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The election of Donald Trump has escalated interest in Christian nationalism, a view where the U.S. is God’s special, chosen nation that should then work toward the promotion of Christianity. After the 2016 presidential election, analyses have pointed to Christian nationalism as being one of the key attitudes that led to the election of Donald Trump and structure the current cultural divides in America. Perhaps the most prominent academic article argued that Christian nationalism was the best independent predictor of a vote for Donald Trump, highlighting that his commitment to “make American great again” was akin to “make America (white) Christian again” (Whitehead and Perry 2018). A growing number of academic studies have verified this interpretation, documenting the effects of Christian nationalism on a diverse suite of issues. Such claims have reverberated within the popular media, with the New York Times tracking an upcoming “Christian Nationalist Blitz” and others reporting on the concept. Key to the Christian nationalism interpretation is that this worldview operates independent of other politically relevant attitudes and identities.
Using two nationally representative data sets 11 years apart (2007 and 2018), supplemented with several waves of data from Protestant clergy, we demonstrate that this central premise is erroneous. Our findings clearly show that while the distribution of a Christian nationalism worldview is somewhat independent of partisanship, its effects on public policy attitudes are, and have been, deeply intertwined with partisanship. Put simply, Republicans and Christian nationalists are indistinguishable in their policy position taking. Democrats and Independents are more conservative when they express more Christian nationalism, though there are relatively few of them.
Such an analysis fits better with the historiography on the rise of the Christian Right in the middle of the twentieth century (see Kruse 2015), as well as its ascendance to prominence with the presidency of Ronald Reagan who frequently utilized Christian nationalist rhetoric, as well as the politicians who followed him. Evaluating vote choice, opposition to gun control, and other policy issues, we demonstrate that the effects of Christian nationalism on public opinion is moderated and perhaps mediated by partisanship. We conclude that the 2016 election was not unique in its highly visible connection between Donald Trump and Christian nationalism. Instead, there have long been Republican roots to Christian nationalist attitudes.