A constellation of beliefs known as Christian nationalism is linked to support for political violence in the United States, according to new research published in the scientific journal Political Behavior. The findings shed new light on individual characteristics and attitudes linked to the 2021 Capitol attacks.
“The January 6, 2021 riot/insurrection was obviously an interesting event worthy of study, so part of the motivation was simply to understand this momentous event in American history,” said Miles T. Armaly, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi who co-authored the research with David T. Buckley and Adam M. Enders of the University of Louisville.
“Many signs pointed to Christianity playing a role in 1/6 (e.g., rallies and signs with religious themes, prayers among those who breached the Capitol, etc.), but existing evidence suggests that mere Christianity or even Evangelicalism was likely an incomplete — if not inaccurate — explanation for the support for violence (both generally speaking and on 1/6, specifically).”
“Rather, an ideology that blends Christian supremacy with American identity — Christian nationalism — was more likely at the heart of violence and support thereof,” Armaly explained. “So, we were interested in studying this topic to better understand why individuals support violence, as well as to flesh out the contours of Christian nationalism: What sorts of psychological characteristics, when combined with Christian nationalism, create a toxic blend that leads to support for violence?”
The researchers commissioned a survey of 1,100 U.S. adults in February 2021, which assessed perceived victimhood, white identity, support for the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol building, support for political violence, support for Christian nationalism, and support for the QAnon movement. The survey also collected demographic information, such as political ideology, religious affiliation, income, education, age, and other variables.
The researchers found that support for Christian nationalism was positively associated with increased support for political violence. In other words, those who agreed with statements such as “the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation” were more likely to agree with statements such as “Violence is sometimes an acceptable way for Americans to express their disagreement with the government” and “The riots at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6th were justified.”
But the link between Christian nationalism and political violence appeared to be conditioned by white identity, perceived victimhood, and support for the QAnon movement. Christian nationalism was linked to political violence primarily among those who strongly supported QAnon and agreed with statements such as “it is important that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites” and “the world is out to get me.”
“Most individuals do not support violence,” Armaly told PsyPost. “Nor do most Christians, regardless of specific denomination. Rather, those who adhere most strongly to a very specific variant of Christian supremacy are the most likely to support violence. But other characteristics — like perceived victimhood, strong white identity, and conspiratorial thinking — can exacerbate the link between Christian nationalism and support for violence.”
“So, the average person does not support violence. But this is not to minimize the seriousness of support for violence. 17.7% of white weekly churchgoers fall into the joint top quartile of justification for violence, Christian nationalism, perceived victimhood, white identity, and support for the QAnon movement (our measure of conspiracism). This represents millions of people. In other words, even though the vast majority of Americans do not support political violence, enough do to warrant attention.”
One thing that remains unclear, however, is the role of political leadership. Armaly noted that victimhood, racial identity, and conspiracism have all “been shown in past research to be susceptible to elite manipulation. In other words, political leaders can stoke feelings of victimhood, white identity, and the like. Thus, political leaders can likely play a role in fanning the flames of political violence.”
“What remains to be seen is if support for violence will manifest as violence organically, or in the absence of elite cueing of the characteristics that combine with Christian nationalism,” Armaly said. “Further, the changing nature of elite cues means that other characteristics may ultimately condition the role of Christian nationalism on support for violence in the future (for instance, if elite cues grow to be less anti-establishment). Finally, there are many lingering questions about clergy influence on Christian nationalism and support for violence.”
The study, “Christian Nationalism and Political Violence: Victimhood, Racial Identity, Conspiracy, and Support for the Capitol Attacks“, was published January 4, 2022.