Why Christian Nationalism Is a Threat to Democracy

It probably shouldn’t surprise us that, after hearing from witnesses who testified consistently that the president attempted to bribe a foreign head of state in order to get dirt on a political opponent, the needle hasn’t moved on those who oppose impeachment. We’ve been here before. On several occasions, hopes have been raised that this is the moment Trump’s enablers will finally abandon him. But it has never happened.

Given that the president’s base of support comes primarily from white evangelicals, it is important to understand Christian nationalism in order to explain their loyalty. One of the court evangelicals, Franklin Graham, recently gave us a window into that world.

During his November 21 interview with Graham, Metaxas, a Salem Radio Network talk-show host, asked the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, “What do you think of what is happening now? I mean, it’s a very bizarre situation to be living in a country where some people seem to exist to undermine the president of the United States. It’s just a bizarre time for most Americans.”

Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, responded, “Well, I believe it’s almost a demonic power that is trying—”

At which point Metaxas interjected, “I would disagree. It’s not almost demonic. You know and I know, at the heart, it’s a spiritual battle.”

Graham agreed…

As Peter Wehner summarized, the message is that, in this “spiritual battle,” we all have to chose sides.

For Graham and Metaxas, it appears that agreeing with them equates to agreeing with God—and disagreeing with them, at least when it comes to Donald Trump, means doing the work of the evil one.

For these Christian nationalists, it’s not enough to say, “God is on our side.” If you don’t agree with them, you are engaged with a demonic power. There is no authoritarian tool more controlling than the one that wields the power to define the playing field like that. It is a pronouncement that leaves no room for debate or nuance. You’re either all in or all out. Anyone who buys into what they’re saying has no choice but to defend Trump. To do otherwise is a pathway to eternal doom with the devil.

To further the argument that God is on Trump’s side, Rick Perry recently opined about how the president is the “chosen one.”

Apparently, Perry also said that Obama was chosen by God. It’s funny how we never heard that when Obama was actually president. But what Perry was articulating is a theological argument for the omnipotence of God, who has unlimited power to control everything. Leaving that one aside for the moment, it is worth examining the rhetoric Perry used.

“I actually gave the president a little one-pager on those Old Testament kings about a month ago, and I shared it with him,” he continued. “I said, ‘Mr. President, I know there are people that say you said you were the chosen one, and I said, ‘You were.’”

“I said, ‘If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet in our government,’” he added.

He was comparing Trump to kings in the Old Testament and referred to God’s plan for those who rule over us. That goes to the heart of something Katherine Stewart wrote about Christian nationalists.

The great thing about kings like Cyrus, as far as today’s Christian nationalists are concerned, is that they don’t have to follow rules. They are the law. This makes them ideal leaders in paranoid times…

I have attended dozens of Christian nationalist conferences and events over the past two years. And while I have heard plenty of comments casting doubt on the more questionable aspects of Mr. Trump’s character, the gist of the proceedings almost always comes down to the belief that he is a miracle sent straight from heaven to bring the nation back to the Lord. I have also learned that resistance to Mr. Trump is tantamount to resistance to God.

This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.

As you can see, Graham wasn’t the first one to claim that “resistance to Trump is tantamount to resistance to God.” Stewart has been hearing that one for a few years.

We have to grapple with the fact that Christian nationalists are launching a “direct attack on democracy itself.” That is because real democracy poses a threat to the kind of authoritarianism they embrace. The roots of that were explained by William Barr during his speech to the law school at Notre Dame. He began by articulating his own view of human nature.

Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.

No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.

Barr goes on to suggest that, when the founders talked about self government, they didn’t mean what we think they did.

In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves…”

This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.

But if individual rapacity is the problem, what is the source of those restraints?

[T]o control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.

In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.

When you combine that with the belief among Christian nationalists that the only true religion is Christianity, you have the antithesis of democratic pluralism. Instead, you have authoritarian theocracy. That loops us back to Franklin Graham and the rest of the court evangelicals, who take it upon themselves to define who is on God’s side and who is doing the work of the devil.

Years ago, Sara Robinson captured what it takes to leave that kind of authoritarian mindset.

We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them…Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you’ve ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.

While the loss of community can be traumatic, the prospect of “sifting through every assumption you’ve ever made about how the world works” is overwhelming. As she points out, the entire edifice is designed to protect you from fear and the threat of ambiguity. For most people, scaling that one is too much to ask.

I’m not going to suggest that it is impossible for Trump’s supporters to change their minds. But when we watch them reject one rational case after another, it is important to understand the depths of what binds them, as well as the threat that poses to our democracy.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.