Andrew Whitehead is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Co-Director of the Association of Religion Data Archives, and an Associate Editor for Oxford’s Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review. His research focuses on Christian nationalism, particularly as it relates to American politics, gender, sexuality, and disability. He has published over three dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and co-authored his first book, Taking America Back for God, with Samuel L. Perry in 2019. His research has been critically acclaimed with academic accolades and featured in outlets such as The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Salon, The Guardian, and CNN.
SK/AS: What is Christian nationalism and how does it differ from white evangelicalism?
AW: White evangelicalism is a religious tradition composed of different institutions and organizations. Christian nationalism is a cultural framework that is prevalent within that religious tradition, but it is also separate from it. About eighty percent of white Evangelicals are at least “friendly” toward Christian nationalism, which means they’re either “accommodators” or “ambassadors”—terms we define in our book. Ambassadors are people who most strongly embrace Christian nationalism, and about half of the ambassadors in America are Evangelicals. When we look at ambassadors in our book, what we find is that while Christian nationalism is prevalent within white evangelicalism, it isn’t all-encompassing. One-fifth of Evangelicals resist or reject Christian nationalism, and these people hold entirely different views on a whole host of important issues than their co-religionists who either accept or strongly embrace Christian nationalism.
Let’s say we are trying to predict peoples’ attitudes toward immigrants. If we compare evangelical Protestants to other religious traditions, we might find that evangelical Protestants are more likely to fear immigrants, want to limit immigrants, or build a wall. But once we include Christian nationalism in our research models and we account for other variables, we find that the difference between evangelical Protestants and other religious groups disappears. What that tells us is that many Evangelicals embrace Christian nationalism and it is really their cultural framework that is explaining those differences. If you’re an Evangelical who resists or rejects Christian nationalism, you’re much more likely to be very open towards immigrants and allow them to enter the country, for example.
SK/AS: How do white Christian nationalists differ from non-white Christian nationalists in their beliefs?
AW: Christian nationalism operates differently between different racial or ethnic groups. What we find pretty consistently right now is that white Christian nationalists, or those that embrace it, are much more likely to view refugees, immigrants, and religious minorities negatively. White Christian nationalists are much more likely to draw tight boundaries around who can be a “real” and “true” American. On the other hand, Black Americans who embrace Christian nationalism tend to be much more open and welcoming toward immigrants, religious minorities, and racial and ethnic minorities. They interpret Christian nationalism differently.
In the context of being a historically marginalized group, Black Americans who embrace Christian nationalism—like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., or, today, Reverend William Barber—are critically examining America as a Christian nation. They say that if we really are a Christian nation, then we should treat people according to the gospels. White Americans who embrace Christian nationalism see it as their duty to define who is a true American. However, there are some issues that different races within Christian nationalism agree on. For example, Black and white Americans who strongly embrace Christian nationalism both view gender roles and sexuality similarly.
AW: Donald Trump, in many ways, is no different than prior Republican presidents who not only highlighted that we’re a Christian nation, but who also promoted a particular strain of Christianity that states that Christians should be privileged in the public sphere. We’ve seen George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan do this. But what’s different about Trump is that he didn’t attempt to signal that he was personally religious. So in that sense, I think he’s the perfect test of the power of Christian nationalism as a cultural framework that has nothing to do with individual piety. Rather, it’s about power and privilege in the public sphere. So when Trump says, “We’re going to defend Christianity,” or “We’re going to defend God,” he is really engaging that Christian nationalist cultural framework—and he leaned into that. Many Americans who supported Trump were feeling attacked or felt “on the outs” as a result of demographic change.
And the idea of a “Christian nation” has been with us since the beginning, so people latched onto Trump, who, throughout his presidency, recognized the power vested in Christian nationalist messaging. Also, Trump isn’t some aberration on the religious right or within the white Christian nationalist segments of America. He’s a natural outcome. He’s a perfect representation of what [those Christian nationalist segments of America] have been working toward for decades.
SK/AS: Has the ratio of “rejectors” to “ambassadors” been affected by the Trump administration’s blatant appeals to Christian nationalism?
AW: We don’t really see any evidence that the size of the different orientations surrounding Christian nationalism has changed. From 2007 to 2017, resistors and rejectors of Christian nationalism grew. It was a significant change, but it wasn’t an overwhelming shift. Ambassadors, people that most strongly embrace Christian nationalism, shrunk by three or four percent. Again, a significant change, but not overwhelming. Then from 2017 through the last couple of years that we’ve gathered data, we don’t really see any shift in the size of these groups. There is quite a bit of stability.
SK/AS: Joe Biden is the second Catholic president in American history. What effect do you expect that will have on the manifestation of mainstream Christian nationalism moving forward?
AW: It will be really fascinating to see that play out. By going to regular mass, President Biden has already probably attended church more [since the inauguration] than Trump did in four years. Biden is personally very religious, but he is not actively seeking to privilege his particular type of Christianity in the public sphere. Therefore, many Americans on the political right who embrace Christian nationalism may not even see him as Christian—certainly not their kind of Christian. So I think they’ll view him similarly to how they would view anybody else on the outside: He’s not indicative of the way this nation should be, and he’s not indicative of their ideas of a “Christian nation.” Generally speaking, there are also a healthy number of white Catholics in the U.S. who embrace Christian nationalism to some extent. It will be fascinating to see how his devout Catholicism layers over how he is or is not accepted by those within the tradition.
SK/AS: Do you expect to find a correlation between President Biden’s Catholicism and how Catholics are perceived by Christian nationalists of other denominations?
AW: If they embrace Christian nationalism, I think white Catholics would be seen as part of the fold. When we look at how Catholic ambassadors view social policies, they look exactly like white Evangelical ambassadors. So in that sense, Christian nationalism really extends across religious boundaries and religious bias. It will be interesting to see how the Biden administration affects that. I would imagine the fact that Biden is Catholic won’t change anybody who already rejected him because of their embrace of Christian nationalism. In that sense, the cultural framework of Christian nationalism is stronger than the Catholic identity, because those who reject or resist Christian nationalism would have seen those white Catholics who embrace Christian nationalism as outsiders even before [the Biden administration.]
SK/AS: Does Christian nationalism affect the way in which people respond to COVID-19 health guidelines?
AW: Christian nationalism is strongly associated with less cautious behaviors, like going out to eat at restaurants or being in larger groups outside of your immediate family. It’s also quite negatively associated with taking precautionary behaviors, like wearing a mask or washing your hands. Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are more likely to be very skeptical of science and scientists. These Americans just have a very different understanding of epistemic authority, which, for them, comes from the Bible—and not from any outside group like science. Also, Donald Trump downplayed the importance of these precautionary behaviors. So Christian nationalists’ allegiance to him, as a trusted authority and source of information, predisposes them to be much less cautious. Consequently, Christian nationalism is strongly and positively associated with wanting to protect the economy and liberty and is negatively associated with wanting to protect the vulnerable.
Christian nationalism is also racialized in the sense that people who embrace Christian nationalism are more likely to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” They’re more likely to say that a minority population suffering from COVID-19 at higher rates is their own issue and that we shouldn’t worry about it. So, again, there’s a racialized component to the Christian nationalism framework.
SK/AS: Jeep aired a commercial at the Super Bowl that heavily invoked Christian symbolism intermingled with calls for national unity. As we move away from the Trump administration, do you suspect that we will see more or less messaging like what we saw in Jeep’s ad?
AW: I am pretty confident that religion and spirituality won’t be a part of the messaging we’ll see going forward, especially from the Biden administration, because it’s not what we saw at the inauguration. Religion was mentioned, but Biden was focused on evoking images of unity, rather than, “This is who we are and we’ve got to do it this way.”
There will be a shift when there are calls around this idea of a “Christian nation,” but it will be much more around unity and less around privileging a certain group. I don’t think these calls will be as alienating to many Americans. But we should also recognize core nonreligious Americans, because they feel alienated even by what they’ve seen from Biden, or, obviously, the Bruce Springsteen Jeep ad. So, it can still be alienating for those core non-religious groups whenever the President [or other public figures] talk about the country being connected to God in some way. It will be interesting to follow what comes of that because even the Jeep ad was calling for unity. But for those who are not religious, they’re wondering, “Is it still religion that we have to rally around?” So it will be an interesting shift, and it will certainly be different than the Trump years, we can be assured of that.
SK/AS: What does “religious freedom” mean to the average Christian nationalist?
AW: For Americans who strongly embrace Christian nationalism—whether they serve in government or not—the idea of religious freedom is pretty bounded. Christian nationalist groups have worked to redefine religious freedom to the point that you question who the freedom is for. When you posit to these groups what other, non-Christian groups should be able to do, they tend to be much less interested in religious freedom or equal rights. It’s a very particular understanding of religious freedom, similar in some ways to the Puritan colonies. The colonies wanted to run their societies how they wanted, so they would expel or kill other religious groups, even Protestant groups. [The contemporary Christian nationalist’s understanding of religious freedom] is more like that than the early Christian-Baptist understanding, which was that all people should have an equal right to worship and participate in society. Today there is much less of that.
SK/AS: What is the biggest barrier preventing families with disabled children from attending religious services?
AW: Erik Carter, a professor at Vanderbilt University, has a great book in which he highlights different barriers to religious services. He describes how certain sanctuaries are structured, such as whether they have ramps. He also discusses attitudinal barriers and asks whether people with disabilities are really getting anything out of religious services [because of these barriers]. For instance, my two boys have slight physical disabilities that would not really hold them back if there weren’t ramps or other structural accommodations. The barriers my family faces are much more attitudinal, such as whether there is programming and support for children with my boys’ type of intellectual disabilities. Most congregations have not spent any significant amount of time thinking about disabled people who are a part of their faith community.
SK/AS: What do you say to students outside the fields of sociology or religious studies who want to remain cognizant of Christian nationalism’s impact on American society?
AW: Continue to educate yourself about what Christian nationalism is and how it manifests itself because it is, in many ways, anti-democratic. My colleague and I have work that should hopefully be coming out soon where we find that Christian nationalism is significantly associated with believing that voter fraud is widespread and that voter suppression isn’t a big issue. So Christian nationalism is anti-democratic to the core, and it’s completely interested in privileging a certain group to the levers of power in society.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.