Survey Data Indicates a Complicated Relationship between Religion and Racial Attitudes

By: George Hawley

October 29, 2018

Christianity and the Alt-Right in America

When thinking about the relationship between the alt-right and Christianity, it is worth noting that many theories are plausible. One could make a strong case that the decline of Christianity will benefit the extreme right. It is also possible that the decline of Christianity will have the opposite effect. It is additionally worth considering that there is no substantive connection between the two, or that any such connection is small.

As Professor Damon Berry argued in his outstanding book on the subject, most important leaders of the white nationalist movement have despised Christianity. They have many good reasons for doing so. Although you can make a case that Christianity is inherently intolerant when it comes to religion—and Christian anti-Semitism is well documented—it is very hard to use Christian theology to justify non-religious racial hatred. Christianity has an element of global egalitarianism that is difficult to escape, unless you are willing to distort Christianity to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable. Most important contemporary Christian leaders speak out very strongly against racism.

On the other hand, it would be disingenuous to claim that American Christianity has always been on the side of racial egalitarianism. Well before the culture wars over marriage equality and abortion, the Christian Right was first motivated by the fight against racial desegregation. We should also not forget that in the antebellum South, many people found a biblical justification for racial slavery. Furthermore, public opinion data consistently finds that non-religious whites are more politically progressive than religious whites.

Based on all of this, we could posit several theories with comparable levels of believability. To consider this question, I have spent a lot of time looking at recent survey data and what they show us about the relationship between religion and racial attitudes. My findings below are from the 2016 American National Election Study.

In the scholarly literature, we typically look at three separate components of religion: believing, belonging, and behaving. I and many others have considered how these components relate to racial sentiments. I am particularly interested in survey questions relating to the strength of white racial identity, feelings of white solidarity, and feelings of white grievance, as these are key components of many far-right ideologies.

As I look at how religion influences these attitudes, I see a lot of null results—cases in which religious attributes exhibit no statistically-significant nor substantively-important influence on racial attitudes. For example, I found no connection between feelings of white identity and any religious variable. And in cases where I did see significant results, they are not always in the same direction. High levels of religiosity were related to more tolerant attitudes on some questions, and the reverse on others. For example, white biblical literalists were much more likely than other whites to support reducing immigration; on the other hand, they were also much more likely to support affirmative action for African-Americans.

I found a very similar effect for the importance of religion on the question of whether whites face discrimination today. Compared to those who did not say religion was important to their lives, those who said it was were about 1.6 times as likely to express feelings of racial discrimination.

This is complicated, however, in that we see a different effect for worship attendance. Compared to whites who never attend religious services, those that attended services once a week or more were considerably less likely to say they felt discriminated against on racial grounds—only about 0.7 times as likely.

What is the takeaway from all this? My current view is that the question of religion and racial attitudes, as well as views on policy issues that are entangled with race, is complicated. My own research on this topic is obviously not the final word on this question. There is other empirical work that confirms and challenges some of the findings I just mentioned. 

Because I find so many null results, small results, and inconsistent results, I must presently conclude that the state of Christianity is only loosely connected to the state of the racist right. A massive resurgence of Christian identification and practice—which I consider unlikely at the moment—would probably not solve the nation’s racial problems. Nor would the faith’s total collapse. Although I will continue to research this subject, and know others will do the same, at present I do not see Christianity or secularism as a panacea to our many great challenges.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece has been cross-posted to the Square, a blog from the Project on Religion and Its Publics at the University of Virginia.

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