The real story told by this data is completely missed or ignored by the report. Namely, the strong polarity represented in the data. That is, the divide between the adherents and the zealots. Both occupy relatively the same statistical positioning and they are diametrically opposed to one another in their vision for the American way of life. Each considers the other a political threat and, on this point, they are right.
Neighborly Faith has published a new study on Christian nationalism. It began making the rounds this past week. The report is branded as a “new approach,” an improved measurement. You can read the whole thing for yourself, so an exhaustive breakdown is uncalled for. There are some things worth discussing, however. Most commentary on the report has fixated on the fact that, as the Washington Times put it, “Christian nationalists may not be the demons that some claim.” Whilst that’s obviously true and there are commendable elements to the report, we shouldn’t be so easily impressed. There are deeper problems with the report’s approach, and, in the end, it misses the real narrative of the data completely—and these things are always telling a story.
Groupings in the report are as follows: Christian nationalist adherents and sympathizers, Christian spectators, pluralistic believers, and zealous separationists. Of course, there is an undecided category as well. The percentage breakdown is a fairly even split, 11%, 19%, 18%, 19%, 17%, and 16%, respectively.
Everything in the survey is geared toward openness, tolerance, multiculturalism, and democracy. None of these things are defined but rather assumed as normal. This conforms to the culture, we might say, and mission of Neighborly Faith which, per their website, is dedicated to interfaith dialogue in a pluralist society, the latter being the assumed baseline—that is, an assumed good.
The tenor of the report reveals the apparent audience, the concerned observer. At many points, this posture makes it hard to take the report seriously. Imagery of January 6 MAGA enthusiasts and the like fill the graphics of the document. We will return to this point of partisanship shortly, but note, for instance, that the first topic addressed after outlining the percentage breakdown is the “threat” of Christian nationalism. The first line in that explanation points out that adherents and sympathizers “generally lack the aforementioned commitments so essential to a pluralistic society.” (p. 5). And, “Naturally, CN threatens institutions, legislation, and cultural norms that protect or promote pluralism in its many forms—such as religious diversity, multiculturalism, etc.” Not exactly dispassionate, is it? That does not invalidate the data presented but it is worth noticing.
The report’s executive summary tells us that only 30% of respondents are either adherents or sympathizers to Christian nationalism. The smallest population is that of adherents. Only 11% are true believers and only 5% self-identify as Christian nationalists. The import of these stats, given the reports intended audience, is to assure everyone that Christian nationalism, as (very roughly) defined by the report is probably not a big threat, even though it contains definite threats to democracy et al.
And yet, the survey has some “surprising findings” which amount to the unexpected fact that Christian nationalists are not rabid racists and are willing to work across socio-political and religious lines for the good of society (p. 5).
We must also note the problematic and confusing style of the questions presented in the survey to the some 2000 participants. As with any survey data, there are obvious limitations inherent in any questions included. That goes with the territory and shouldn’t be overly criticized. In this case, however, the report is frustrating for its perpetuation of bad question forms.
For instance, all Christian nationalist surveys to date fixate on the activity of federal government, e.g., “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.” Participants were asked to answer on the typic “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” scale. I’ve self-professedly embraced the Christian nationalist label, but I could easily disagree with the proposition. I would not disagree in principle. The idea of this federal declaration is desirable. But my answer, given our federalist polity, would be that the proper place for such declaration is the state level. In those jurisdictions I would also be pro-establishment of religion. Again, its not that I would disagree in principle, but what if someone did disagree for these reasons? They would then not fit the Christian nationalist bill per the report, at least in this regard. All that to say, surveys usually lack nuance and are therefore of limited utility.
Similarly, the proposition that the “federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.” A non-Christian nationalist adherent could easily answer in the negative purely on the basis of constitutional theory. Similarly, asking whether prayer should be allowed in public schools—the survey scale doesn’t specify whether Christian or non-sectarian—or whether religious symbols should be allowed in public spaces gets you almost nowhere.