America’s Most Overlooked Political Divide Is Also Its Most Revealing

It’s not often that a poll result causes me to do a double take. This month, however, a Pew Research Center survey grabbed my attention. As part of a comprehensive poll on the importance of religion in public life, Pew compared Americans’ knowledge of and support for Christian nationalism between September 2022 and February 2024 and found no meaningful change at all. The exact same percentage of Americans said they’d heard or read about Christian nationalism — 45 percent in 2022 and 45 percent in 2024. The exact same percentage of Americans said they’d never heard or read about Christian nationalism — 54 percent in both years.

The beliefs and attitudes of those who had heard about Christian nationalism were remarkably static. After months of debates in the media, the percentage of Americans who have a favorable view of Christian nationalism was unchanged. The percentage of those who have an unfavorable view increased a single percentage point — from 24 percent to 25 percent. In fact, the largest change in the poll was the whopping 2 percent decrease in the number of people who said they had no opinion, from 8 percent to 6 percent.

My first response was surprise. How could this be? The Christian nationalism debate has flooded online spaces since Jan. 6, 2021, if not earlier. There’s a fight over its definition, a fight over its reach and a furious fight (especially within Christian spaces) over its desirability. Is it actually possible that all of those articles, podcasts and speeches have made no difference at all?

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized my surprise was misplaced. I had another take that trumped my first. When you take a step back and think through some of the larger issues in American politics, the poll result makes perfect sense. Note that I said that Americans have been having a furious online conversation about Christian nationalism. Yet an online conversation isn’t the same thing as a national conversation.

I’m reminded of one of the most illuminating studies I’ve ever read. It came from the Hidden Tribes of America project, which was put together by a group called More in Common. It surveyed 8,000 Americans to try to explore their attitudes and conflicts beyond the red-blue divide, and one of its central conclusions is critical to understanding the modern moment: Only a minority of Americans are truly active in political debates, and they’re exhausting and alienating the rest of the country.

In 2019 my Times colleagues Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy used this data to expose the vast difference between online and off-line Democrats. One-third of Democrats post political content on social media; two-thirds do not. And the differences between the two groups were significant. Online Democrats were far more liberal, disproportionately white and far more likely to engage in activism, such as attending a protest or donating to a candidate.

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