June 07, 2021

The Power of Religion: Christian Nationalism and Trump Support

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos, Sociology Doctoral Student, Rutgers University

Religion has always captivated sociologists. Émile Durkheim, who is often credited with being one of the “founders” of sociology, wrote extensively about religion in his 1912 book Elementary Forms of Religious Life in which he aimed to explain the role of religion in society. Writing from a functionalist perspective, Durkheim posited that religion served an important function.

Religion, he argued, serves the purpose of producing societal cohesion and expressing our “collective consciousness,” or our shared beliefs and ideas as a group. As such, societal participation in religion can have significant impacts on both social and individual life outcomes.

For example, in Durkheim’s famous study of suicide, he concluded that religions that place heightened importance on the collective produce higher social integration – and lower rates of suicide – among their members. On the other hand, religions that allow for more individual freedom and are less reliant on collective practices produce lower levels of social integration, leading to higher risk of suicide among those members.

Along these same lines, more recent research has found that church attendance is associated with various positive outcomes, such as reduced risk of depression and overall physical well-being. Much like Durkheim, a study conducted by Rita Law and David Sbarra (2009: 817) concludes that “going to church on a regular basis is a type of shared spiritual activity, which has the potential of communicating a shared meaning system and promoting a sense of purpose in life.”

This idea that religion produces social cohesion and integration in society can seem a far cry from what is taking place in U.S. society today, where societal divides are flourishing – not least because of religious differences. While religion and religious activity may create strong cohesion within smaller, religious circles, the societal-level gap in religiosity is only widening; a phenomenon referred to by researchers as “religious polarization.” Trends show that religiosity is declining in the U.S. overall, with factions previously identifying as moderately religious instead becoming increasingly secular.

At the same time, religiosity remains strong among groups that are highly committed, resulting in two separate poles of religious commitment (one with lack of commitment, and one with high commitment) with little room for moderate religious commitment in between.

According to a Pew Research Center report from 2019, these trends are particularly true for Christianity, which has seen an overall 12 percentage point decline in affiliation over the past decade. Culturally, this polarization has severe consequences. Since religiosity is strongly correlated with views on various cultural issues (such as abortion and same-sex marriage), this religious divide in turn produces a hotbed of cultural divides.

Nothing has put these cultural divides on display as starkly as Donald Trump’s candidacy for President in 2020 and the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. While one can undoubtedly find Trump supporters among all demographic groups in the U.S., one demographic in particular has become an increasingly significant stronghold for Trump support: white evangelicals.

Within white evangelical circles, high levels of religious commitment and extreme support for Donald Trump have become fused into one, creating a “potent mix of grievance and religious fervor.” Scholars have named this fusing of religious ideology with support for Donald Trump’s far-right politics “Christian nationalism,”  a set of beliefs based in the “Old Testament” that emphasize the apocalypse and the need to maintain cultural and racial/ethnic purity through war. Demonstrating this connection, Trump’s candidacy relied heavily on notions of the U.S. losing its Christian heritage and his campaign sought to restore the U.S. as a Christian nation. Moreover, Christian nationalism has been linked to racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Muslim sentiment, and attitudes opposing gender equality, gay rights, and welfare spending; all issues that the Trump campaign leaned into.

As Durkheim described more than a century ago, this growing societal divide in the U.S. has proven religion to be a powerful force in society. While Durkheim emphasized the communal nature of religion and research has studied the effects of religious attendance, many adherents of Christian nationalism are actually unconnected to churches or religious groups, instead practicing independently on their own.

Given the strong correlation between voting for Trump and subscribing to Christian nationalist ideology, this begs the question of whether belonging to a religious group (i.e. attending church) has some effect on this relationship – particularly since research suggests that churches played a key role in rallying Trump support in 2016.

In a recently published article in Sociological Forum, authors Samuel Stroope, Paul Froese, Heather M. Rackin, and Jack Delehanty investigate this exact question. Examining data from the election in 2016, they find that Christian nationalism is significantly associated with Trump support among only non-churchgoing voters. Surprisingly, this shows that the political power in Christian nationalist ideology is actually strongest when its adherents are detached from traditional religious institutions. As such, the authors argue that the appeal of Christian nationalism is not necessarily based in religious practice and scriptural knowledge, but rather as a form of cultural identity and worldview that individuals use to navigate their daily lives.   

In many ways, these findings about Christian nationalism speak to Durkheim’s contention that religion serves an important role in society by providing individuals with a sense of collective belonging. As churchgoing continues to decline, religiously infused cultural ideologies (such as Christian nationalism) that allow for people to envision a “shared cultural identity” seem to be replacing more traditional forms of religion. And, to be sure, this trend will keep impacting U.S. politics in significant ways.

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