December 5, 2023

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New study indicates social identity threat can boost support for Christian nationalist ideologies

The number of Americans who identify as Christian has been steadily declining in recent years. New research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that learning about these changes in demographics leads to a perceived threat to one’s religious ingroup, in this case, Christianity. This perceived ingroup threat may then lead to increased support for Christian nationalist ideologies.

Social identity theory posits that people are motivated to maintain positive images of the social groups to which they belong (e.g., ethnicity, gender, nationality). Following this rationale, a threat to one’s ingroup (such as a decline in status) might provoke a person to defend their ingroup in order to maintain that positive group image.

“Prior research on social identity threat and status threat has focused on racial identity, leaving open questions about whether religious identity is similarly vulnerable to threat from demographic decline,” wrote study author Rosemary L. Al-Kire and colleagues. Christian nationalism, which is an ideology that advocates for Christianity to be an integral part of American life, was of particular interest to researchers.

“Consistent with this hypothesis, Christian nationalist rhetoric is heavily cloaked in threat narratives. For example, among Christian nationalists, opposition to marriage equality is justified by framing same-sex marriage as a threat to the traditional family and threat perceptions help explain links between Christian nationalism and support for conservative policies, such as opposition to immigration.”

To explore this, researchers recruited 500 Christian Americans via Cloud Research, an online platform for their first study. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of two news articles. One of these described the demographic trend of Christians becoming a minority in the United States within the next 15 years. The other, the control article, described how suburban Americans are projected to be the minority. After reading the article, participants were measured from perceptions of threat, Christian nationalism, and political attitudes.

Religious threat was measured by agreement with statements such as “My religious freedom is often under attack.” Christian Nationalism was similarly measured with agreement with statements such as “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”

Results indicate the threat manipulation was successful as those who read about the changing religious demographics reported higher levels of threat than those who read the control article. Higher religious threat was also experienced by those high in Christian nationalism, those who were politically conservative, and those who reported strong intentions of voting for President Trump in 2020.

Christian nationalism was higher in the religious demographic article condition (compared to control); however, these differences were largely driven by responses to two survey items, which makes researchers less confident in this effect. These two items, “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation” and “There should be a separation of church and state,” in part, motivated the researchers to conduct a follow-up replication study.

For Study 2, researchers recruited 341 Christian Americans from Cloud Research. The procedure was identical to Study 1 with a few exceptions to address limitations of Study 1 such as adapting the materials to make it less obvious that they were interested in religious threat.

As in Study 1, those in the demographic shift condition reported more religious threat than those in the control article condition. The small effect of increased Christian nationalism in the demographic article condition driven by two items was not observed in Study 2 as it was in Study 1.

Higher religious threat was also reported more in those high in Christian nationalism. Most importantly, results suggest that reading about the religious demographic changes indirectly increased Christian nationalism by increasing one’s sense of religious threat.

Exploratory analyses also suggest those who read about demographic changes reported more intentions of voting for Trump in 2020 than those in the control condition. Overall patterns of results were observed when the researchers combined data from both these studies into one analyses providing stronger support for these findings.

“Participants who reported feeling their religion and religious freedoms were threatened also reported stronger endorsement of Christian nationalist beliefs, such as believing the United States should be declared a Christian nation, and were more supportive of conservative politicians, who advocate for Christianity’s role in public life,” reported the researchers.

“Through this work, we demonstrate that status threat applies not just to racial identities but to other advantaged group memberships, namely religion—an important and understudied social identity.”

Researchers do caution some limitations of their work. One of these being that effects of social identity and group membership tend to be long term processes and these changes were measured in a short amount of time. Thus, future research could look at how the impact of religious threat evolves over time.

The study “Christian no more Christian Americans are threatened by their impending minority status“, was authored by Rosemary L. Al-Kirea, Michael H. Pasek, Jo-AnnTsang, and Wade C. Rowatt.