In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing disease to spread. Trump has helped spread misinformation.
Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that seeks to elevate an ethnotraditional, identitarian version of Christianity with American civic culture (Gorski 2017; Whitehead and Perry 2020). Americans who embrace Christian nationalism want to see their particular expression of Christianity privileged in the national identity, public policies, and sacred symbols. One of the primary concerns of Christian nationalism is to draw boundaries around who is truly American, defining who “we” are as a nation and defending “our” status privilege over the identified “they.”1 Consequently, the term “Christian” in “Christian nationalism” becomes a dog whistle, including assumptions about nativism, white racial identity, and cultural-political orientation but also implying white supremacy, xenophobia, and masculine-authoritarian control (Davis 2019; McDaniel, Nooruddin, and Shortle 2011; Perry and Whitehead 2015; Perry, Whitehead, and Davis 2019; Perry et al. 2020; Sherkat and Lehman 2018; Shortle and Gaddie 2015; Whitehead and Perry 2019, 2020).2
Using a nationally representative sample of American adults, we demonstrate that Christian nationalism is significantly associated with anti-vaccine attitudes in the United States. Americans who desire to see their particular expression of Christianity privileged in the public sphere are more likely to hold beliefs such as the following: “Vaccines cause autism,” “Doctors and drug companies are not honest about the risks of vaccines,” “People have the right to decide whether or not to vaccinate their kids,” “Kids are given too many vaccines,” and “Vaccines do not help protect children from dangerous diseases.” Even when we account for political ideology, religiosity, and a host of sociodemographic measures, Christian nationalism is consistently one of the most important predictors. This finding underscores the importance of culture, particularly “public expressions of religion” (Delehanty et al. 2019), when explaining Americans’ actions and beliefs pertaining to vaccination and the medical community.
We propose that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism are anti-vaccine primarily for three reasons. First, they are much more likely to distrust science and scientists, perceiving science as a threat to a traditional epistemic and moral order (Baker et al. 2020a). This tends to be to the detriment of any reliance on institutionalized science or federal intervention to solve collective action problems, including public health crises such as a pandemic (Whitehead, Schnabel et al. 2018). Second, Christian nationalism is also linked to libertarian populist attitudes that incline Americans to ignore the recommendations of scientists and the mainstream media regarding infectious diseases. Recent studies demonstrate that Americans who embrace Christian nationalism routinely prioritize individual liberty and the economy rather than protecting vulnerable populations. Third, Christian nationalism has bound millions of Americans to an avowed defender of Christian cultural and political influence, Donald Trump, who has repeatedly circulated anti-vaxx arguments to millions, which studies show are efficacious in their influence on his followers (Hornsey et al. 2020).
1Whitehead and Perry (2020:28–32) found that “Ambassadors,” those Americans who strongly embrace Christian nationalism, are on average 54 years old, are female (55 percent), are white (70 percent), have a high school education (39 percent), live in the South (50 percent), are Evangelical Protestant (55 percent), attend church several times a month (48 percent), and identify as Republican (56 percent).
2There is clearly important overlap between Americans who subscribe to Christian nationalism and “white nationalists.” The latter term is in some ways a more specific category with reference to overt white supremacy and nativism without any explicit reference to the religious beliefs of the person holding those views. Christian nationalism, by comparison, foregrounds “Christianity” as the primary concern, while using religion as a proxy for other markers of group membership, which can also include race, ethnicity, citizenship, and nativity. With regard to racial attitudes, Christian nationalists are more likely to subscribe enthusiastically to “color-blind” forms of racism, whereas white nationalists would be more unapologetic in their prejudice because they would feel less need to cloak it in religious language (see Whitehead and Perry 2020).