In her latest book entitled The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, author Katherine Stewart offers up a warning about the seemingly new rise of religious nationalism not just in America, but indeed around the world. In 2016, many were shocked when a number of prominent evangelical Christian leaders threw their support behind then-candidate Donald Trump. 81% of evangelicals went on to vote for him, and a significant number of them still support him loyally now, three years into his presidency.
People wanted to know: was this merely an anomaly — a blip on the radar screen — or was it a symptom of some deeper issues already existing within American society?
As it turns out, Christian nationalism is not a new phenomenon in America, but is a long-running movement stretching back decades into the past. In her book, Stewart describes a number of religious organizations (not just limited to evangelical Christianity, to be fair), that are working hard to undermine democracy and install their vision of a Christian nationalist agenda. This is something that everyone — not just Americans — should be aware of and exceedingly concerned about today. In fact, we are witnessing several authoritarian leaders of other nations who have allied themselves with prominent religious leaders, just as Trump has done in America.
The following excerpts are taken from an upcoming episode of MindShift podcast that will air on the 24th of April 2020, in which I had the privilege of interviewing Katherine Stewart on her important work.
Exploring the Global Reach of Religious Nationalism
Clint Heacock (CH): Watching the Netflix documentary series The Family was what got me started researching movements like dominion theology, Christian Reconstructionism, and Christian nationalism. When I saw not just the American reach, but the global reach….should people be concerned about even the global reach of these organizations?
Katherine Stewart (KS): Oh, absolutely. This is not just an American movement, this is a global movement. Under Trump, or I should say, it’s a piece of a global movement, the United States has become a kind of flashing beacon of hope for a new global, populist, right-wing movement. It calls itself a “global conservative movement”…they claim that they’re trying to defend what they call “the natural family,” and defend what they see as traditional marriage, things like that, but really, it’s…it’s about taking down modern democracy, and replacing it with authoritarian, faith-based ethno-states. So the Christian nationalist movement within the United States, which is really my subject of this book, is just one piece of this increasingly interconnected globe-spanning movement.
Stewart goes on to describe the amazing consistency with which authoritarian leaders worldwide have followed the Trump playbook, and allied themselves with conservative religious leaders in their own countries in order to consolidate political and religious power.
KS: The striking thing about it [religious nationalism] is its consistency in tone and substance around the world. And it defines itself against a single common worldwide enemy, which they call “global liberalism”…it’s a hostility to democracy, it’s a hostility to the idea of representative government, and it’s also — in many instances — a real alliance with a kind of plutocratic fortunes. You know, sort of allowing the people with the most money to have the most power.
This is a chilling reality —we have witnessed this, for example, in the Trump administration. Uber-wealthy elites have, through their campaign contributions and support of conservative political action committees (PACs), been able to gain an outsized influence. But wasn’t America founded on the very notions of democracy and representative government, where every person’s vote and voice mattered?
It turns out, she states, that the narrative of “American exceptionalism” is nothing more than a myth; but that inconvenient fact doesn’t stop many American Christians from adopting the storyline for themselves. In particular this myth ties straight into the ideology of Christian nationalism and its increasing involvement in the political realm. Perhaps even more of a concern is the reality that authoritarian leaders around the world are making use of religious nationalism to bolster their despotic grip on power.
KS: Americans have long told ourselves a story of our exceptionalism, and we often point to our religiosity as a part of that story. But in fact, our religious nationalism is the least exceptional thing about America. I mean, let’s just think about how it works around the world. Look at Erdogan of Turkey, or Russia, or Orban in Hungary. When these leaders ally, or bind themselves tightly to religious conservatives in their countries in order to consolidate a more authoritarian form of power, we rightly recognize that as a form of religious nationalism. And that’s what we’re seeing in America today with Trump’s alliances with religious hyper-conservatives.
CH: Well, those are the very people that he [Trump] admires, and he aspires to be like Putin and other despots and dictators, doesn’t he. And as you say, that playbook, you see it in Brazil with Bolsonaro. He’s allied himself with some real kind of similar evangelical people down there, and you see that same playbook repeating itself now. They’re emboldened by what Trump has been able to do, I think, in the United States on some level, surely.
KS: That’s true…it’s important to remember that it’s a radical ideology. It’s anti-democratic…in America, it has very little respect for the Constitution as it was written, representative democracy or even the two-party system itself. But worldwide, it aims for a more authoritarian form of power, and a system in which people with the supposedly “correct religious views” have a sort of, like a “first-class citizenship.” They certainly have the power to discriminate against others of whom they disapprove, and often to receive funding, or government funding, for the purpose.
Christian Nationalism as a Particularly American Story
In the United States, how far back does the Christian nationalist movement extend into its history? As mentioned at the outset, many might point to the 2016 evangelical support for Trump as an anomaly — as a bug, and not a feature. But according to Stewart, this is something that stretches back even further than prominent figures such as Jerry Falwell Sr and his 1979 Moral Majority.
KS: Any student of power knows that the first step of controlling the present is controlling the past, and the story of the past. And one thing that the movement has been incredibly successful at is controlling the story of their own past. They’ve kind of sold us this idea that the movement was a grassroots reaction to abortion, and started off in 1973 with the passage of Roe v Wade, which was a Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
But this is not true. One of the key issues that animated the movement in its earlier days was the fear that racially-segregated schools — they were called like “Christian academies” but they were racially segregated — might be deprived of their lucrative tax exemptions. So Jerry Falwell Sr., and many of his fellow Southern, conservative white pastors, were closely involved with these segregated Christian schools and universities. Bob Jones Sr is another one. He went so far as to call segregation “God’s established order.”
CH: It was on the books at Bob Jones University! You couldn’t have interracial dating, or marriage, until fairly recently, actually.
KS: I know, shockingly recently…and the idea is, they sort of associated de-segregationists, or those who supported racial equality, with communism. He [Bob Jones] called them “satanic propagandists who are leading colored Christians astray.” He actually delivered a really unbelievable sermon about this, which is worth looking up, if you can find it…find it and read it…it’s really astonishing.
A lot of these pastors had to kind of defend the “biblical basis” of segregation, and as far as they were concerned, they had the right not just to separate people on the basis of color, but to receive federal money for the purpose. So they coalesced around the fear that the federal government was going to end tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools. But they knew — they were trying to create a broad-based movement. They were trying to unite disparate elements of it, and even then they knew that, like, overt racism was really not gonna play well with the general public. They knew that “stop the tax on segregation!” wasn’t going to be an effective rallying cry to inspire a broad based, hyper-conservative counter-revolution, which is what they wanted.
The Roots of Christian Nationalism and Religious Right
The story of how the Religious Right, and organizations like the Moral Majority, came to be is something along this line: back in the late 1970s, these influential fundamentalist and conservative leaders got together, and went down a “laundry list” of elements that they figured would unite Christians across the land in a broad-based political movement. These included such items as: the possibility of losing tax exemption for segregated Christian schools and Bible colleges; the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); homosexual rights; and finally, abortion. Surveying this list, they wondered: which of these issues would mobilize and motivate the most Christians (and Catholics) to get involved politically?
When they hit upon the last particular agenda item, they calculated that it would be hot-button issue of abortion that would unite the largest number of not just Christians, but Catholics alike, both to vote their way in upcoming elections and to become politically active. And it worked — their votes helped propel Ronald Reagan into office — the first presidential candidate openly to ally himself with evangelicals. However, to their increasing frustration, when Reagan took office he did not reciprocate on their agenda the way in which they figured he should, given their support for him as a candidate. Since Reagan left office, they have been increasingly frustrated at their inability to overturn Roe v Wade, and to find a suitable presidential candidate who would see to it that it happened. In Trump, Christian nationalists believe they’ve finally found their man.
In the intervening decades since Reagan, those on the Christian Right have continued to use abortion as a single-topic, hot-button issue to motivate Christians from many different traditions and backgrounds to get involved in the political sector. But unfortunately, as Stewart points out, the garden-variety evangelical is largely unaware of the truth behind how this movement came about.
KS: Part of the history that’s been erased by movement leadership is that abortion wasn’t the single most important issue when it came to their vote. They wanted to unite conservative Catholics and evangelicals and, at the time, abortion was really viewed as kind of a Catholic issue, but it didn’t really divide Republicans from Democrats. It was more of an issue of concern with Catholic voters.
So, let’s look at the over-time piece of this. And let’s remember that at the time of 1973 when Roe v Wade was passed, most Protestant Republicans supported some form of abortion law liberalization…most Republican, conservative Protestants supported abortion law liberalization at the time.
Stewart points out that it is critically important, therefore, to understand the true story of how this movement came to prominence today. This is the face of the Republican party currently, but it wasn’t always that way. Back when it all began, key influential Christian leaders within the movement, such as Falwell Sr., Paul Weyrich, and Phyllis Schlafly, saw the potential to unite a new movement around the rallying flag of anti-abortion.
To this they allied the stated aim of overturning Roe v Wade, which gave them a common focus by which to unite and politicize evangelicals and Catholics alike. But over time, they purged many of the pro-choice voices from the Republican Party. This resulted in what Stewart refers to as an almost “pro-life religion” which now dominates the GOP — and actually, the entire movement was initially created for these political purposes.
The Founding Myth: America as a Christian Nation
Allied with the focus on anti-abortion, which has long been a dominant feature both in mainstream evangelicalism and the Republican party, is the “founding myth” narrative of Christian nationalism. It is important to identify its main points in order to understand the motivation and drive behind much of Christian nationalism. If this version of America’s past is indeed true, and the country was founded as a “Christian nation” by the founding fathers, their conclusion is as follows: America has lost its way, but will once again experience God’s blessing by returning to its status as a Christian nation.
Widely promoted by such prominent figures as David Barton of Wallbuilders today, this myth can be seen as far back as the early 1950s in sermons preached by Billy Graham, who railed against the encroachment of communism while at the same time promoting this version of America’s fabled past. Thanks to the work of people like Barton and others, it has also been widely disseminated throughout mainstream evangelical churches across America.
This American founding myth storyline proceeds along the following line: in the 17th century, Puritans fled Europe and came to America to escape tyranny and widespread religious persecution. They viewed themselves as the “new Israel” escaping the “bondage of Egypt” (Europe) and its associated evils. Aided by the providential hand of God, they fled to America — seen as the new “Promised Land” — and pledged to establish a place in which there would be religious freedom.
Believing themselves to be under a covenant with God, just like Old Testament Israel, they vowed to make America the “shining light on the hill” from which the beacon of the gospel message would spread not only to the Native American population, but indeed the entire world. But just like the conditional covenant Israel had with Yahweh, the terms would be identical: obedience brought blessing, while disobedience brought curses and judgement from God.
As America became more secularized, however, corporate sins like abortion and tolerance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage represented violations of the terms of the nation’s covenant with God. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses warned the Israelites that breaking the covenant with God would result in him calling down judgement, which often took the form of plagues, famines, pestilences, diseases, and attacks from foreign powers.
In America today, the same interpretation holds true for many Christians. Natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods and wildfires are often interpreted by Christians as “God’s judgement of America for our corporate sins.” In their view, in an attempt to produce repentance, God is trying to get our attention for straying from his commandments. For example, both Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson attributed the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the “gays, the abortionists, and the atheists who have driven God out of the public square and schools…God will not be mocked.”
Most recently, we have seen that same theme echoed by evangelical leaders referring to the divine reasons behind the Covid-19 outbreak. Some have interpreted the pandemic as God’s judgement on not just America, but indeed the world, for allowing sins like pornography, tolerance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, abortion, all of which represent “turning our backs on God.” According to this line of thinking, with the virus, God is trying to get our attention so that we as a nation will corporately repent of our sins, turn back to God — and subsequently enjoy his bounty and blessing once again. On a mid-April 2020 airing of The 700 Club, for example, Pat Robertson stuck to the same theological line, stating that “We are not turning when we have done terrible things. We have broken the covenant that God made with mankind. We have violated his covenant.”
As mentioned above, for Christian nationalists like Falwell Sr and his other colleagues, abortion proved to be a hugely effective strategy that allowed them first of all to mobilize a massive base of previously-uninvolved Christians and Catholics alike to become involved in the American political process. Second, it allowed them to control the narrative by tying these types of controversial issues together with the founding myths of American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, and America’s covenant status with God.
Their logic proceeds as follows: if America is in jeopardy of losing its covenant status with God, and subsequently being opened up to the possibilities of God’s judgement, then maintaining the primacy of the Christian religion, therefore, is viewed as of paramount importance. As Christian nationalists, their aim politically is as follows: to mobilize grassroots Christians in churches across the country to vote for the “right” candidates and get involved in the political process; to have pastors and church leaders to encourage their congregants to form political action teams; and to install politicians in offices from low to high, from state to federal government, who support their agenda.
The aim of all of this effort is to guarantee the preservation of such Christian ideals as “religious freedom” and “family values.” Their goals include, but are by no means limited to, the following agenda items: overturning Roe v Wade in a bid to end all abortions; getting conservative judges appointed from local to federal levels, including the Supreme Court; and increasing the influence of the Bible on the American legal and educational systems. This last agenda item is often referred to in their parlance as adopting a “biblical worldview.”
From the Christian nationalist point of view, establishing a theocracy is not just something to wish or hope for; it’s something for which many within the movement have been striving for decades now. A major concern is the reality that in many ways they are succeeding — at least in America — and they have worked incredibly hard at making inroads with top political leaders in many other countries also. The fact that 63% of white evangelicals see themselves as “winning” under the Trump administration, according to a recent Pew survey conducted in February 2020, provides evidence that they view themselves as being quite far down the road to eventual Christian victory — but they haven’t won yet.
The critical aspect to remember is what Katherine Stewart reminds us so well of in her book: Christian nationalism is not a religion. It is not “orthodox Christianity” as it has come to be known over the centuries. Instead, she argues, it is a radical political ideology that, as a movement, encompasses many different Christian traditions and streams, but with a similar vision: to grasp political power.
Religious nationalism excludes as many evangelicals as it includes, and it is represented by a great many Protestants of different stripes. It includes Catholics also. As noted above it is driven primarily by a particular revisionist view of history; and it can also be seen as a device for mobilizing, and manipulating, large segments of the population, as well as concentrating power into the hands of a new elite. Although many within the movement are striving for a theocratic form of governance, it is not trying to establish a religion; it’s ultimately about achieving political power.
Ultimately, therefore, this very concerning global movement is perhaps best seen as Stewart depicts it: religious nationalism, because then its similarities can be made clear in light of other religious nationalist movements around the world. Movements like dominion theology, Christian Reconstructionism, and 7 Mountains Mandate Dominion Theology, operate within the larger rubric of “Christian nationalism.”
How can you become more aware of the influences of this movement? Who are the key leaders and figures? In her book, Stewart does a great job of naming many key influencers from the past, together with key leaders and organizations operating in America currently to advance the religious nationalist agenda. Simply understanding the major players is obviously a critical step in the process of unmasking their agenda. Additionally, one of the most important elements is to become educated on the language used by nationalists. It is critically important to become aware of key words, the use of loaded language (“insider jargon”), and well-worn talking points that pop up frequently. Phrases like “taking dominion,” having a “biblical” or “Christian worldview,” are commonly-heard statements.
Finally, anytime one hears the story of the “true foundations of America as a Christian nation” or the sentiment that “America must return to its Christian heritage, one founded on the Bible and God’s laws” — watch out. This is the language and ideology of religious nationalism, which as Stewart describes, “is a political movement that’s really making use of religion…it’s cloaking its political actions in religious rhetoric.”
The Full Interview with Katherine Stewart will be coming out on Friday the 24th of April 2020 on MindShift Podcast — available on iTunes, PodBean, Spotify, Stitcher, etc.
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