Will Republicans become a Christian nationalist party? Can they win if they do?
With the 2024 presidential campaign already underway, the nation’s two major political parties are each struggling for a clear identity, one that might allow them to break out of the current cycle of repeated stalemates.
Democrats, whose partisans have moved sharply to the left over the past decade, seem likely to defer their debate until after the election, with President Biden on track to claim the party’s nomination without serious challenge.
On the Republican side, by contrast, the struggles are increasingly out in the open as the party, long defined by a Reagan-era ideology of low taxes, small government and strong defense, tries to figure out what it now stands for.
Many of the party’s wealthy donors favor a libertarian ideology of low taxes and small government. Other GOP activists dream of a multiracial, multi-ethnic, blue-collar party, hoping to peel a larger share of Black and Latino voters away from Democrats.
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But one of the most powerful strands within the party is Christian nationalism, the belief that the U.S. is properly a Christian nation that should be governed by followers of traditional Christian beliefs.
Two big, new studies over the last couple of weeks shed fresh light on those internal debates. One, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for the Associated Press, examined how much confidence each party’s voters have in their leaders. The other, by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute, offers a comprehensive look at Christian nationalism.
A Christian party
Both parties suffer from a lack of leadership, the AP/NORC survey found.
Among Democrats, just 41% cited Biden when asked whom they see as the leader of their party. Asked whom they would like to have as their party leader, only about 1 in 8 named Biden — a low number for a sitting president. But no one else got mentioned by more than 5%.
Republicans were even more split. Just under 1 in 5 named former President Trump as their party’s leader, about 1 in 10 cited House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Nearly 4 in 10 had no answer. Asked who should lead their party, Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis each were named by about 1 in 5 Republicans, reflecting their current positions as early front-runners for the party’s presidential nomination.
Asked if their party’s leaders share their values, about 4 in 10 Democrats said they were very or extremely confident; a slightly smaller group said they only somewhat confident.
Republicans had less confidence: Only about 2 in 10 said they were very or extremely confident that their leaders share their values, while more than half said they were somewhat confident.
The chief reason Republicans show less confidence is that many of the party’s college-educated voters and moderates see a gap between their values and those of the party’s leaders. By contrast, those who identify as “very conservative” were the most likely to express a high level of confidence that their values are in sync with those of the party leadership.
And what values do those conservative voters espouse? For many, Christian nationalism provides their ideological framework.
To determine how many Americans share a Christian nationalist outlook, PRRI, which has done extensive work surveying Americans about their values, began by asking five questions of more than 6,000 Americans.
The queries included whether “the U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation,” and whether “God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society” as well as whether “U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.”
“The questions we picked are pretty clear,” said Robert Jones, the group’s president. “They’re not soft. They’re not easy questions to identify with.”
Almost 70% of Americans answered no to all or most of those statements. About 10% were in very strong agreement — a group that PRRI dubbed Christian nationalism adherents. Another 19% were sympathizers — agreeing with the statements, but not always strongly agreeing.
Among Republicans, the picture was very different: More than half qualified as adherents (21%) or sympathizers (33%).
The strength of Christian nationalist sentiment can be clearly seen in a wide range of issues that Republican elected officials have stressed, including efforts to curtail the rights and visibility of transgender people, but also some less obvious topics, such as immigration.
As the PRRI study found, Christian nationalist beliefs correlate strongly with anti-Muslim, anti-Black, antisemitic and anti-immigrant views.
Among Americans overall, for example, roughly 6 in 10 say that the “growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society.” But among white, Christian nationalist adherents and sympathizers, nearly 7 in 10 disagree. About 8 in 10 of them say that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.”
That doesn’t mean that every voter who opposes drag queen story hours in their local libraries or worries about the number of people crossing the southern border without authorization is a Christian nationalist. But political efforts to accentuate those issues have been pushed by Christian conservative groups and elected officials seeking to court the favor of conservative Christian voters, many of whom do share Christian nationalist beliefs.
Support for Christian nationalism also goes along with at least a rhetorical acceptance of political violence. Four in 10 Christian nationalist adherents agree with the statement that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” About 8 in 10 Americans overall reject that statement.
Christian nationalism has strong appeal to the largest constituency within the GOP — white, evangelical Protestants. Almost two-thirds of them are either adherents or sympathizers of Christian nationalism, the PRRI study found.
“White evangelicals are the core, the most important constituency in the Republican party, so they basically carry the tune,” Peter Wehner, a former aide to President George W. Bush, said at a recent Brookings Institution seminar on the PRRI results. As a group they have “a disproportionate influence” on the party’s policies.
Widespread Christian nationalist sentiment reflects an evangelical base that is “shrinking and feels itself under siege,” Jones said. The idea of Christians as a persecuted group has been a “staple of evangelical theology” as far back as the Civil War, noted Jones. But in recent years, it’s been “given extra fuel” by the fact that “this is the first generation in which white Christians really are declining” as a share of the U.S. population.
White Christians were more than 60% of the U.S. population when President Reagan was in the White House and were still a majority when President Obama won in 2008. But they dropped to 47% by 2014 and 42% now.
So far, all of the candidates to emerge in the GOP presidential primary have made courting evangelical support a top priority. Evangelical voters have been among the strongest backers of Trump since his election in 2016. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is likely to run, shares a strong held evangelical faith. When she announced her campaign on Wednesday, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley opened with an invocation by John Hagee, an evangelical pastor whose support the late Sen. John McCain had to disavow in his 2008 presidential campaign because of statements that McCain called “crazy and unacceptable.”
But even as evangelical voters have gained strength in the GOP, their views have grown increasingly out of step with the rest of the country. Judging by the party’s presidential hopefuls, the GOP wants to be a Christian nationalist party and a majority party at the same time. They may discover, as Scripture says: “No one can serve two masters.”
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