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What the latest data tells us about Christian nationalism

New numbers show that a majority of Americans support the separation of church and state — but a sizable minority believe the two institutions should be integrated

In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, a man holds a Bible as Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol in Washington.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

As a House committee investigates the Jan. 6 riot — an event caused, in part, by participants’ religious beliefs — it’s becoming more urgent to understand Americans’ feelings about the government’s relationship with religion.

Although images from Jan. 6 might suggest that many citizens want the United States to be an overtly Christian nation, new data shows most Americans still support the separation of church and state.

Pew Research Center’s survey of over 12,000 adult respondents, conducted in the first week of March 2021, did not ask participants directly about Christian nationalism but, instead, about attitudes that would be indicative of Christian nationalist beliefs.

Although “we don’t use that phrase in our report,” said Gregory Smith, the center’s associate director of research, “we wanted to get a reading on some of the questions that are at the heart of what other researchers have called ‘Christian nationalism.’”

Pew found that 54% of Americans believe the federal government should enforce separation of church and state — as compared with just 19% who believe the federal government should stop doing so.

Other questions about the Constitution and America’s relationship with Christianity revealed even higher levels of support for church-state separation. For example, nearly 7 in 10 U.S. adults said the federal government should never declare an official religion for the country. Just 15% said the government should declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation.

Another cornerstone of Christian nationalism is the belief that the Constitution is a divinely inspired document. Pew’s survey showed that only 18% of Americans believe it “reflects God’s vision for America.” Fully two-thirds of U.S. adults said the Constitution was written by humans and reflects their vision rather than God’s.

Overall, few Americans support the full integration of church and state. However, Smith noted that about 1 in 5 Americans expressed “mixed views” on different measures of church and state. “They don’t come down clearly on one side or another,” he said.

Furthermore, even those who were categorized as moderately supportive of church-state separation had some of the same political attitudes as those who want church-state integration — so the seemingly minority support for Christian nationalism could be deceptive.

One of the biggest surprises in the survey came from the data on white evangelical Christians. Although this faith group is commonly associated with Christian nationalism and did show the highest levels of support for church-state integration, Pew found most white evangelicals believe the government should be secular. Just one-third of members of this group want officials to “stop enforcing separation of church and state” (34%) or declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation (35%).

Highly religious Christians held these views at similar, though slightly lower, rates, Pew found.

“Even among those groups it was the exception rather than the norm,” Smith said.

This is the first year that Pew has asked these particular questions so there are no data points to compare the responses to yet. In other words, this year’s research establishes a baseline. In future years — if the survey is repeated — researchers and the public can start to gain an understanding as to whether support for Christian nationalist sentiments are rising, waning or holding steady.

Andrew Whitehead, an expert on Christian nationalism and, along with Samuel Perry, a co-author of the book “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” helped Pew’s researchers in the early stages of developing the survey.

Whitehead explained that, although Pew’s survey measured similar attitudes to those examined by other researchers, the questions were phrased differently.

This is important to note, Whitehead added, because it proves that, “even when you measure Christian nationalism or views towards church and state really differently ... there’s still a clear connection between views of church-state issues and other social and political topics.”

As Whitehead noted, Pew’s study shows that Christian nationalist beliefs are just one part of a holistic worldview or “cultural framework” that also includes beliefs about immigration, race and even former President Donald Trump.

“How people view church-state interaction is still really important and predictive of how they see the world,” said Whitehead.

He and other Christian nationalism experts were unsurprised to see that Pew’s data revealed a partisan divide.

Pew found that those “who favor church-state integration are mostly Republicans and Republican leaners, think Trump was a ‘good or ‘great’ president, say the growing numbers of immigrants in the U.S. threaten traditional American values and feel that society would be better off if more people prioritized getting married and having children,” researchers reported.

This same group is more likely “to say that it is ‘no more difficult’ to be Black than white in American society,” than those who lean left and support separation of church and state, Pew noted.

It stands to reason, then, that those who support church-state separation “are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, think Donald Trump was a ‘poor’ or ‘terrible’ president, say immigrants strengthen American society, and reject the notion that society is better off if people prioritize getting married and having children,” Pew noted. More than half of church-state separationists say that it is “a lot” harder to be a Black American than a white American.

The way a number of political views came together depending on whether or not one supported separation of church and state was “even more pronounced among white Americans,” Whitehead noted.

Similarly, the 2021 American Family Survey revealed larger gaps between white Republicans and white Democrats than between white and non-white Americans when it comes to views on race.

“If we can place somebody on this spectrum” of Christian nationalist beliefs “a lot of other stuff starts to fall in line especially if we know they’re white. It’s pretty much assured how you’re going to view immigration, how you’re going to view Trump, how you’re going to view the Black experience in the U.S., how you view the family,” said Whitehead.

And though the number of those who fully embrace church-state integration look really small, it’s important to pay attention to this group, Whitehead said.

“Continuing to measure these things and keep track of them is really important because as we know those church-state integrationists — especially those who are white and older — they vote. They get out, they’re really involved it’s going to continue to matter at least in the voting populace,” he said.