How Much Power Do Christians Really Have?
The invisible divide that's shaping how Republicans and Democrats think about religion and politics.
This article is part of our Invisible Divides series.
Welcome to Invisible Divides, a series exploring the profound differences in worldview between Democrats and Republicans. These beliefs about education, religion, gender, race, and political extremism align with partisanship — but run much deeper. Differences like these don’t just influence the ways Democrats and Republicans vote, but also how they think about their place in America. And they help explain why opposing views on important issues today seem increasingly irreconcilable.
After Crystal Vasquez became a Christian, she noticed that people were getting mad at her a lot more. She’d get scolded for responding to a piece of good news with “Praise God!” A friend with a transgender child stopped speaking to her out of the blue, saying that their children couldn’t play together because Vasquez, 34, is Christian.
As a result, in the few short years since converting, Vasquez has come to view Christians’ place in American society very differently than she did before. She said the people around her were acting like she was trying to shove Christianity down their throats when all she wanted to do was express her beliefs and add a little more love to the world. “I think Christians are discriminated against,” Vasquez said. “We act like they have all this power, but really we’re just raising our voices and getting ignored.”
But the idea that Christians are an increasingly persecuted minority is far from a consensus view — even among Christians themselves. Kathy Watson, 67, is an evangelical Christian but told me she didn’t understand why so many Christians say they’re discriminated against. If anything, she said, Christians have too much power, and use it to inflict a rigid set of values on people who don’t share them. “A lot of evangelical Christians — I think they’ve confused being Christian with being Republican,” she said. “They want to have strict rules and regulations and they want everyone to be like them, and they’re using the political system — the judges they’ve appointed, the politicians they’ve elected — to impose that worldview on other people.”
There’s a sense, in conversations with voters like Watson and Vasquez, that the country is in the midst of a reckoning over what it means to be Christian in America.1 On one side, there are the people who see Christians as the victims of a successful campaign to infuse the country with secular values, forcing Christians — particularly conservative ones — to accept values they violently disagree with. But many Americans think Christians occupy a very different role. In their version of the country’s current drama, Christians are the villains, ensconcing their own beliefs in law and politics even as their numbers dwindle. There’s a thread of unease on both sides — as if the one thing everyone agrees on is that these two ways of thinking about Christianity in America simply can’t coexist.
A FiveThirtyEight/PerryUndem/YouGov survey of likely voters shows just how deep this fissure runs.2 In this second installment of our exploration of invisible divides — the differences in worldview that shape how people vote and think about their place in America — we found profound disagreements about how much power Christians really have, and the role they should play in the country’s politics and culture. Like the other divides we’re exploring, these divisions track fairly neatly along partisan lines and help explain why the gap between Republicans and Democrats sometimes feels unbridgeable: It’s because their ways of thinking about the world are increasingly irreconcilable.
Are Christians victims? It depends on who you ask. Nearly half (46 percent) of survey respondents told us that discrimination against Christians is a problem in American society today, while a majority (54 percent) think it’s not.3 They were also divided along similar lines about whether far-right Christians are trying to impose their beliefs on other people: A majority (56 percent) agreed they are, while another 33 percent disagreed, and 10 percent weren’t sure. The political fissures on this question are as wide as religious divides, like church attendance, and sometimes wider — signaling that anxiety about what it means to be Christian may be shaped as much by people’s political allegiances as their religious ties.
This moment is about four decades in the making. In the 1980s and 1990s, as white Christian conservatives forged an alliance with the Republican Party, Christianity itself started to become a partisan symbol. Identifying as a Christian was no longer just about theology, community or family history — to many Americans, the label became uncomfortably tangled with the Christian Right’s political agenda, which was itself becoming increasingly hard to separate from the GOP’s political agenda.
Social scientists have argued compellingly that left-leaning Americans started to reject religious labels altogether around this time because of the perception that Christianity was becoming tainted by politics. The rise in the share of Americans who have no religion wasn’t just about loss of belief — it was about the rejection of a political identity, too. According to this theory, people who had relatively weak ties to religion — the ones who attended church once a month, or twice a year — started slipping away, discomfited by the idea of calling themselves Christians because of the term’s new political baggage. One study found that simply showing participants a newspaper clipping where a Republican politician spoke at a church prompted some Democrats to say they had no religion.
Carolyn Novak, 54, didn’t stop calling herself a Christian because she no longer followed Jesus. Instead, she stopped going to the Southern Baptist church she’d attended for years because she felt like it made people assume things about her that weren’t true. She found herself increasingly at odds with her fellow churchgoers. “Being labeled a Christian, [people think] you’re some kind of right-wing nut,” Novak said. Recently, she’s even stopped socializing with the people from her old church and is avoiding making new Christian friends. “People I’ve known for years, I can’t even talk to them,” she said. “I keep thinking, ‘Were you always this angry and hateful?’”
These trends, meanwhile, have reinforced a long-held feeling of embattlement among some Christians, particularly conservative ones. From the beginning of the Christian Right’s alliance with the Republican Party, the movement’s predominantly white leaders have presented themselves as the standard-bearers of a beleaguered cause. The country was secularizing; the feminist movement was gaining ground; abortion was legal; divorce rates were high; school prayer was outlawed; racial integration was mandated for schools.
As the years went on, this defensiveness was further entrenched by the election of the first Black president — who was falsely portrayed as a Muslim by right-wing media and politicians — the legalization of same-sex marriage, and dwindling church attendance. The Christian Right’s battles increasingly revolved around the preservation of rights for Christians, tacitly conceding their status as a cultural minority. Former president Donald Trump capitalized on these feelings of persecution politically and actually appears to have brought some of his nonreligious followers into the fold. A Pew Research Center study released in 2021 found that some white respondents who had warm feelings about Trump but hadn’t previously identified as evangelical Christians began to embrace the label after Trump was elected. It was yet more evidence that Americans’ political perspectives are doing more and more work to shape their religious identities — even if it’s not happening consciously.
Today, the beliefs and actions of a relatively small group of people may be calcifying this divide. A minority of Americans support views that could be described as Christian nationalist, an ideology defined by social scientists as the belief that the U.S. is a Christian nation, and should be returned to its Christian foundations — by force, if necessary. According to our survey, only 27 percent of respondents agreed that the “government should favor Christianity over other religions,” and even fewer (22 percent) said that “God has called on conservative Christians to take control of our politics and culture.” Only 13 percent said that “the federal government should advocate for Christian religious values,”4 and 19 percent said that “the federal government should stop enforcing separation of church and state.”5
Despite those relatively small numbers, there are prominent people in politics today who have been characterized as Christian nationalists — including Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor, who has presented his own extreme political views as a battle against the forces of evil. The fact that candidates like Mastriano aren’t relegated to the fringes makes some Americans worry that this small group is shaping the course of American politics.
Watson, who identifies as a political independent, told me that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer was a sign of how far conservative Christians were willing to go to enforce their ideology. “[Republicans] have appointed all these judges who are very strict about what a Christian worldview means,” she said. “There have always been people who were extremely pious who wanted the world to be their way, and I think those people have a lot of power right now.”
Talking to Democrats like Novak, there’s often a palpable feeling of bitterness toward conservative Christians and their role in shaping politics — and hostility toward religion itself. That can leave even some Democrats feeling nettled. I spoke with Becky Carrizales, 49, a Catholic Democrat who believes that other Democrats may be afraid to identify as Christian because the label is so associated with the Republican Party. “I have lots of friends on Twitter and if I post anything religious, you know, I’ll get attacked by fellow Democrats,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Why are you a Catholic? [Catholics] are going against everything we believe in.’”
But on the right, that hostility mostly reinforces the idea that liberals really are trying to stifle traditional Christian values — making Christians the real victims. One survey respondent, Scott Barum, 54, identifies as a Christian but doesn’t attend church or belong to a denomination. He said from his perspective, it’s secular values — like gay rights — that are being forced on the country. “The whole LGBTQ agenda, transgenderism — don’t force-feed it to Americans who aren’t going to change their minds,” Barum said. “I believe the country wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in if we had conservative Christians in power.”
There’s a cyclical feeling to these conversations — a sense of one view reinforcing another, which reinforces another, which reinforces another — that has created an almost impenetrable barrier between the two sides. There are people, like Carrizales, who are managing to balance religious and political identities that feel increasingly at odds. But competing perceptions of Christianity’s power seem unlikely to change — if anything, they may deepen further.
Novak told me that she wants moderate Americans to have more of a voice. She wishes that everyone was less angry. But when I asked her whether she thinks about reconnecting with Christians she’s estranged from, she sighed and said no. “I think sometimes about the time when Americans could agree, when there was a middle ground,” she said. “But it’s so hard to even imagine. Now I mostly sit and go, ‘Did we ever really do that?’”
Holly Fuong and Duncan Gans contributed research.
CORRECTION (Oct. 27, 2022, 1:25 p.m.): A previous version of this story included a mobile chart that mislabeled responses to the question of whether the government should enforce the separation of church and state. In the survey, responses were labeled “should stop enforcing” and “should enforce,” not as “agree” and “disagree.”