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Friday, March 11, 2022

Christian Nationalism and Political Violence: Victimhood, Racial Identity, Conspiracy, and Support for the Capitol Attacks

Armaly, M.T., Buckley, D.T. & Enders, A.M. 
Polit Behav (2022). 


What explains popular support for political violence in the contemporary United States, particularly the anti-institutional mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol in January 2021? Recent scholarship gives reason to suspect that a constellation of beliefs known as “Christian nationalism” may be associated with support for such violence. We build on this work, arguing that religious ideologies like Christian nationalism should be associated with support for violence, conditional on several individual characteristics that can be inflamed by elite cues. We turn to three such factors long-studied by scholars of political violence: perceived victimhood, reinforcing racial and religious identities, and support for conspiratorial information sources. Each can be exacerbated by elite cues, thus translating individual beliefs in Christian nationalism into support for political violence. We test this approach with original survey data collected in the wake of the Capitol attacks. We find that all the identified factors are positively related to each other and support for the Capitol riot; moreover, the relationship between Christian nationalism and support for political violence is sharply conditioned by white identity, perceived victimhood, and support for the QAnon movement. These results suggest that religion’s role in contemporary right-wing violence is embedded with non-religious factors that deserve further scholarly attention in making sense of support for political violence.

From Discussion and Implications

While this is not a piece of policy analysis, our findings do come with implications for governmental efforts to confront domestic extremism, which have received significant attention in the shadow of January 6. First and foremost, these efforts could repeat mistakes of earlier generations of policy designed to counter violent extremism, which tended to focus on religious ideology or beliefs in isolation. The results we present here suggest that efforts to promote “moderate” Christianity are likely to run into similar obstacles to twenty years of limited results from efforts to promote “moderate” Islam or mobilize government resources to win a “war of ideas” within Islam. Instead, religion’s impact on support for extremist violence is likely to be “interactive” (Mandaville & Nozell, 2017, 1). In this case, for example, the strong conditioning effect of support for the QAnon movement suggests the urgent need for increased data collection on the explicit or implicit ways in which conspiratorial disinformation spreads through religious congregations and institutions. Moreover, as victimhood and white identity can be cued and strategically employed by political elites (Armaly and Enders Forthcoming; Jardina 2019), our results suggest attention to the types of messages from political and religious leaders intended to exacerbate the factors that condition the impact of Christian nationalism.

Our findings, drawn from one sample and an observational research design, also provide ample opportunities for further research. First, we theorize, but do not directly observe or test, that the factors enhancing Christian nationalism’s effect on support for violence are tied to changing top-down mechanisms such as the supply of anti-establishment elite cues. Research has documented the ability of elite cues to stoke victimhood, white identity, and conspiracy beliefs, and Christian nationalism itself could well be manipulable in a similar way. Various experimental approaches could probe the mass-level effects of elite communication strategies. Building on recent experimental research (Buckley, 2020; Margolis, 2018), these designs could test which types of individuals are most responsive to Christian nationalist cues, and further investigate the reinforcing nature of cues that blend religious, racial, and even conspiratorial content. A significant body of recent research on clergy influence (Dujpe and Gilbert 2009), including attitudes related to tolerance (Djupe 2015), suggests that clergy influence may be substantial, but also contingent.