Political scientists—and law enforcement agents—have spent the last 18 months parsing information to determine Donald Trump's surprising win in the 2016 election.
Among the things they've looked at include working-class white people's economic stress, racism and fear of immigrants.
But new research from the journal Sociology of Religion points out that when when socioeconomic, demographic and racism are controlled for, one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump is Christian nationalist attitudes. That is, these are people who believe that America is a "Christian nation" and want to see politicians push policies that encourage the government to implement their own agenda. Symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage is their biggest motivator.
"Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future," the paper reads.
Speaking to Salon, Andrew Whitehead, one of the authors of the piece, implied that these Christian nationalists may see Trump as a figurehead and see Vice President Mike Pence, a committed Christian nationalist, as the puppet-master. These Christian nationalists therefore see this as their chance to have "a soft coup in America."
"Christian nationalist support for Trump is in some ways transactional," Whitehead said. "Their desire to protect the perceived Christian identity of the country has nothing to do with the religious bona fides of the person or people who help them achieve it. Trump is seen as a tool used by the Christian God to make America Christian again. He can be dispensed with when he is no longer useful."
It's not just Republicans with Christian ideology who supported Trump, the study found. Democrats were far more likely to defect if they were Christian nationalists and independents were likely to break for Trump if they had the ideology.
"In fact, once Christian nationalism was taken into account, other religious measures had no direct effect on how likely someone was to vote for Trump. These measures of religion mattered only if they made someone more likely to see the United States as a Christian nation," the paper's authors wrote in a Washington Post article.
Those who've said that these extremists are hypocrites who have changed their tune to accommodate Trump are not mistaken: In 2011, during Obama's presidency, only 30% of them said that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life could act ethically and carry out their duties in office. Today, under a president who makes nondisclosure deals to silence porn stars he's had sex with while his wife was caring for their infant child, 72% of evangelicals say an elected official can act ethically and carry out the duties of their office.