What the gun control debate reveals about the unrelenting power of Christian nationalism
In Pennsylvania, a woman clutches an AR-15 during a church ceremony where dozens of people brought guns and crowns. Jacqueline Larma/AP

On Wednesday, in the rural Pennsylvania town of Newfoundland, hundreds of Christians packed into the pews of a controversial church called Unification Sanctuary, paired up with significant others to declare undying love before the Lord. Dozens clutched AR-15s, holding their rifles tight to their chest, some wearing crowns of bullets.

In the wake of the deadly shooting that killed 17 in Parkland, Florida, the Reverend Sean Moon prayed at the front of the crowd for “a kingdom of peace police and peace militia where the citizens, through the right given to them by almighty God to keep and bear arms, will be able to protect one another and protect human flourishing.”

Worshippers at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, hold AR-15 rifles.
Worshippers at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, hold AR-15 rifles. Jacqueline Larma/AP

According to CBS News, one church director, Tim Elder, compared the weapons to the “rod of iron” from the Book of Revelations, the final book of the Bible that many fundamentalists believe describes the apocalypse. A nearby elementary school cancelled classes for the day due to safety concerns.

Since the Parkland shooting, Republicans and gun advocates have made a holy crusade out of defending the Second Amendment. National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre spoke to a major conservative convention, saying that the right to gun ownership “is not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.” Former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz told Fox News that that shooting survivors “need a belief in God and Jesus Christ.” And this week, the Alabama Senate approved a bill that would allow for a popular referendum on displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools. The state senator who sponsored the bill said it could stop school shooters in their tracks.

During the Bush Administration, the liberal collective imagination ran wild with visions of a evangelical takeover of the country. As the New York Times declared megachurches the new soul of the American exurb, it seemed like a Christian nationalist theocracy would soon subvert our democracy. But since Trump’s election, the progressive vision of apocalypse has shifted. Instead of a religious revolt, the right wing threat in modern media is better represented by white nationalists with tiki-torches and online hate mobs. But that religious vanguard that led the conservative culture wars of the Bush years never dissipated. Forthcoming research shows that Christian nationalism is just as powerful a movement as it was a decade ago, if not more salient. In fact, Christian nationalism could be one of the most overlooked factors animating conservative politics today, from gun control to tax reform.

President George W. Bush was highly regarded during his tenure as motivated by Christian beliefs in his leadership. President Trump was elected with a higher margin of support by white evangelicals.
President George W. Bush was highly regarded during his tenure as motivated by Christian beliefs in his leadership. President Trump was elected with a higher margin of support by white evangelicals. KEVIN FRAYER/Getty Images

In a paper, soon to be published in Sociology of Religion, Andrew Whitehead of Clemson University and his fellow researchers tested support for President Trump among Christian nationalists. Controlling for factors like income, rurality, political ideology, religious affiliation, religious service attendance, biblical literalism, they found that Christian nationalism predicts support for Trump more highly than almost any other cultural factor aside from Islamophobia — more highly than sexism, anti-black prejudice, xenophobia and economic dissatisfaction.

For the wonk and progressives who comb over the 2016 elections numbers, the debate over Trump’s success is typically about whether it was economic factors that led Trump to victory, or xenophobia and racist appeals. Regardless of either, about 80% of white evangelicals voted for President Trump in the 2016 election, a higher share of the Evangelical vote than even Bush was able to capture.

But measuring Christian nationalism isn’t synonymous with Christianity, or even the rate of church attendance or regular prayer practices. Instead, Whitehead and his fellow researchers created an index for Christian nationalism based on support for positions like “the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,” and “success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”

“Christian nationalism, while it’s strongly associated with common measures of religiosity, or political views, it isn’t reducible to those things,” Whitehead said. “What we’re finding that it operates as a separate, distinctly important constellations of beliefs. It’s a malleable set of symbols, that people both within and outside of religious traditions to how they see the world, the right to bear arms, who they should vote for.”

This graph, provided to ‘Mic,’ shows a strong correlation with opposition to federal gun control with support for Christian nationalist ideology.
This graph, provided to ‘Mic,’ shows a strong correlation with opposition to federal gun control with support for Christian nationalist ideology. Andrew Whitehead, Clemson University

Whitehead said that while Christian nationalism hasn’t expanded since the Bush years, there’s no significant decline in the movement either. If anything, he said, Christian nationalists could be more salient and united in their politics than 10 years ago.

For those unfamiliar with Roy Moore before the recent gubernatorial election, it could be mystifying that so many heartland conservatives would mount a fervent defense of someone accused of child molestation. But Moore spent decades cultivating a reputation as a defender of the right to display the Ten Commandments in courtrooms and schoolhouses, once calling religious freedoms the “the civil rights issue of our time.”

Trump, in his vulgarity, bullying and self-described history of sexual assault, doesn’t seem like a match for an Evangelical movement either. But both critics and supporters admit that the Christian right have an ally in Trump whether or not he lines up aesthetically. For Christian nationalists, a president interested in rolling back abortion rights and moving our Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, Trump is a useful ally.

“They’ve seen a culture deteriorate quickly in the past decade, and they’re looking for a bold culture warrior to fight for them.” David Brody, Christian journalist and author of The Faith of Donald J. Trump, wrote for the New York Times on Sunday. “Showing that God does indeed have a sense of humor, He gave them Mr. Trump. Yet in God’s perfection, it’s a match made in heaven. Mr. Trump and evangelicals share a disdain for political correctness, a world seen through absolutes and a desire to see an America that embraces Judeo-Christian values again rather than rejecting them.”

Roy Moore’s reputation on the national stage was largely defined by his early support of the right to display religious symbols in public space.
Roy Moore’s reputation on the national stage was largely defined by his early support of the right to display religious symbols in public space. GREGORY SMITH/AP

Whitehead is already working on upcoming research on Christian nationalist opposition to gun control, but was able to share some early statistics with Mic. Analyzing data from 2007, Whitehead found that Christian nationalism “is significantly and negatively associated with supporting gun control measures.” In other words, Christians who specifically believe in a federal government’s destiny as a Christian nation are likely to oppose gun control legislation.

Of course, there are the biblical explanations, the handful of small passages that can be cobbled together to justify a waiting militia of well-armed Christians. There’s Exodus 22:2, a law forgiving murder against a thief that comes in the night, often used to justify the stand-your-ground laws that allow fatal self-defense in 23 states. Then there’s Luke’s account of the Last Supper, where Jesus instructs his disciples to sell their clothes and buy swords for self-defense in the coming days.

But the facially religious justifications don’t fully explain how Christian nationalism remains so powerful. After all, religious participation doesn’t, as Whitehead and fellow researchers found, fully explain nationalist beliefs. Christian nationalism is like any nationalist story, whether based on race or culture, about the identity of the United States and its destiny in world affairs. It is quiet now, but to lose sight of it now is to ignore one of the central animating forces in conservative politics.

Jack Smith IV
Senior writer, correspondent