Politics of Religion: Laidlaw Essay

Examining Race, Religion and Nationalism in the United States

The title of my project is, The Politics of Religion: Examining Race, Religion and Nationalism in the United States supervised by Dr. Katie Gaddini, a Lecturer in Sociology at the Social Research Institute. The rise in racially motivated violence and hate crimes in the US following President Trump's 2016 victory—especially against Muslim Americans—is referred to as the "Trump Effect" by Edwards and Rushin (2018). Christian nationalism is one of the ideas that supports the rise of Trump and other far-right candidates, according to current studies. By contrasting American evangelical support for Trump with British evangelical reactions to Brexit, Dr. Gaddini's earlier research demonstrated how the combination of religious and national identities produced various political outcomes. The aim of this project was to build on that explore how religion and race conditioned evangelical support for Trump and other right-wing political candidates and how white evangelical leaders discursively unite notions of race, nationalism, and evangelicalism through their use of social media. 

This project includes work on four different work packages. The first part of this project involved analysing Dr. Gaddini's field notes from her ethnography research back in 2020. Once we received these transcribed fieldnotes, with the help of the NVIVO software, key themes were identified from these field-notes. A thematic analysis of these fieldwork notes was used to produce an infographic. The second part of the project involved organizing a panel event entitled, 'From Trump to Trumpism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Far Right and Digital Media' at UCL. It helped me gain a better perspective of the role of media in politics. Ultimately, it helped me build a foundation before I started my social media analysis. One of the main parts of the project involved conducting a social media analysis of key right-wing evangelical figures. Through constant monitoring of social media content, themes were identified, used as primary evidence for information for the infographic. This analysis clarified how religion and race condition evangelical support for Trump and other right wing political candidates. The social media analysis, perspectives from the Digital Media Panel discussion and my thematic analysis of the transcribed notes was put into use to create an infographic. This infographic was to be sent to pastors and anti-racist organization, highlighting the relationship between Evangelicals and Politics in America Today. 

This project drove me to expose myself to unknown territories. It pushed my boundaries, tested my limits and challenged me intellectually. A great deal of this project involved analysing transcribed ethnography fieldnotes. Ethnography involves observing people in their own environment to understand their experiences, perspectives and everyday practices. This can give in-depth insight into a particular context, group or culture. I had no idea that beyond the sciences and some form of economic hypothesis testing, there were other ways you could provide evidence to support qualitative research. I produced a paper on qualitative research before, so was not an unfamiliar field. However, what was interesting to me was the fact that data collected through observations and interviews can be used to draw conclusions about how societies and individuals' function. My first interaction with ethnography involved analysing these field notes and labelling the major themes. Unfortunately, the content of the interviews is confidential and not a lot of my comments can be shared. I became aware that the depth of my notes was insufficient during my follow-up appointment with Katie. Katie questioned me, the most of which were simple "why" or "how so" queries. She constantly challenging me and testing me, which helped me generate thoughts and hypotheses. I wasn't sure if my viewpoint was legitimate at first, but Katie helped me realise that newcomers like myself often see things that academics like herself frequently miss. However, the entire exercise gave me a greater understanding of regular evangelicals, voters who support a single topic, and the importance of seeing the big picture. 

Whilst researching the project and going through the annotated bibliography, I came across work on the sociology of religion. As a student of Economics, sociology made little sense to me. Sociology was helpful in deriving the two competing narratives during the 2016 election expressing attitudes towards post-1950 social change- Trump’s narrative, as one of national decline needing a return to past greatness, Democrats as saying best is yet to come. One of the first things I discovered from the bibliography with annotations was that Trump is a divisive figure amongst the evangelical community. Even if people do not like him, there is no better alternative because of his connections to the conservative political society, which also actively seeks to incorporate prominent evangelical Christian figures. Additionally, I discovered a multivariate analysis that demonstrated Christian nationalism is not merely reducible to political or religious ideas but also influences belief on non-religious but racially coded political problems. These results were crucial in demonstrating how sociology was useful in this investigation into politics of religion. It inspired me to pursue a different subject. 

I conducted a social media analysis of significant political and religious individuals as part of the second component of my project. I read academic literature on dog-whistling and signalling on social media before beginning my analysis. A list of social media accounts to follow was provided by Katie. I first misjudged how much information could be contained in a tweet or an Instagram post. Katie went over the procedure for social media analysis during lunch. We were asked to examine a single piece of social media material using thematic indicators that match interview data and ethnographic fieldnotes. I was initially horrified by the egregiously anti-Islamic and racist messages. It helped me to understand how demanding qualitative research may be for the researcher. I made a conscious effort to take breather and work on my mental health whilst completing this task. 

'From Trump to Trumpism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Far Right and Digital Media' at UCL’ Event lasted from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm following a dinner at Tas Restaurant. It was an opportunity to meet with such distinguished visitors, especially because I was thanked for my support of the event. The academics' work was motivating, and it got me thinking about how I want my research to be applied once this project is finished. The "In-Conversation with the US and UK Representatives to the UN" was another event I went to for this project. By chance, both representatives were women. Amazingly, I have only ever interacted with females who work in politics or conduct political study throughout these past six weeks. It is extremely amazing to be mentored by such fascinating and talented women while researching a country with exclusively male leaders. 

I kept an eye on evangelical leaders' social media accounts while conducting my analysis. In order to understand the broader significance of the shared content, I annotated the articles and content while organising them by theme. I examined the theme of "unity" that surfaced in multiple posts by prominent right-wing figures and how they were using hashtags to promote Christian nationalism specifically rather than secularism. Prior to coming to my final conclusions, I used analogous lenses to examine topics like Black Lives Matter, LQBTQ, Education, Media, and Socialism. We had a few sessions to come up with the top 10 lessons learned from our research, which we could then utilise to create an infographic and send to Christian leaders who wish to combat racism. We had a difference of opinion regarding the ranking of our takeaways. However, it made me appreciate the diversity of our opinions and increased the depth of our content produced. 

Not only was I extremely proud of my research, but also proud of how far I had come. I started with knowing nothing more than the ideological difference between democrats and republicans. The conclusions of this project included insights into several different themes. In accordance with their theological convictions, evangelical leaders firmly believe that abortion is murder, yet their followers and fellow Christians are divided on the subject. Others may not be outright pro-life, but they worry that the left would legalize abortion and have Medicare pay for it. The perception that abortion places a financial strain on the nation's healthcare system fuels support for granting governmental authority over abortion. Additionally, we placed a lot of emphasis on the value of youth involvement in our conclusion. Our notes indicate that right-wing political platforms continue to appeal to "conservative adolescents" while significantly integrating evangelical ideals (in the form of church leaders invited to the summit). 

The right places a strong focus on defending children from the liberal agenda. Education about the LGBTQ community is taught in schools, which is viewed as "against" Christian principles and so defiling youngsters. The teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools is perceived as a "attack on our children" and is associated with stereotypes that minority ethnic groups are radical, unneeded, and violent. By requiring masks and vaccinations, COVID laws are perceived as interfering with parents' abilities to care for their children. In addition, after its pride collection in 2022, Disney faced criticism from right-wing leaders for incorporating more liberal concepts into their works. All of this is seen as evidence of a “Socialist State” or “Cultural Marxism” that the liberals are trying to build. Socialism, according to white evangelicals, is essentially anti-Christian in its political philosophy. They completely understand socialism as a secular system where religion is demonised and atheism is encouraged, choosing not to respect the components that support decent wages, economic fairness, and welfare programmes. This was seen across posts that celebrated the overturning of Roe vs Wade and it was interesting to see the common thread of celebration that ran across these posts.  

BLM was a key component of my research as well. Many right-wing evangelical leaders view BLM as a radical cultural movement that incited violence to dismantle peaceful communities. It's interesting to note that right-wing leaders and supporters strongly denounced the murder of Floyd. BLM was considered by many right-wing supporters as chaotic, socialist, unneeded, and a "sin with sin" solution. These sources, one of which is Candace Owens' Greatest Lie Ever Told document, claim that BLM developed social stigma pressure from the left, and that there was no room left to publicly criticise BLM because of growing worries of being called a "racist." There were viewpoints that considered any white person to be a "racist," which was known as reverse-racism. This was an interesting phenomenon that could have been studied in detail. If there is any space for improvement in my project, I believe it would be to further refine my investigation of BLM and how it is affected by rising Christian nationalism. There is debate over Obama and Clinton spearheading the immigration reform movement to disprove claims that Trump is to blame for severing families. However, every social issue has been politicised and connected to the Church, with the exception of immigration. Pastors, though, choose to avoid politics more frequently than not. The contemporary political mobilisation of the church has been pushed by right-wing leaders who assert that America's leaders are Christians. The same argument has been used by certain Christian leaders to support their increasing political involvement and the foundation of American politics in Christian values. When I was conducting my research on this topic, I realised how crucial it is to keep politics and religion separate in order to maintain secular democratic political processes. 

 By the end of this project, I had conducted a thematic review of several political figures and how they’ve subtly used their social media to put forth their agenda. During our closing meeting, we discussed our key takeaways and social media analysis. As for improving my project, I believe I could have spent more time analysing a couple of themes rather than taking a wider surface view at multiple themes. This could have added to my analysis and allowed me to delve deeper. However, it wasn’t the words of gratitude or appreciation that made me feel satisfied, it was the fact that by the end of the meeting I spoke to Katie about a research project that I would like to explore further with her guidance that made me feel accomplished. During my social media analysis, I observed the similarity between Mayra Flores of Texas and AOC. I know that in the future, I would like to conduct a comparative analysis between them and proposed this to Katie. For me, true success and satisfaction came from knowing that in this project, I found an area of interest for myself. 

By the time this study was finished, I had researched a number of political figures and how they had covertly promoted their causes on social media. We addressed our main learnings and social media analyses in our final meeting. Regarding how I may have improved my project, I feel that rather than providing a broad overview of many issues, I could have focused more time on a few specific themes. This might have enhanced my analysis and given me more room to explore. It just wasn't the words of thanks or praise that made me feel content; rather, it was the fact that by the end of the meeting, I had spoken to Katie about a research idea I wanted to explore further with her help. I discovered a similarity between Texas Representative Mayra Flores and AOC throughout my social media study. I suggested to Katie that we do a comparison of them in the future because I knew I would enjoy to do one. Real achievement and fulfilment for me came from realising that I had discovered a field of interest for myself in this undertaking. 

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Congratulations Riza - for conducting such a thorough analysis of a complex and sensitive subject! It was eye-opening to read about recent political issues through a religious lens - which is definitely not common in areas like Hong Kong and China. I cannot begin to imagine the mental strength you must have gathered to filter and collect right-wing evangelical individuals' social media activity. It is a much-needed contribution that you have made to raise awareness on the rising danger of populism and religion in the United States, but also in other weakened democracies around the world. On another note, I am a bit surprised about the association of GOP Rep Mayra Flores and AOC, but I am convinced that you must have great insight on it and I truly look forward to reading about it. Again, congratulations for your hard work and research!