Recently, a few headlines collided in my head concerning Christian nationalism. This is a largely white-evangelical movement that positively thrums with violent rage and narcissistic injury. Its adherents seek nothing less than ruling America as a brutal theocracy, like the Republic of Gilead—in Jesus’ name, of course! Nowadays, this movement rapidly grows in both cultural and political power. Thankfully, though, more than a few obstacles stand in the way of these theocratic zealots.

One of the most powerful of these may well be religious diversity.

(This post went live on Patreon on 3/14/2023. Its live ‘cast lives there too! Both should be public by the time you see this.)

The origin story of Christian nationalism

For decades after World War II, white evangelicals enjoyed a Golden Age. Their machinations drummed up the Red Scare. Once set successfully in motion, that moral panic rewarded them with vast amounts of political power and influence. And in turn, that temporal influence translated into now-unthinkable amounts of cultural power.

So for years, white evangelicals’ prissy, authoritarian rules governed every single form of media from comic books to movies to newspapers. Their dominance coincidentally hushed up any really shocking Christian scandals, as we saw illustrated so vividly in the 2015 movie Spotlight, as well as in the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

But that same dominance also made rejecting white evangelicals’ overtures risky, especially in the Deep South where they proliferated like kudzu vines.

(The Law of Unfair Comparisons strikes again, though: Kudzu has a number of uses and performs an important role in its native biomes. It’s not really fair to malign kudzu in that way just because it’s an invasive pest species in America.)

Part of the ascendance of white evangelicals involved their intentional efforts to deeply and inexorably link their style of Jesus-ing to patriotism and good American citizenship—while smearing dissenters as craven traitors and lawbreakers who posed a danger to every good thing about America. This linkage created a number of talking points that today’s white evangelicals still hold as gospel truth, such as the erroneous notion that the American founding fathers were TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who deliberately set the country up to be “a Christian nation.” Nobody questioned this talking point. At the time, it just seemed so obvious. And nobody pushed back against it, at least not in any real numbers.

At first, white evangelicals didn’t accept their own decline

So for a while, those talking points were simply part of the cultural environment for most Christians, particularly for white evangelicals. White evangelicals tended to clump together as it was, since they considered heathens well beneath them socially and morally. They attended almost-entirely-white churches, socialized with almost-entirely-white people in their own family-type and income brackets, and worked around people who didn’t dare voice any opposition to their overt performances of Christian devotion.

White evangelicals just took it as read that they were America’s reigning class.

When they began to decline in the mid-2000s, very few of them could even believe it was happening. For years, until at least the early 2010s, they denied it. I only figured out what was happening because I haunted pastors’ blogs and Christians’ forums. There, hundreds and even thousands of bewildered and frustrated anecdotal reports began to coalesce into a picture that explained all the data I was receiving. But when I showed evangelical keyboard warriors that picture, every one of them laughed in my face, called me names, and threatened me with torture (and for one worrisome period, demonic rape) in Hell if I didn’t fall back into compliance with their demands.

I think only one Christian leader, some big-name apologist whose name escapes me at the moment, saw it happening too. Last time I looked in on that site though, I saw that its writers were still keeping a running list of bad-news headlines and surveys. Their list is now at least ten years old and counting, and the decline still hasn’t bottomed out. That site was the exception. Everyone else lived in the happy land of denial—for a few years, at least.

How evangelicals’ decline fed the rise of Christian nationalism

Of course, white evangelicals been aware for years that their cultural power had been dwindling. When Barack Obama became President in 2008 and then again in 2012, beating out fundagelical-approved candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney in turn, white evangelicals began to get very restive. Their entire way of life felt like it’d come under fire. So they began to organize against what felt, to them, like an invasion of heathens.

In 2009, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) noted a shocking rise in white nationalist hate groups. Though I remember some evangelicals at the time sneering that these weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at all, all of them espoused evangelical beliefs—often very fervently held, at that!

White evangelicals finally accepted that they were well and truly in decline around 2015, when the Pew Religious Landscape Study came out. They’d been aware for years that their cultural power had been dwindling. But now, they realized that their membership was dwindling alongside it. And with each person leaving their ranks or refusing to join up, they were also losing resources: money, labor, and perhaps most importantly, votes for evangelical leaders’ preferred candidates.

It’d been an unholy union for decades, the marriage of the sleaziest, grabbiest right-wing evangelical leaders and the most pandering, sniveling, and ruthless of Republican politicians. Nixon had sealed that marriage decades earlier with the Southern Strategy, and it seemed indissoluble by the 2010s. By then, Republican politicians counted on white evangelicals’ votes, and they knew exactly what they had to say to get them.

Christian nationalism today

Long gone were the days when white evangelicals stayed out of politics, finding it icky and un-Jesus-y. They had tasted temporal power, and they wanted to keep it by almost any means possible. The hate groups were a bit too far for many white evangelicals, but gung-ho politicization sure wasn’t.

They offered a number of self-serving rationalizations for their growing involvement in conservative politics. They leaped onto Dominionism and the Patriarchy Movement back in the 2000s and early-2010s, but they’ve gotten more sophisticated about their power grabs in recent years. Nowadays, white evangelicals simply try to make their constant grabs for temporal power sound like the most Jesus-y, most loving, and most compassionate thing that a white evangelical could ever do.

They offer up talking points about government itself being Yahweh’s idea, so naturally TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like themselves should control the government of America. After all, America is Israel 2.0, meaning it was given by Yahweh to them in particular because they’re Israelites 2.0. Besides, as America’s Designated Adults, they just know much better how to handle politics than heathens ever could. Without white evangelicals, donchaknow, demons would quickly overrun America and destroy the very fabric of our beloved democracy!

(The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) even claims that they’re “loving [their] neighbor” when they seek to destroy Americans’ human rights and civil liberties in the name of grabbing for temporal power. Holy motivated reasoning, Batman!)

And they still hold dear all those old talking points about America being “a Christian nation.” They just gussy it up differently sometimes.

(For funsies, here’s that “hold dear” link’s earliest iteration from 1998. The suggested links at the bottom are different, but the page’s main essay is identical. White evangelicals are not big fans of change.)

But Christian nationalism is not based on love or compassion or anything most Christians would consider Jesus-y

You’d hardly guess that this newfangled take on Christian nationalism is little more than an extended outcry of resentment, hatred, fear, and entitlement. But it is, and it always has been. It’s always been about control and power, and nothing else.

If white evangelicals hadn’t felt piqued by their growing irrelevance after World War II, they never would have leaped onto the Red Scare.

If white evangelicals hadn’t felt so outraged about a Black man rising to the highest official seat of power in America, something that simply does not happen in white-dominated evangelical churches and denominations, there never would have been a huge surge in hate groups after 2008.

Nor would there have been an insurrection attempt a few years ago. The January 6 breach of the Capitol Building was a howl of outrage from white evangelical throats. When white evangelicals realized that they had finally reached the limits of their current temporal power, at least, some of them got a little spooked. Invading the Capitol represented a bridge too far for many of them, and it’d involved way too many real-world consequences for others. However, all too many still thirsted for political power, and the news stories about those many belligerent, pugnacious white evangelicals startled a lot of outsiders out of complacency.

In short, Americans know who white evangelicals are, now. White evangelicals don’t fool us with all that smarmy, simpering Jesus talk and all that lovey-dovey bullshit they spew (before they haul out their threats of Hell). They are about power. Nothing more.

That is why their decline hasn’t ended already. It’s why it won’t, not for a while. The extinction of “the Biblical worldview,” to borrow the phrase from George Barna from last week, brings only good news for democracy, for Americans, even for just those who like fairness and justice and human rights and all that awesome jazz.

The headlines that lined up for me today about Christian nationalism

I’m telling you all this so you know where I’m coming from when I talk about the headlines that aligned like the stars for me this weekend. They paint a picture just as powerfully as all those forum posts and blog entries did a solid decade ago.

Let’s begin painting now with PRRI’s excellent February 8th post about Christian nationalism. They discovered that about a third of white evangelicals, 29%, qualify as “adherents” of Christian nationalism, meaning they agree completely with five statements about Christian dominance. Another 35% of white evangelicals are “sympathizers,” meaning they agree with some or even most of those statements, but not all five. Meanwhile, 30% qualify as Christian nationalist “skeptics” who generally-but-not-completely disagree with the statements, and only 3% are “rejecters” who disagree with all five.

Meanwhile, unaffiliated people’s numbers won’t surprise many. 1% were adherents, 6% sympathizers, 31% skeptics, and 61% rejecters.

Adherents and sympathizers claim to be weekly+ church attenders. Rejecters and skeptics overwhelmingly report seldom or never attending services. In fact, the less a survey respondent claims to attend church, the more likely they are to be skeptics or rejecters.

The bubbles we build for ourselves

My base worldbuilder for bubbles has always been the iconic post from Slate Star Codex, “I can tolerate anything except the outgroup.” It’s a well-laid-out post about how people tend to live in bubbles of like-minded people. It also touches on the way that our outgroups tend to be the most like our ingroup, just with one small but intolerable difference.

(See also: Horseshoe theory. It theorizes that two outgroups’ extremists have more in common with each other than they do with the moderates of their own ideology.)

So when I ran across this 2022 post from PRRI, it didn’t surprise me overmuch. It discusses the way that Americans, in particular white Americans, tend to maintain friendships with people of their own race. Every race does this, but white people do it most of all: 90% vs 78% for Black people, 63% for Hispanic people, and 65% for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).

Moreover, 67% of white people reported that their friendship groups consisted entirely of people of their own race. By contrast, 46% of Black people, 37% of Hispanic people, and 31% of AAPI people reported that. But notably, diversity in friendship groups has been increasing over the past ten years. And all races have seen their friendship groups become more diverse over that time.

As you might expect, white Republicans (who are overwhelmingly evangelical) report less diversity among their friends than Democrats do. And 54% of Americans aged 18-29 report all-white friendship groups, versus 74% of white Americans over 65 do.

Where white evangelicals land in the survey

Not much here will surprise you. That said, I do love getting some numbers under us.

White evangelicals report all-white friendship groups far more often than people in milder Christian flavors. Also, non-Christians and unaffiliated people are more likely to have very religiously-diverse friendship groups.

White evangelicals’ homogeneity looks downright dramatic in table format:

In addition, only 45% white Americans felt that American culture has improved since the 1950s. White Americans in all-white friendship groups were slightly less likely, at 43%, to think so. And white American Protestants whose friendship groups only include other Protestants were even less likely, at 41% to thinkso.

And yes, white evangelicals were far more likely (68%) than general Americans (43%) to agree with Christian nationalism ideas. If those white evangelicals’ friends were only other white evangelicals, they were even more likely (76%) to agree with those ideas. But if they had a diverse friendship group, they were less likely (60%) to agree.

So we could justifiably assert that Christian nationalists’ outgroup isn’t atheists. It’s other white evangelicals who reject Christian nationalism. Please, keep this idea in mind as we continue.

America’s growing diversity sparks narcissistic rage in Christian nationalists

Remember, in 2008 when Obama got elected, Christian nationalists lost. their. ever-lovin’. SHIT. He was a visible sign of their dominance being whittled away. Every time his image appeared in the media, they were reminded of their losses.

In 2016, by contrast, when their literal golden idol, Donald Trump, won the election, I watched Christian nationalists blow shofar horns to celebrate. They praised Jesus for giving them a King Cyrus reincarnation who would lead them back to dominance over America. To a large extent, Trump did give them a lot more temporal power than they’d had before his election. But they still wanted more.

(Authoritarians always want more. They don’t feel safe unless they have total and complete control over everyone forever. That’s why you can’t negotiate or bargain with them, nor even find common ground. All you can do is push back and never stop pushing back until they are irrelevant. If they say they’re content with whatever territory they still possess after a loss, that they just wanna be left alone to lick their wounds and Jesus the Jesus-Jesus in private, know this: they are lying to put their enemies at ease.)

So when Trump lost in 2020, those same evangelicals lost their shit even more than they had back in 2008. That is the rage we saw boiling over on January 6th, 2021. And I can absolutely see why.

Diversity, both in race and in religion, is destroying their sense of dominance.

Diversity will do that, yes

Let’s go back to the PRRI Christian nationalism survey (relink). Let’s check out Figure 10, which measures views of religious pluralism.

Here, we see that 59% of Christian nationalism adherents strongly agree that America should be made up primarily of Christians. Another 18% somewhat agree with that idea, for a total of 77%. Meanwhile, 98% of “rejecters” wanted to see America be religiously diverse.

For most of those Christian nationalism adherents, their friendship groups are already almost entirely made up of other white people like themselves.

And now, let’s see a 2021 writeup from Baptist News about a recent religious diversity survey from PRRI. (Baptist News is not affiliated with the SBC. They’re way more moderate. Baptist Press is the official SBC site.)

Their writeup is fascinating. They present ten maps of the United States that are color-coded to various kinds of religious diversity. Taking the maps together, we get a picture of white evangelicals being clustered in the Deep South and southeastern US. As you might expect, religiously unaffiliated people tend to cluster around the West Coast. The West Coast also contains the most religiously-diverse counties in the country, while the Deep South is the least diverse.

Let’s put it all together to get a snapshot of Christian nationalism

When I consider what we’ve covered here today, I get this impression of white evangelicals feeling more and more pinched, constrained, and shrunken by the year.

White evangelicals are still aging in place. They increasingly feel hard-done-by. They see their cultural power fading away. Younger people keep leaving churches and refusing to join up, which means their elders must do more with fewer resources every year. With their decline continuing without respite, they get more and more grumpy and pessimistic. They feel that America is getting worse every year. Their friends, who are almost entirely all white evangelicals as well, agree wholeheartedly.

They want their glory days back: If not those heady days between 1990 and 2006, then by golly the revival-fueled 1950s, when they held terrified politicians by the short hairs and controlled every second of media that all Americans could consume. If 2006 feels like a wet dream, you can imagine what 1955 feels like.

They want their country back. And I do mean “their.” They consider it their rightful property—which is being stolen away by people they view as decidedly inferior in every single way.

Even younger white evangelicals can’t get on board with this narcissistic rage, this hunger for ultimate control. Their friends are more diverse, so they get a more even-handed view of matters. Even if they aren’t moving around the country a lot more than their elders ever did for schooling and jobs, even if they tend to land in evangelical-controlled areas, they can resist Christian nationalist groupthink.

Their resistance would only make those older white evangelicals more enraged—and more determined to win at all costs.

The upshot: Christian nationalism is a logical outgrowth of hatred for diversity

Without powers of coercion, white evangelicals simply can’t make their tribe the literal only game in town. And if it is not the only game in town, then potential recruits can reject their evangelists’ overtures. And if recruits reject those overtures and refuse to join, then the sheer numbers of theocratic zealots shrinks, along with their resources.

Diversity is, without a doubt, a major factor in Christianity’s decline. No wonder it’s turning into their latest favorite dead horse to beat. Just screeching about their misunderstood version of postmodernism didn’t work. Neither did screeching about their misunderstood version of Critical Race Theory (CRT). So now they’ve moved on to screeching about diversity itself. Their favorite talking heads are even blaming the recent failure of Silicon Valley Bank on its leaders’ emphasis on diversity in their workforce!

(For those playing What put this topic into Cas’ head: Yes, that story is how I began today’s roller-coaster ride this weekend. I asked myself where this rabid hate hard-on even came from. And here we are, 3000 words later—as of this paragraph, at least!)

But despite their screeching, diversity continues to be a value for many people, particularly for younger people. Despite the clamoring of Christian nationalists for taking “their” country back, white evangelicals as a group continue to shrink more every year.

Very soon now, their decline in membership is going to have huge repercussions on their political aspirations.

And Christian nationalism itself is a last-gasp grab for temporal power

Remember, cultural power is deffo nice for authoritarians. They do enjoy swanning around and looking down on their imagined inferiors. What is power if it is not flexed, they clearly believe, and if it does not make others suffer?

But authoritarians know very well that temporal power is what matters. In the 1950s, white evangelicals got political power first, then leveraged it into cultural power. They held that power for decades. They held it so well that for many years after my deconversion around 1994, I literally thought I was the only person who had ever fervently believed in TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ and then deconverted. Of course, plenty of others had walked that path, even in those same years. And I bet most of them were sure they were the only ones, too.

Temporal power comes from politics, in America. That is why the Southern Strategy was so insidiously successful: Republicans gave furious, racist white evangelicals political power by pandering to them. In return, white evangelicals gave them successful runs for office.

As a system, it worked grandly for decades. Tit for tat. Scratch each other’s backs. Mutual Admiration Society.

But it is in danger now.

Christian nationalism gets white evangelicals riled up for political action

If white evangelicals can’t pony up enough resources to make Republican politicians want to pander to them, then that’s not gonna happen. Right now, Republican politicians pander to them like their very futures depend on it because white evangelicals still reliably deliver tons of votes to their candidates. But if white evangelicals shrink so far that they can’t reliably deliver those all-essential votes, Republican politicians will cut them loose so fast their li’l heads will spin.

The Southern Strategy isn’t a covenant. It’s a bargain. If the bargain stops being beneficial for one side, it’ll exit the relationship.

(Similarly, around 2013 a lot of folks thought the Tea Party evangelicals would be leaving the Republican Party. But Trump swept in and captured their hearts.)

That’s why I see white evangelicals’ polarization as such an alarming sign. Christian nationalism is nothing less than cult indoctrination. And it’s being pushed so hard nowadays because its proponents see it as a way to reclaim their former dominance over America. It’s not hard to connect the dots to see Christian nationalism as a tool for delivering votes to Republican politicians.

How Christian nationalism works to Republicans’ benefit

In the 1970s, evangelical leaders programmed their flocks to seek the abolishment of abortion care and reproductive rights. Many years later, we learned that they did this because they wanted to get away from the embrace of racism as their core platform. Instead of racism, then, Republican candidates vocally stood against human rights. An opposition to legalized abortion was what white evangelicals were taught to value most in any candidate.

Republican candidates learned to say all the right words in the current indoctrination set, and so the flocks obediently voted for them.

Nowadays, we have a very insulated, insular, bubble-bound community being taught to hate diversity in all its forms, to reject it, to embrace instead all those beloved white evangelical talking points about America being “a Christian nation.” Now we have a sizeable number of white evangelicals who are completely convinced that America should be run according to their wackadoodle misinterpretation of the laws found in the Bible.

This extremism works to Republicans’ benefit. And for this extremism to work, white evangelicals must exist in homogeneous bubbles.

Diversity is our superpower

Diversity destroys white evangelicals’ pouty-faced self-pity. It destroys their crybullying. It even destroys their poor widdle poopypants victim routine. Instead, it grants them empathy for others, along with a sense of fairness and justice. It even grants them a sense of well-informed optimism. Outside of white evangelical bubbles, away from their groupthink, white evangelicals can get a sense of perspective.

That sense of perspective is like sunlight to the critters who live under rocks. And so it must be quashed before it can grow to be too much of a challenge to defeat.

Cue the extremists in white evangelicalism who want to keep their bubbles pristine. These are the worst-of-the-worst cruelty is the goddamned point white evangelicals. These extremists’ numbers seem like they’re only growing. Worse, they are infecting others with this groupthink, and many are using more violent and extremist rhetoric than they ever used to before the decline became recognized.

Yes, the numbers of white evangelicals overall is falling. But the biggest risk for any abuser’s victim is when that victim is almost free at last. That’s the moment abusers pull out their biggest guns, their most nuclear responses. I have no doubt that the same applies to America’s freedom from religious extremists like these white evangelical Christian nationalists.

Sure, they’ll simper and preen and claim it’s all being done cuz they just wuvvvvv heathens and want to be a goooood wiiiiitnesssss to us. But the damage to our rights, our liberties, and our democracy will look the same as if done by people who want total control over our lives because they despise us.

The news ain’t all bad, though. Just think of all the “thoughts and prayers” photo opportunities Republicans can enjoy while their hoodwinked voters wreak all that damage!

NEXT UP: We compare today’s topic with the way that evangelicals get pushed to make friends outside of their bubbles.

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PS: With all this talk of friendship bubbles, I keep thinking of this old meme:

It’s still as true today as it was years ago when I first saw it. <3

Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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