How Christian nationalism is going under the radar in this election

(RNS) — Some far-right Christian lawmakers have proposed that nonreligious Americans are not fit to govern because, without Christ, they are “evil.” Is it possible, given their relative lack of concern about such statements, that nonreligious Americans don’t know what Christian nationalism is?

In fact, it may be expected. As the nonreligious population grows, and as people increasingly choose where they live based on religion and politics, this group has less exposure to conservative Christian politics. While many nonreligious Americans today are aware of the political stakes and players, substantial minorities are socially insulated from religious forces and their effect on political realities as we head toward the 2024 election.

Mobilizing groups into politics can mean introducing terminology that helps people quickly make sense of the political world. Christian nationalism, a worldview seeking and legitimating Christian dominion in the U.S., is the crucial term here. While it may seem obvious that the nonreligious would have interests at stake were Christian nationalists to gain power, it actually comes as a surprise to a number of the nonreligious that they are combatants in a war for America. 

A good example of Christian nationalism at work is the Texas Republican Party. As Texas Tribune reporter Robert Downen put it on X recently, “The [2024] Texas GOP convention was one, long and open call for spiritual warfare.” Speaker after speaker reinforced the theme that “they” — a loosely defined set of tags like liberals, globalists and LGBTQ Americans — “want to take God out of the country, and they want the government to be God.” 

This “they” also certainly includes anyone who isn’t a Christian: “People that aren’t in Christ have wicked, evil hearts,” said one participant, according to the Tribune.

Proposals passed in the Texas GOP convention have required teaching the Bible in public schools and changing election procedures to protect the interests of rural, largely white, conservative Christians. These measures are designed to allow the government to force Christianity on others and to reinforce the privileged position of white Christians in power — a canonical case of Christian nationalism.

With such blatant Christian nationalism on the march, why aren’t more nonreligious Americans concerned?

The simplest answer may be that they don’t know about it. A recent report by Pew Research Center showed that in February 2024 slim majorities of Americans (54%) said they had not read or heard anything about Christian nationalism. Of those who identify as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular,” Pew found that a substantial minority (44%) had not heard of Christian nationalism.

But on examination the answer appears to be more complicated. Many nonreligious left a Christian congregation at some point in their lives to become nonreligious, often as the result of the visible, alienating presence of the Christian right in American politics. Such leavers, in fact, are the main source of growth of the nonreligious since 1995. Surveys show that those who left a Protestant church to become nonreligious were more likely to have heard of Christian nationalism, while estimating evangelicals to be a significantly larger group than the nonreligious. 

In our May 2024 survey of 2,406 nonreligious American adults, which was funded by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, nonreligious respondents consistently reported evangelical Christians as a larger group than the nonreligious by 6 percentage points on average, estimating the nonreligious to be 34% of the U.S. population and evangelicals as nearly 40%. (Both estimates are too high.) 

This overestimation of conservative Christians’ numbers seems to result from living in states with a majority of evangelicals. Having conservative Christian neighbors drives down their sense of their own numbers. So while the nonreligious are the largest “religious” group in the U.S. by at least a few percentage points and have been for a few years, many of them wouldn’t know it. 

The stakes are clearer for this group, but they underestimate their influence.

Another growing group of nonreligious Americans, however, lacks the history and direct exposure to Christian conservatives, and that lack of experience may be equally politically consequential. Plenty of nonreligious Americans were raised nonreligious and remain so. In the General Social Survey, this number has been increasing since data collection began in 1973, when 15% of religious nones indicated they were raised that way. By 2000, that figure had stabilized at about 30%. In our survey, just over a third (37%) indicated that they were raised nonreligious and continue to be.

About 7 percentage points fewer of these never-churched have heard about Christian nationalism than those who have left Christian groups. They are also 15 percentage points less interested in learning about organizations fighting Christian nationalism (compared with those who left a Protestant group).

These nonreligious were also the least likely to realize that their action might be required. Our survey asked participants whether they agreed that “To combat Christian nationalism, the non-religious need to be vigorously involved in politics.” Only half of those raised nonreligious agreed, compared with 68% of those who had left Christianity. Only 43% of those who had not heard of Christian nationalism before our survey agreed that action was necessary, compared with 68% agreement among those who had. 

The nonreligious are growing and diversifying in ways that defy easy assumptions. They no longer are simply “exes” with an extensive knowledge of a religion left behind. Without this context, many nonreligious need to be informed about the threat that radicalized Christian nationalism poses to their fundamental rights and liberties, as well as to the democratic constitutionalism that protects us all.

Paul A. Djupe. (Courtesy photo)

Paul A. Djupe. (Courtesy photo)

Without that education, many Americans may not understand the stakes of the coming elections, nor see the efficacy that the nonreligious have to promote a more inclusive future of the United States. 

(Paul A. Djupe directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University. He is the co-editor of “Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics: Change and Continuity” and is the academic editor of the series “Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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