Christian nationalism linked to authoritarian attitudes towards crime in the United States

New research has found a link between Christian nationalism and authoritarian attitudes towards crime.

The study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, provides evidence that the Christian nationalist ideology — rather than religious commitment or traditional values — is associated with the belief that troublemakers should be harshly punished.

“As I was working on my Masters’ Thesis project and trying to narrow down what questions I wanted to answer, I was also witnessing the growing momentum of the Trump presidential campaign. This success among a plethora of candidates whose messages were more in line with traditional Christian values, particularly among evangelical Americans, was surprising to me as someone who was raised in an evangelical home and I wanted to understand what was so appealing about his message to the American people,” explained Joshua Davis of the University of Oklahoma, Norman.

“So, I started reading some work by my graduate mentor, Samuel Perry, who along with Andrew Whitehead looked at Christian nationalism as a predictor of white Americans’ boundary formation and maintenance work. While they had looked at these influences in the family context, no one had applied them to how attitudes towards criminal or delinquent behaviors.”

“In a society that relies so heavily on incarceration and retributive justice practices, I felt it important to ask how this powerful and understudied social force of Christian nationalism has played a role in the rise of mass incarceration over the last half century.”

For his study, Davis analyzed data from the Baylor Religion Survey, which included measurements of Christian nationalist ideology as well as measurements regarding attitudes toward crime and punishment.

He found that people who believed that the federal government should declare the United States a Christian Nation and advocate Christian values were more likely to support the death penalty, approve of harsher punishments for criminals, and believe it was necessary to “crackdown on troublemakers to save our moral standards.”

“I think what this study shows, essentially, is that the overrepresentation of Christianity in the mythos of American history has real and potentially harmful consequences far beyond the realms of patriotism or religiosity,” Davis told PsyPost.

“This study specifically shows, that net of the influence of political ideology, religious belief, race, education, the more fervently individuals express desires to live in a society that explicitly and exclusively favors (white) Christianity, the more supportive they are of punishing deviant behaviors.”

“Furthermore, once Christian nationalism is controlled for, religiosity (measured by frequency of prayer, scripture reading, and church attendance) predicts that people will be more forgiving rather than more punitive,” Davis said. “So it really is the conflation of people’s religious and national identities, not religion per se that predicts these punitive attitudes.”

The study controlled for a number of sociodemographic and political variables. But like all research, it includes some limitations.

“The biggest caveat with this study, as in any cross-sectional research, is that I cannot prove causal order,” Davis explained. “So while we now know that Christian nationalism is strongly associated with punitive attitudes towards crime and deviance, we don’t know if people are punitive because they are Christian nationalists, or if Christian nationalism is appealing to them because they are already punitive.”

“We also don’t know how this association plays out in the daily lives of Americans. Do people who score higher on Christian nationalism participate in corporal punishment more readily than those who score lower? Do they ground their children more often? These are questions that future research would benefit from addressing.”

“It is important as we move forward, particularly within the current political climate, that we understand the role symbolic boundaries play in people’s ideologies,” Davis added.

“Christian nationalism, really, offers symbolic membership to the ‘real America’ in a way that is independent of both Christianity and nationalism. If we are to address issues of mass incarceration, systemic racism, and discrimination faced by “non-traditional” families, we must recognize the role Christian nationalism plays in erecting boundaries between groups and individuals.”

The study was titled: “Enforcing Christian Nationalism: Examining the Link Between Group Identity and Punitive Attitudes in the United States“.