Katherine Stewart is the writer who first introduced me to the term “Christian nationalists” almost a year ago. I had previously referred to the group that has shown unwavering support for Trump as “white evangelicals.” But that is a bit of a misnomer, primarily because, as we saw with the article in Christianity Today calling for the president’s removal from office, there are pockets of white evangelicals who aren’t part of the movement. There are also members of other religious groups that espouse the same beliefs. For example, Catholic leaders like Attorney General William Barr and Federalist Society President Leonard Leo are major players in the Christian nationalist movement.
Bringing some clarity to the make-up of the Christian nationalist movement is just one of the myths Stewart busts in her upcoming book titled: The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, set to be released on March 3rd. Equally important for us to understand is that this movement isn’t simply about culture wars.
It is not a social or cultural movement. It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power. It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity answering to what some adherents call a “biblical worldview” that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders…This is not a “culture war.” It is a political war over the future of democracy.
When it comes to that “biblical worldview,” we often hear about the fact that Christian nationalists oppose abortion and LGBT rights. But as Stewart explains, the movement is actually based on the idea that “the Bible is very clear about the right answers to the political issues American voters face in the twenty-first century.” For example, they also believe that the Bible:
- opposes public assistance to the poor as a matter of principle—unless the money passes through church coffers;
- opposes environmentalism and, as a matter of theology, denies the science that human contributions to greenhouse gases causes global warning;
- opposes gun regulation;
- supports strong national borders;
- favors the privatization of schools;
- favors a gender hierarchy in both the home and church, with women being submissive to men;
- favors the use of corporal punishment when discipling children;
- favors government deregulation of business and minimal workers rights; and
- favors capitalism and property rights.
To illustrate the Christian nationalist commitment to that biblical worldview, Stewart examined the writings and teachings of Ralph Drollinger, the founder of Capitol Ministries, who leads a weekly Bible study in the White House for cabinet secretaries and other officials. However, those views are also incorporated into churches by groups like the Family Research Council, which promotes “Cultural Impact Teams” and arms them with manuals that outline a biblical worldview.
Perhaps that helps explain why a host of uber-wealthy elites have signed on to the Christian nationalist movement and provide funding for the vast network of everything from non-profits to legal advocacy groups that promote their cause.
For me personally, the major myth about Christian nationalists that Stewart busted was to provide some history of where this movement came from. In this case, I have to disagree with my colleague Martin Longman. Trump hasn’t corrupted his Christian supporters, he is the apex of decades of work that led up to his election. Here are just a few of the men who laid the groundwork for where we are today.
Robert Lewis Dabney
Dabney was a Presbyterian minister and theologian who was born in 1820. He was an anti-abolitionist, who argued that opposing slavery was “tantamount to rejecting Christianity.” After the Civil War, Dabney, who referred to democracy as “mobocracy,” took up the cause of his “oppressed white brethren of Virginia and neighboring states to the south.”
Their oppression consisted in, among other things, having to pay taxes to support a “pretended education to the brats of black paupers.” These unjustly persecuted white people, as Dabney saw it, were also forced to contend with “the atheistic and infidel theories of physical science.”
As Stewart notes, “Christian nationalism came of age in the American slave republic” due to the proslavery theology of men like Dabney, who fused religion with a racialized form of nationalism.
The importance of Dabeny can be seen from the fact that Rushdoony, whose writings provided the core of today’s Christian nationalism, considered him a role model.
The views of the theologian who lies at the center of so much influence are not hard to state simply and clearly: Rushdoony advocated a return to “biblical” law in America. The Bible, says Rushdoony, commands Christians to exercise absolute dominion over the earth and all of its inhabitants. Women are destined by God to be subordinate to men; men are destined to be ruled by a spiritual aristocracy of right-thinking, orthodox Christian clerics; and the federal government is an agent of evil. Public education, in Rushdoony’s reading of the Bible, is a threat to civilization, for it “basically trains women to be men,” and represents “primitivism,” “chaos,” and “a vast integration into the void.”
Two of the themes that are critical for today’s Christian nationalists emerged from Dabney and Rushdoony: (1) the fight against government (ie, public) schools, and (2) the disdain for democracy in favor of a hierarchy of authoritarianism. As Stewart wrote: “the new generation of leaders promoted a theological vision that emphasized the divine origins of the existing order, which invariably involved domination and subordination.”
Weyrich wasn’t a particularly religious man. Instead, he was a Goldwater Republican who was passionate about “anticommunism, economic libertarianism, and a distrust of the civil rights movement.” It was Weyrich’s genius to meld those commitments with Christian nationalists in order to form a new radical right.
Initially, Weyrich joined with leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Bob Jones to rally around the cause of fighting against federal attempts to desegregate their schools. In that effort, we can see the groundwork that was laid by Dabney and Rushdoony.
But they had a problem. As Weyrich understood, building a new movement around the burning issue of defending the tax advantages of racist schools wasn’t going to be a viable strategy on the national stage. “Stop the tax on segregation” just wasn’t going to inspire the kind of broad-based conservative counterrevolution that Weyrich envisions. They needed an issue with a more acceptable appeal.
That is when, several years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade was actually embraced by most conservative Christians, they decided to focus on the issue of abortion. The rest, as they say, is history.
One of the most important moments of the so-called “Reagan revolution” was the fact that he launched his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi with a dog-whistle shout-out to states rights. But equally important was the speech the not-so-religious presidential candidate gave at the Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas to a crowd of 15,000 pastors and religious activists.
I know that you can’t endorse me,” he declared, but “I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” The pastors went wild. Reagan went on to air his personal doubts about the theory of evolution. Then he offered a homespun hypothetical: if he were to be trapped on an island with only one book, he said, he would take the Bible. “All of the complex questions facing us at home and abroad,” he said, “have their answer in that single book.”
With his speech in Mississippi, Reagan secured the support of southern white racists. But it was his speech in Dallas that married Christian nationalists to his candidacy and forged the bond with the Republican Party that lasts to this day. Weyrich’s vision came to fruition.
In today’s political arena, the number of Christian nationalist influencers is too great to capture. But Stewart suggests that Barton is the “where’s Waldo” of the movement—showing up everywhere.
Barton got a bachelor’s degree in Christian education from Oral Roberts University and, until his early 30s, was a math teacher and principal at a Christian high school. Then he became convinced that the whole idea of the founder’s commitment to a wall of separation between church and state was a myth. Here is how Stewart describes Barton’s historiography.
American was once a single nation with a single God. It goes on to describe a fall and a cause for grievance as the righteous lose their hold, thanks to the actions of secular liberals. The story of the past thus leads inexorably to a political prescription for the future, which for the most part involves retaking the court system and the rest of government and turning it over to Bible believers.
Those are some of the historical highlights that led Stewart to this conclusion.
America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.
Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus.
To outsiders, the question often arises about why this religious movement would remain loyal to such an amoral president. But that fails to take into account the fact that Christian nationalism is “authoritarian, paranoid, and patriarchal to its core … In Mr. Trump, they have found a man who does not merely serve their cause, but also satisfies their craving for a certain kind of political leadership.”
Reading Stewart’s book is certainly enlightening, but it can also be depressing. She ends, however, on a note that harkens back to Barack Obama’s most important speech: the one he gave at the 50th anniversary of the Selma march where he talked about what it means to be an American. Stewart emphasized the same theme.
If we want to guard against demagogues and theocrats who wish to “redeem” America, we don’t need a new theory of American democracy. We just need to recover and restore the vision of a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal.