Haider-Markel, professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “That being said, we still find those with higher racial resentment are more supportive of Christian nationalism.”

His new paper, titled “Fear and Loathing: How Demographic Change Affects Support for Christian Nationalism,” suggests that exposure to religious demographic change shifts support for Christian nationalism and perceptions of discrimination against whites and Christians, but exposure to racial demographic change has limited influence. This effect is mediated by emotion because such religious change increases anxiety and disgust.

It’s published in Public Opinion Quarterly.

Co-written with Brooklyn Walker, who earned her doctorate at KU and now teaches at Hutchinson Community College, the research notes how modern Christianity is increasingly packaged around a political identity.

“I don’t see Christian nationalists as true believers,” Haider-Markel said. “They are just people who are willing to use the language and symbols of Christianity to appeal to a broader public. They aren’t necessarily adhering to or especially concerned with the underlying theology.”

However, he said he was surprised to learn the extent to which non-whites will also adhere to the beliefs of Christian nationalism – even when it seems potentially detrimental to their own community.

“When I first thought about titling this piece, I wanted to title it ‘Christian Nationalism So White,’ Haider-Markel said, before settling on the infamous Hunter S. Thompson reference. 

“But instead we see how support for Christian nationalist beliefs isn’t just occurring amongst whites. It’s also happening amongst Blacks and Hispanics. It suggests that maybe for whites, their Christian identity is very much tied up with their whiteness, and I wouldn’t dispute that. But for racial minorities, their Christianity isn’t specifically tied up with their racial or ethnic identity.”

To explain this apparent incongruity, Haider-Markel found the answer in community perception.

“If I’m an ethnic minority or racial minority, having a strong racial identity doesn’t really help me that much. But having a Christian identity does elevate me. So adhering to Christian nationalist beliefs — and basically believing that my religion should play a bigger role in our government — really helps Black and Hispanic people elevate themselves within this broader social system.”

He notes groups such as the Proud Boys or Boogaloo Boys that took part in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection often call themselves “Western chauvinists.” That’s seen by many as coded language for being white nationalists. But the Proud Boys actually have non-white members. In fact, leader Enrique Tarrio, who was just sentenced to 22 years for seditious conspiracy, is Hispanic.

“So how is it that non-white people can adhere to a group that seems to have white supremacist beliefs?” Haider-Markel said. “It’s for that same kind of reason. Because they’re not explicitly racist, non-whites can affiliate with this group and elevate their own status.”

For the research, he embedded an experiment from an online survey of 1,459 total participants from across the country. Among the survey questions asked: “How do religious and racial change emotionally affect white Christians? How does awareness of demographic change affect Christian nationalism and perceptions of anti-white and anti-Christian discrimination?”

Now in his 27th year at KU, Haider-Markel has done extensive studies in criminal justice, policing, gun rights and LGBTQ rights.

“I hope ‘Fear and Loathing’ helps people understand what’s motivating Christian nationalist beliefs. Because I do see it as a potential threat to a multiracial democracy,” Haider-Markel said. “Presumably, if strong supporters of Christian nationalism had their way, the role that religion might play in our politics and policymaking in the future would be ‘problematic.’”

Fri, 05/03/2024


Jon Niccum

Media Contacts

Jon Niccum

KU News Service