(RNS) – As the nation remembered the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots earlier this month, a deluge of articles highlighted the role of white Christian nationalism and its ongoing threat to democracy. It was absolutely necessary. Yet white Christian nationalism has been linked to an even greater crisis over the past year, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread vaccine reluctance.
Studies show that Americans who espouse Christian nationalist ideology are more likely to refuse vaccinations, despite ample evidence that vaccines are safe and effective.
Why is Christian nationalism linked to both the Capitol riots and vaccine denial?
One reason is that Christian nationalism is powerfully tied to white Americans asserting baseless conspiracies, including QAnon mythos, anti-Semitic tropes, rampant voter fraud, Trump’s “big lie,” and general misinformation about vaccines. Another, no doubt, is that these Americans trust right-wing television, websites and radio for their news.
RELATED: Violence is not the only way Christian nationalism endangers democracy
But something more fundamental is going on — something that makes these Americans vulnerable to conspiracy theories and misinformation. Several data points show that these Americans have a greater tendency towards dogmatism – the tendency to insist that one’s beliefs are true without considering counter-evidence.
In a recent study, my co-authors and I tested how Americans who affirm Christian nationalist ideology performed on a science fact quiz. Americans who scored higher on Christian nationalism did not score lower on science questions about things like lasers, genes, molecules, or viruses. But Christian nationalism was the strongest predictor that they would score lower on questions about religiously contested scientific facts such as the Big Bang or natural selection.
Christian nationalism, in other words, did not necessarily coincide with ignorance. On the contrary, it reflected a powerful dogmatism that rejected all facts inconsistent with the cherished narratives.
In another co-authored study, we tested whether Christian nationalism predicted Americans’ score on a quiz about religion in American political history. Not surprisingly, we found that white Americans who scored higher on the criteria for Christian nationalism also held incorrect opinions about things like whether the Supreme Court had actually banned people from praying in schools (no) or whether the First Amendment allowed Congress to privilege Christianity (no).
But again, the scoring schemes were telling. Not only were white Christian nationalists more likely to choose incorrect answers that emphasized Christianity’s supremacy and victimhood, but they were also less likely to choose “don’t know” answers.
Not only were they wrong; they were confidently wrong – dogmatically wrong.
We observed this dogmatic trend most directly in a February 2021 survey in which psychologist Josh Grubbs and I asked Americans how much they agree with six statements that they could be wrong and would be willing to change their minds in the face of new evidence. .
- I question my own opinions, positions and views as they might be wrong.
- I reconsider my opinions when presented with new evidence.
- I recognize the value of opinions different from my own.
- I accept that my beliefs and attitudes may be wrong.
- In the face of conflicting evidence, I am open to changing my mind.
- I like discovering new information that differs from what I already believe to be true.
Americans who disagreed with these statements would be seen as more dogmatic. We summed the questions to create a scale of 1 to 24, with higher scores indicating greater dogmatism.
Even after controlling for political conservatism, religious commitment, and other social characteristics, we find that Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor that white Americans are more dogmatic. That is, embracing the idea that America has been and should always be distinctly “Christian” is the primary indicator that white Americans do not want to consider the possibility that they could be wrong, that they do not want to change their views even in the face of conflicting evidence (see figure).
Christian nationalism is therefore correlated with dogmatism. But does one cause the other? And if so, who causes what?
Maybe a bit of both. In fact, nationalist sentiment and dogmatic belief are likely influenced by a combination of personality and cultural background that emphasizes holding certain beliefs “by faith”, regardless of evidence. Our current levels of polarization only compound the problem. White Christian nationalism and the intense dogmatism that accompanies it are amplified by in-group and out-group dynamics.
White Christian nationalism has come and gone throughout American history as ruling majorities perceive threats to their cultural and political status. Experimental research claims that white Christians who are exposed to messages about their impending minority status respond with increased Christian nationalism and xenophobia. And perceptions of past, present, and future victimization already dominate white Christian nationalist narratives.
The same seems to be true of dogmatic engagement with disinformation. Engaged supporters are guided by “reasoned reasoning” to seek out and believe factually incorrect information about their political opponents, even when offered financial incentives to gather correct information. Tribal psychology psychic rewards and confirmation bias supersede financial gain.
It is obviously a huge challenge. But we are not helpless. We can all take personal responsibility for mitigating rhetoric, paying for responsible journalism, republishing only accurate information, and reporting fake news.
RELATED: Dissent from traditional plan dominates highest United Methodist court meeting
But beyond that, several studies now confirm that deplatforming bad actors is actually effective. When politicians or provocateurs who repeatedly sow hate and misinformation online are banned from mainstream social media platforms, their reach is not completely eliminated. But it is forced.
A sizable minority of white Americans believe that America has been and should always be for “Christians like us.” Even as their numbers dwindle in the general population, bad actors work to isolate and radicalize these Americans toward political goals. Along with striving to persuade our fellow citizens who are being manipulated, weeding out these bad actors wherever possible should be our top priority.
(Samuel L. Perry is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of two books on Christian nationalism, including the award-winning “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States” ( with Andrew L. Whitehead) and the upcoming “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy”, with Philip Gorski. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.