Christian nationalism shapes Americans’ responses to the novel coronavirus outbreak, according to new research that analyzed data from 2,519 individuals.
The study, which can be viewed for free in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, indicates that those who embrace Christian nationalist ideology are more likely to flout measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Samuel Perry (@socofthesacred), an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who co-authored the research along with Andrew L. Whitehead and Joshua B. Grubbs, spoke with PsyPost about the new findings.
Why were you interested in this topic?
Like many Americans, we were disheartened at how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic, and our responses to it as a nation, became politicized. Perhaps this betrays my own naiveté, but I’d always hoped that when confronted with some catastrophic emergency like an asteroid heading toward earth or a literal pandemic, Americans would be able to lay aside differences and rally toward a coordinated response based on expert recommendations.
That didn’t happen, obviously. All over the news we witnessed political leaders and media pundits on the far-right challenge expert recommendations about social distancing, wearing masks, sheltering in place, etc. And polls were also showing that Americans who were more religiously or politically conservative were following their leaders and reporting a lower likelihood of practicing recommended precautions, and in fact, almost flouting the expert recommendations on purpose.
But we thought this went deeper than just Republican-party loyalty or religious commitment per se. Our previous research on Christian nationalism shows us that oftentimes what’s driving these deep cultural divides is an ideology that, among other things, makes loyalty to one’s ethno-religious tribe the ultimate, but in this case also ties together four tendencies that combine to influence Americans’ COVID-related behaviors in the worst ways possible:
- Christian nationalism by definition includes the idea that God has a special place in his heart for America, his New Israel. That implies a sort of cosmic preservation that’s expected by those who espouse Christian nationalist views. And in this mindset, if God allows COVID-19 to infect large numbers of Americans, it’s because of our moral and religious waywardness, not because of our failure to follow social distancing recommendations. So in the minds of Americans who subscribe to Christian nationalism, the solution to COVID-19 is moral (and ethnic) purity, not masks.
- As we’ve shown elsewhere, Christian nationalism is powerfully associated with science skepticism. Americans who score higher on Christian nationalism see science and scientists as an epistemological threat, challenging their moral authority in the public sphere. This would make adults who were higher on Christian nationalism more likely to challenge the recommendations of experts.
- Research has shown that Americans who are more religiously conservative are more likely to feel targeted by the media and distrust most mainstream sources. While we haven’t directly connected Christian nationalism to media distrust in a peer-reviewed study yet, we felt it was pretty clear that if scientists and health experts are conveying their recommendations through mainstream media sources, their advice was more likely to be rejected by Americans who subscribe to Christian nationalist ideology.
- Christian nationalism binds Americans to Trump. He’s the guy who sticks up for the values of “Americans like us,” and so Trump’s resistance to mask-wearing and skepticism toward experts was going to bring Christian nationalist Americans with him.
What should the average person take away from your study?
We used nationally-representative panel data collected during May of 2020, so right in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked a series of questions about how often someone engaged in various activities within the 2 previous weeks. These included precautionary behaviors like washing one’s hands more often than normal, wearing masks, avoiding touching one’s face, and using hand sanitizer more than normal. We also included risky or incautious behaviors like attending gatherings with 10+ people, going to a worship service, shopping for non-essential items, and so on.
We used our standard 6-item Christian nationalism scale that we’ve used in over a dozen previous studies thus far, and we included that in models predicting these behaviors along with controls for sociodemographic, religious, and political characteristics.
As we anticipated, adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in risky or incautious behaviors more often within the 2 previous weeks, and it was the second leading predictor that Americans avoided engaging in precautionary behaviors, like wearing masks or washing hands.
A little more surprising, we found that Americans who are more religious (attend service more often, pray more often, feel religion is more important) seemed to engage in precautionary behaviors more frequently. In fact, once we accounted for Christian nationalist ideology in our models, being more religious was the leading predictor that someone frequently engaged in precautionary behaviors.
This suggests to us that polls are getting it wrong if they show Americans who are “more religious” are behaving incautiously regarding COVID-19. It’s not “religiousness” per se that’s leading Americans to resist expert recommendations to curb the spread of disease. It’s Christian nationalist ideology and all that’s associated with it.
What questions still need to be addressed?
In terms of questions that still need to be addressed, we want to assess with future waves of panel data and other sources what the consequences were of this Christian nationalist ideology on actual COVID-19 outcomes. We’ve demonstrated that Americans who espouse Christian nationalist views were more likely to violate expert recommendations. But did they get infected more? Did COVID-19 blow up in regions with high concentrations of Christian nationalism? Did more people die? These are the questions we need to answer in order to tease out the practical consequences of this ideology.
(Photo credit: Russ Allison Loar)