People who support Christian nationalism in the United States tend to perform worse on a test of religion’s role in American history, according to new research published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
“There’s been a fairly large amount of research on conservative Christians (particularly those influenced by the Christian Right, like white evangelicals) and their views of science or their knowledge about basic scientific facts,” said Samuel L. Perry (@socofthesacred), an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma and the corresponding author of the study.
“Research has consistently shown that conservative Christians tend to score lower on, say, brief science quizzes than other Americans. However, research also shows this isn’t necessarily because they’re less intelligent or even ignorant about what the ‘right’ answer is. Rather their response patterns suggest that they are answering particular scientific questions according to their theology.”
“For example, conservative Christians don’t tend to score lower on science questions that are religiously uncontested, like questions about lasers, atoms, or viruses,” explained Perry, the author of The Flag and the Cross. “But when you ask them about ‘the Big Bang’ or ‘evolution’ or even continental drift, they score lower because they reject the scientific consensus on those questions.”
“Related to this, we’ve found that Christian nationalist ideology is a powerful predictor of this kind of response patterning on science quizzes. Americans who more strongly affirm Christian nationalism score roughly the same as other Americans on uncontested science questions, but Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor that Americans get the contested questions wrong.”
The researchers analyzed the responses from a nationally representative sample of 1,378 American adults who had participated in the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. As part of the survey, the participants were asked to respond to five true/false statements about religion in American political history.
The participants were also asked the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation” and “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan” — which the researchers used as a proxy for support for Christian nationalism.
Perry and his colleagues found that people who scored lower on the brief American history quiz tended to be more supportive of Christian nationalism. Interestingly, when they removed “I don’t know” responses from their analysis, the researchers found that the negative relationship between historical knowledge and Christian nationalism strengthened, suggesting that support for Christian nationalism is associated with “intentionally affirming factually incorrect statements.”
“We found that even after we accounted for Americans’ religious, political, and demographic characteristics, those who more strongly affirmed Christian nationalism were more likely to belief false things about religion’s place in American history,” Perry told PsyPost. “They were more likely to believe, for example, that the US Constitution references our country’s obligations to God several times (it does not), that the First Amendment says Congress could make laws privileging Christianity (it does not), or that the Supreme Court made it illegal to pray or read your Bible in public schools (it did not).”
“We also show this isn’t necessarily connected to lack of education or lack of confidence in one’s answers. In fact, we show that the more Americans affirm Christian nationalism, they’re more likely to give confident wrong answers. That suggests there’s something ideological going on here. Americans who believe Christianity should have a more central role in American society today tend to reinterpret history with that in mind.”
The researchers controlled for a number of factors, including education, age, race, family income, geographic region, party identification, religious identification, and religiosity. But as with any study, the research includes some caveats.
“One issue that we are not able to answer definitively is whether the connection between Christian nationalist ideology and incorrect views of history is due primarily to ideology or the sort of information such Americans have been receiving,” Perry explained. “There’s actually a fairly robust ‘Christian nationalism industrial complex’ that supplies Study Bibles, Bible studies, video series, sermon materials, and scores of books dedicated to teaching this history of America as a ‘Christian nation.’”
“It could be that Americans who score higher on Christian nationalism have assimilated such material and are answering accordingly. Alternatively, it could be more that Americans who embrace Christian nationalist ideology are simply answering with what ‘feels’ right. We need to disentangle this.”
The study, “Historical Fundamentalism? Christian Nationalism and Ignorance About Religion in American Political History“, was authored by Samuel L. Perry, Ruth Braunstein, Philip S. Gorski, and Joshua B. Grubbs.