Southern Baptists, Christian Nationalism, and Bad Data - Word&Way

Southern Baptists, Christian Nationalism, and Bad Data

Amid the growing attention to the dangerous ideology of Christian Nationalism, we’ve seen a variety of responses by U.S. Christians. Some have embraced the label as a badge of honor, while others have worked to detox from this approach of merging Christian and American identities by doing the difficult work of separating the wheat from the chaff. And then there are those who don’t want to change but also recognize the public backlash against Christian Nationalism. So they have instead tried to redefine it as applying just to the most radical fringe in hopes of keeping most Christian Nationalism accepted as mainstream.

Two Southern Baptist institutions tried the latter approach last week. On April 16, Lifeway Research released the results from surveys they did on behalf of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. They interviewed 500 members of Southern Baptist churches and 507 individuals in church leadership roles. Since the Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, data about how its members and leaders think about church-state issues is important to consider. But it only helps if the source is trustworthy.

“Southern Baptists more historic than nationalist in their political posture,” declares the headline from Lifeway Research.

There’s a false dichotomy in the framing since Christian Nationalist beliefs aren’t new and thus could also be considered historic in nature (as Beau Underwood and I document in our forthcoming book Baptizing America).

“When it comes to politics, the average Southern Baptist is more likely to agree with historic Baptist teaching than the claims of some self-professed Christian Nationalists,” Lifeway Research wrote about their findings. “Those at Southern Baptist churches value religious liberty for all Americans and aren’t as supportive of establishing Christianity as a preferred religion within the U.S.”

That’s the closest they came to defining what they mean by Christian Nationalism: “establishing Christianity as a preferred religion within the U.S.” But the results don’t actually support that claim or the headline that Southern Baptists reject such a perspective. While a few broad questions show most of those surveyed don’t want Christianity favored by the U.S. government, more specific questions actually found most respondents say they do.

Despite the disparate findings, other outlets parroted the claim from Lifeway Research that Southern Baptists don’t adhere to Christian Nationalism. Like Crosswalk, a site of Salem Media Group (that airs shows hosted by people who regularly push Christian Nationalism, like Jenna Ellis, Sebastian Gorka, Charlie Kirk, Eric Metaxes, Tony Perkins, Todd Starnes, and Lara Trump). Their headline about the survey claims, “Most Southern Baptists reject tenets of Christian Nationalism.” Fewer people will read the article than the headline (and even fewer will join me in reading the actual 123-page report).

This issue of A Public Witness digs into the data from Lifeway Research and the Land Center to see what we can actually learn about a significant evangelical body and why the framing of the report misses the mark.


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