'Make America Christian Again': How religious nationalism explains the rise of Donald Trump

Christian nationalism has played a central role in the popular rise of Donald Trump and will continue to do so, according to a new report by three US sociologists.

At the time of his election as president, Trump was 'for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States' perceived Christian heritage' says the report, Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election published in the journal Sociology of Religion, by Andrew L Whitehead, Samuel L Perry and Joseph O Baker.

And those who voted for Trump – including famously some 80 per cent of white evangelicals – valued the perceived return to US Christian identity, with the appointment of hard-line Christian social conservatives in key administration positions, ahead of almost anything else, according to the paper.

ReutersDonald Trump enjoys the support of evangelical leaders

'Data from a national probability sample of Americans surveyed soon after the 2016 election shows that greater adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting for Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally,' it says.

The report explains that Christian nationalism is not synonymous with 'civil religion'. It says: 'Civil religion, on the one hand, often refers to America's covenantal relationship with a divine Creator who promises blessings for the nation for fulfilling its responsibility to defend liberty and justice. While vaguely connected to Christianity, appeals to civil religion rarely refer to Jesus Christ or other explicitly Christian symbols. Christian nationalism, however, draws its roots from "Old Testament" parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism. Unlike civil religion, historical and contemporary appeals to Christian nationalism are often quite explicitly evangelical, and consequently, imply the exclusion of other religious faiths or cultures.'

As the website truth-out.org has pointed out, the report examines 'the extent to which Christian nationalist ideology represented a unique and independent influence leading to the Trump Presidency,' and argues that, 'Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America's distinctively Christian heritage and future'.

One of the authors, Whitehead, told the website that Trump is likely to continue drawing on Christian nationalism in the mid-term elections this November.

'It proved helpful to them in the 2016 elections and so there is no reason they should move away from it now,' he said. 'I think that Trump has delivered on some of the promises made to Christian nationalists, especially concerning his pick for the Supreme Court. I don't think we'll see any reduction in the importance of Christian nationalism in upcoming elections.'

Trump continues to enjoy the almost unqualified support of evangelical leaders despite policies and personal behaviour that appears consistently to contradict the Christian approach to politics and to life.

As has often been pointed out, Trump's predecessor Barack Obama would surely have been roundly condemned by the same evangelical leaders were it to have been revealed, for example, that his personal lawyer made a payment to a pornography actress, as it has in Trump's case.

But on the other hand, unlike Obama and certainly unlike Hillary Clinton, Trump has actively courted religious right leaders and has appointed several cabinet members closely aligned with the religious right, including secretary of education Betsy DeVos and the hard-line anti-abortion secretary of health and human services Tom Price, who was forced to resign over his extensive use of taxpayer-funded charter flights. Trump's appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court has especially pleased Christian conservatives.

Make America Christian Again explains that, 'The 2016 election was repeatedly labeled as conservative Christians' "last chance" for citizens to protect America's religious heritage and win back a chance at securing a Christian future. As Trump told conservative Christian television host Pat Robertson, "If we don't win this election, you'll never see another Republican and you'll have a whole different church structure...a whole different Supreme Court structure"'.

The authors argue: 'Christian nationalism operates as a set of beliefs and ideals that seek the national preservation of a supposedly unique Christian identity. Voting for Donald Trump was for many Americans a Christian nationalist response to perceived threats to that identity.'

(Tweeter/Donald Trump)Trump leads administration officials and guests in prayer at the White House on February 1, 2017.

The report concludes: 'Although sexism, anti-black animus, xenophobia, and economic anxieties or dissatisfaction have been proposed as possible reasons for supporting Trump, we find that net of the influence of Christian nationalism, these receive limited support, at least as measured here. Specifically, none of the alternative explanations outside of Islamophobia exhibited significant associations with voting for Trump when Christian nationalism was accounted for... Beyond the 2016 Presidential election, future research should examine Christian nationalism and its relation to various contentious topics animating politics and civil society in the United States, as well as future voting patterns at multiple levels of governance.

'As a flexible and pervasive set of beliefs and ideals, the influence of Christian nationalism will likely prove important across a wide range of contexts. It is especially critical to examine Christian nationalism and its significance in subcultures and social arenas both inside and outside of institutional religions.'