To outsiders, it may be difficult to comprehend the continued strong support for Donald Trump among self-described religious patriots. Policies like separating immigrant children from their parents, and housing some of those kids in cages, don't exactly align with Christian teachings. And ideas like punishing National Football League players for peaceful protests are incompatible with the bedrock American value of free speech.
New research provides some clarification. It finds support for authoritarian impulses and harsh, punitive punishments isn't rooted in Christianity or nationalism per se, but rather by the fusion of the two identities.
The belief that the United States is, and should be, a "'Christian nation' increases desires for group conformity and strict control for both criminals and 'troublemakers,'" writes University of Oklahoma sociologist Joshua Davis.
"The convergence of the religious and national identities ... increases individuals' desire for a more homogenous society," he argues in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. "This desire is then reflected in the willingness to exact punitive measures against both criminal and deviant behaviors."
Davis analyzed data on 1,648 Americans who participated in the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey. He focused on three items regarding their attitudes toward crime and punishment: whether they believe the federal government "should punish criminals more harshly"; whether the death penalty should be abolished; and the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement "We must crack down on troublemakers to save our moral standards and keep law and order."
Christian nationalism was measured by respondents' level of support for such policies as prayer in public schools and the display of religious symbols in public spaces, and such statements as "The federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian Nation" and "The success of the U.S. is part of God's plan."
After controlling for various factors that could influence people's views on these topics, including race, education, religiosity (how frequently they pray and attend services), and whether they live in the South, Davis found a clear pattern.
"As adherence to Christian nationalist ideology increases, there is a corresponding increase in approval for each measure of punitive responses to crime and deviance," he reports. Holding such beliefs was "the strongest positive predictor for respondents' desire for strict federal punishments."
Specifically, Davis found a "crackdown on troublemakers" was endorsed by "roughly 56 percent of respondents at the lowest level of Christian nationalism, and increases to 96 percent at the highest levels." What's more, "even controlling for belief in religious evil, Christian nationalist ideology is a strong predictor of capital punishment."
While he can't definitively explain this connection, Davis points to the long-established theory of "social identity." It refers to our tendency to ground our sense of who we are in the groups we belong to, and the things they stand for. Most people have diverse and overlapping social identities (spouse, parent, professional, sports fan, hiking enthusiast, etc.).
Davis argues that, for many individuals, the bonding of the two groups they identify with most strongly—religion and nation—can produce "a singular identity." The concept of who belongs in "their" group gets narrowed, leading to suspicion of more people, and less tolerance for ideas and behaviors that conflict with their own.
"Idealization of the United States as a Christian nation ... implies a belief that the U.S. should conform to a strict set of moral and legal guidelines under threat of severe, or even lethal, sanctioning," he concludes.
This data was collected before the Trump era, so it can't answer the question of how Christian nationalists justify the president's deviant behavior. One prominent preacher said earlier this week that, while he doesn't excuse the president's history of womanizing, "We voted for him because of his policies." He is no doubt referring to the administration's crackdown on outsiders who break the rules—most prominently undocumented immigrants.
A fine new Washington Post report drives this home. One Florida evangelical told the reporter that "love thy neighbor" actually means "love thy American neighbor," and "welcome the stranger" refers to "the legal immigrant stranger."
There you have it: Christian compassion, restricted to neighbors who follow the rules.