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Saturday, April 23, 2022

Historical Fundamentalism? Christian Nationalism and Ignorance About Religion in American Political History

S. L. Perry, R. Braunstein, et al.
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 
(2022) 61(1):21–40


Religious right leaders often promulgate views of Christianity's historical preeminence, privilege, and persecution in the United States that are factually incorrect, suggesting credulity, ignorance, or perhaps, a form of ideologically motivated ignorance on the part of their audience. This study examines whether Christian nationalism predicts explicit misconceptions regarding religion in American political history and explores theories about the connection. Analyzing nationally representative panel data containing true/false statements about religion's place in America's founding documents, policies, and court decisions, Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor that Americans fail to affirm factually correct answers. This association is stronger among whites compared to black Americans and religiosity actually predicts selecting factually correct answers once we account for Christian nationalism. Analyses of “do not know” response patterns find more confident correct answers from Americans who reject Christian nationalism and more confident incorrect answers from Americans who embrace Christian nationalism. We theorize that, much like conservative Christians have been shown to incorrectly answer science questions that are “religiously contested,” Christian nationalism inclines Americans to affirm factually incorrect views about religion in American political history, likely through their exposure to certain disseminators of such misinformation, but also through their allegiance to a particular political-cultural narrative they wish to privilege.

From the Discussion and Conclusions

Our findings extend our understanding of contemporary culture war conflicts in the United States in several key ways. Our finding that Christian nationalist ideology is not only associated with different political or social values (Hunter 1992; Smith 2000), but belief in explicitly wrong historical claims goes beyond issues of subjective interpretation or mere differences of opinion to underscore the reality that Americans are divided by different information. Large groups of Americans hold incompatible beliefs about issues of fact, with those who ardently reject Christian nationalism more likely to confidently and correctly affirm factual claims and Christian nationalists more likely to confidently and incorrectly affirm misinformation. To be sure, we are unable to disentangle directionality here, which in all likelihood operates both ways. Christian nationalist ideology is made plausible by false or exaggerated claims about the evangelical character of the nation’s founders and founding documents. Yet Christian nationalism, as an ideology, may also foster a form of motivated ignorance or credulity toward a variety of factually incorrect statements, among them being the preeminence and growing persecution of Christianity in the UnitedStates.

Closely related to this last point, our findings extend recent research by further underscoring the powerful influence of Christian nationalism as the ideological source of credulity supporting and spreading far-right misinformation.