Professor Allyson Shortle’s The Everyday Crusade, through the lens of HST-239

Bianca Ring, Opinions Editor

On Thursday, February 9, Professor Allyson Shortle gave a presentation on her new book, The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics. She’s a Political Science professor from the University of Oklahoma, and a Union College alumnus of the class of 2005. Her book is about the rise of Christian Nationalism, and how religion can often work as a polarizing force in American politics. Her presentation showed results of national polls she and her team had conducted, which involved a set of questions about religion and God’s relation to The United States, which reads as follows:

Beliefs of American Religious Exceptionalism

1.America holds a special place in God’s plan.

2.The United States is spiritually predestined to lead the world.

3.Vast resources of the US indicate that God has chosen it to lead other nations.

4.The success of the US is a reflection of divine will.

The polls were taken from 2008 to 2020, and they were meant to measure the amount of Americans who subscribed to beliefs of American Religious Exceptionalism, which Professor Shortle defines as “a belief system which argues the nation is divinely inspired, favored and called upon to carry out a divine mission.” Her results were organized by many factors, including race, political party, state, and participation in church. Overall, the data showed a general increase over the years in people whose beliefs lined up with American Religious Exceptionalism, or ARE. Professor Shortle’s team referred to people who did not agree with the statements as Dissidents, people who agreed with the statements as Disciples, and people who agreed with a few of the statements as Laity. As shown in the graph below, Republicans more commonly subscribe to the beliefs of ARE as compared to Democrats, but both parties had an increase in Disciples from 2010 to 2021. 

To help better understand the results and what they mean for the future of America, I asked Professor Shortle some questions about her research. She told me that the results of her research were concerning because American Religious Exceptionalism and the violence that often stems from those beliefs is a threat to American liberal democracy, and there is “danger whenever you prize one religion over others.” Below, she’s answered a few more questions in an email interview.

Were the results of the polls what you expected? Were there any specific surprises in the data across party, religion, or race?  

Professor Shortle: Overall, I was surprised by how robust the findings were. We suspected adherence to the ideology of American religious exceptionalism (ARE) would relate to religiously implicated attitudes and behaviors. However, we did not expect these relationships to cut across so many diverse subpopulations of the American public – especially the less religious subgroups. Nor were we totally sure that ARE would relate to as many non-religiously implicated policy attitudes. However, I think the findings speak to the stealthy power of religious nationalist myths. Some Americans simply adhere to them because they love their country and agree with any sentiment that makes America seem special, even if those Americans aren’t particularly religious in the formal sense of the word (i.e., belonging to a denomination, believing in scripture, and/or attending religious services). But that adherence is not so innocuous once you look at what types of attitudes it predicts – support for political violence, support for autocracy, restrictive immigration policies, etc. The breadth and reliability of these findings definitely surprised us. 

What are you doing for future work? How does this project continue? 

Professor Shortle: Currently, I’m extending this line of research in my second co-authored book project (with Dr. Ana Bracic, Assistant Professor at Michigan State, and Dr. Mackenzie Israel-Trummel, Assistant Professor at William & Mary) to examine the many faces of ascriptive nationalism in the US, UK, Australia, and Eastern Europe. We are interested in determining to what extent political exclusion is explained by different definitions about who “counts” as a “true” citizen in different countries. For this book project, we just entered the first stage of our data collection. I’m very excited by some promising new findings, but unfortunately that’s all I can share for now!  

Professor Shortle’s talk was attended by my class, Modern Extremism and the Medieval World, taught by Professor Sarina Kuersteiner. The class focuses on how extremists inappropriately use medieval history to further their political agendas.  We’ve learned about the motives of extremists such as white supremacists and christian nationalists, and the goal of the class is to learn how to write historical educational articles that minimize extremists’ ability to abuse history. I asked Professor Kuersteiner what she thought of Professor Shortle’s presentation through the lens of our class. Her answers are below. 

What relevance does Professor Shortle’s presentation have to our class, Modern Extremism and the Medieval World?

A great deal of relevance! In HST 239, we are looking at how myths and ideologies pertaining to the medieval past are used by extremists, which we have defined as people who have used and displayed medieval symbols, narratives, and metaphors in direct relationship to violent ideologies and acts. Our class began by looking at the most widely circulating myths about the medieval past. These are the perceptions of the middle ages as “more irrational,” as “more religious,” and as “violent than today.” We have observed how the history of these myths – specifically the 18th and 19th centuries – have continuously shaped the medieval past into a mystified past that offers itself to contemporary political agendas that drive polarization: nationalism, racism, and gender. Extremist thought and action that we study in HST 239 often see the medieval past as a time in which everyone was straight and either male or female (nothing could be more erroneous…), in which nations that we have today took firm shape, and in which Europe in particular was a racially “pure” continent inhabited by white people. Shortle et. al. designed a study that measures the power of such myths in shaping public opinion. For HST 239, Shortle et. al’s design of surveys could become a model in how we can measure the spread and correlations between people’s understanding of the medieval past – and history more broadly – and how this past motivates and legitimizes people’s political and social believes and actions.

Had you written the book/given the presentation, was there anything you would’ve changed to better reflect the topics we’ve discussed in class? 

Let me begin by saying that I value everyone’s efforts in communicating scholarship on nationalism and politics and in trying to understand, indeed, any aspect of our past, present, and future be that political science, history, physics, or math. In HST 239, we are trying to a) build a bridge between academic knowledge about the middle ages and journalists, social workers, and educators. We are also working toward de-politicizing the medieval past by re-writing those aspects of the medieval past that are most frequently mis-used. In this regard, our work as a class has a more publicly-oriented outlook, I think, than Shortle et. al.’s book that is a scientific study. HST 239 is seeking to understand how to best write history that is de-radicalizing and de-politicizing public opinion. In some ways, we try to rip the medieval past and the past, more generally, off extremist ideologies and acts. As a public historian, pursuing the goal of de-radicalization, I would not use the word “crusade” in a book that studies American religious exceptionalism. The reason for that is that it can further polarization or even hatred directed towards intellectuals who study these phenomena. From the standpoint of de-radicalizing efforts, it is best to avoid any vocabulary that has radicalizing potential. Many of the people we study

in HST 239 have explicitly used the medieval crusades as a legitimization for utterly violent acts. In 2019, a white supremacist shot hundreds of worshipers attending Friday prayers, killing 51, at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Among the multiple historical references scrawled on his gun was “1189 Acre,” a battle between Saladin’s Ayyubid troops and the forces led by the kings of England and France during the crusades. A few months later, a 21-year-old white supremacist killed 22 people and wounded 26 in El Paso, Texas; he claimed his actions were “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Both shooters saw themselves as allied with

Andres Breivik, who in 2011, killed 77 people, mostly children. Breivik’s manifesto identified himself as a member of a medieval military order, the Knights Templar, who formed during the crusades. You see how, in this answer, I try to forefront the history rather than the term “crusade” because the word carries a deeply rooted antagonism between Christians and Muslims. In their manifestos, and in one case explicitly on the gun, extremists identify themselves as actors in a civilizational battle that medieval predecessors started and that some of them see themselves to

continue today. For deradicalizing purposes, to come back to your question, it seems better not to use the term unless it is explained in its proper historical context.


How do the strategies of the Medievalist Toolkit, as discussed in class, help convey information on the topic of extremism?

One of the strategies that the MT came to embrace not so much to “convey information on the topic of extremism” but more to actually de-politicize and de- radicalize the medieval past is based on “listening” and “empathy” in the way we write history. Telling people that their beliefs about the middle ages are wrong won’t do the work. In the opposite, both social workers who work with extremists who seek to leave hateful lives and social scientists who study how to most effectively reduce hate-speech agree that “empathy” is most effective. Hence, the goal of the MT is not so much to “correct extremists’” misappropriations of the medieval past but to

promote a different relationship to the past, one that takes medieval people seriously. The strategy we embrace in de-radicalizing the past could be described as “double listening.” On the one hand, we listen to people who have, themselves, no voices anymore: medieval people. On the other hand, we seek to write about mis-used aspects of the medieval past in a way that does not condemn or judge misappropriations. In this regard, we “listen” to extremist ideologies by listening to medieval people that leads to the changing of the narrative about their lives and acts

that have been mis-used, sometimes to justify utter violence. It is, however, very important to note that “listening” and “empathy” only work if you are in a position to do so. I would never tell a victim to “listen.” The strategies of the MT are situation specific and their targeted audience are journalists, teachers, and social workers, not the extremists themselves. We are a bridge between academics and people who have public outreach. Something very important about public oriented work and activism is to consider positionality, meaning that what you can do and should do depends on whether you are safe to do so.

Poll results by political party. Credit to Allyson Shortle, et al.