June 2020

At the turn of the new millennium, David Kuo was rapidly climbing the ladder of influence in the Republican party. He had come ten years before at age 24 to work for the most powerful pro-life organization, the National Right to Life Committee. Yet when he graduated from college, this could not have been farther from his mind.

David’s father fought the Japanese for eleven years after they invaded Shanghai in 1937 and then emigrated to the US. He never associated with religion, but his European American wife was a church-going mainline Protestant who read the Psalms to young David before going to bed and told him Bible stories. While David was in high school, his United Methodist church just north of New York City hired an evangelical youth pastor. As a result, he and several friends had personal and life-changing encounters with Jesus. But David at that stage was just as passionate about politics as he was about his newfound faith. And like his parents, he was a staunch Democrat. In fact, he interned with his idol Bobby Kennedy for a summer in college.

Abortion turned out to be the issue that drove him into the Republican Party. He and his college girl friend had an abortion and he came to regret it. With time this became one of two burning issues for him. The other was caring for the poor, a passion he inherited from his mother, so he jumped at the opportunity to become deputy-director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the first term of President George W. Bush. Yet the initial rush of power that comes from working in the White House soon turned to frustration, as the “compassionate conservatism” of the president got whittled away almost from the start. And no, you can’t blame it on the 9/11 aftermath either. You can read about this in his New York Times Bestseller, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction (watch him explain it in October 2006 as it was coming out).

A friend sent me this book over a decade ago and because of the present topic, I finally read it last week. It was hard to put down. Fourteen years later, it’s just as relevant today. Because of his reputation as a speech writer, George W. Bush had invited Kuo to his ranch in Texas when he was contemplating a presidential run. Then during his presidency, Kuo became Special Advisor to the president from 2001 to 2003. Nowhere in the book does he say or imply that the president was insincere in his promoting “compassionate conservatism,” and he plainly liked him as a person. But he became increasingly upset that the Bush administration used conservative Christians (evangelicals and Catholics) for political gain and that even money earmarked for the faith-based charities found its way into the 2004 campaign coffers.

I will come back to Kuo’s misgivings and theological lessons at the end of this piece, but in the meantime, allow me to highlight just a few of Katherine Stewart’s main themes in her 2019 book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.


Stewart’s qualitative and longitudinal study

Katherine Stewart, an acclaimed journalist, first started researching the Religious Right in 2009 after she discovered her children’s elementary school sponsored an after-school club meeting dubbed a “Bible study.” As the book cover to her 2012 book The Good News Club puts it, “Stewart soon discovered that its real mission is to convert children to fundamentalist Christianity.” That the Supreme court could deem such religious activity in public schools legal is what sent her to investigate the wider political implications of this.

By now, some readers might be thinking, “Here’s a flaming secular liberal on a witch hunt.” Clearly, Stewart is not sympathetic to the political agenda of the Religious Right. But nor is she on an angry campaign to smear these people. They have a right to free speech as everyone else, but she strongly believes that their goal continues to be the gradual erosion of the First Amendment which guarantees the separation of church and state in America. Her book, then, is a wake-up call to take this movement seriously because it threatens our democratic freedoms as a nation.

For those of you who want more details from her book, watch John Fea interview Katherine Stewart in an online discussion sponsored by a bookstore in Harrisburg, PA (March 25, 2020). This also conveniently pulls together the two parts of this blog post on religious nationalism.

In my subtitle I called her study “qualitative.” By this I refer to how many anthropologists and sociologists spend time embedded in their subjects’ lives and context. Stewart has been going to several Christian Right conferences a year since 2009. She not only knows the issues debated first-hand. She’s also made quite a few friends in those circles. I’m sure she’s made some leaders wince when they see her coming too. Yet several times she insists that these are good and sincere people for the most part. Furthermore, the book documents her own feelings as she went through this process, with detailed descriptions of personalities she interviewed and leaders she has observed.

I also put “longitudinal” in the subtitle. That refers to time, of course (ten years of immersing herself in this evangelical Christian milieu), and also to the breadth of the movement. At 277 pages of text, she covers a lot of ground. I will only highlight four points, since there is necessarily overlap with Fea’s book.


It is all about power

The first chapter introduces the main themes by describing a “Pastors’ Briefings,” not coincidently a month before the 2018 elections in a swing-state, North Carolina. Traveling to this church near Charlotte with a friend who was a Southern Baptist pastor, Stewart describes this one-day conference sponsored by “one of the most powerful and politically connected lobbying organizations of the Christian right,” Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington, D.C. More specifically, the event is organized by its affiliate, Watchmen on the Wall (referring to the book of Nehemiah when the first returnees from exile rebuild the wall of Jerusalem). Apparently, Watchmen claims nearly 25,000 pastors as members. Vice President Mike Pence declares on their website, “Keep being a ‘Watchman on the Wall.’ Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s making a difference.”

Perkins himself was speaking that morning. “Folks, we’re headed in a new direction as a nation. And that’s what this battle over the court is about.” Then he lists some of the common themes of the movement: “the Court has been used to impose a godless set of values on America”; they took the Bible out of schools and in its place called for “abortions on demand”; it “made us all complicit with the taking of innocent life”; “Folks, is this an evil day?” (15)

Then Perkins gets to the reason for the gathering: “Christians need to vote. The members of your congregation need to vote. As pastors, you need to – I’m not going to say ‘challenge them’; you need to tell them to vote.” And though the word “Republican” is never uttered, Perkins leaves no doubt what he means. On one side is the “party of life”; on the other is controlled by “the rulers of the darkness.” His parting challenge, then, is this: “My question to you this morning is: What will you do? What will you do with this moment that God has entrusted to us?”

But how do these organizations get around the ban on clergy using their pulpits to promote political candidates if their churches want to keep their tax-exempt status? The FRC created an “elaborate architecture of Culture Impact Teams” (CIT) who then set up in each participating congregation a “Cultural Impact Center” (notice the smart switching of “political” to “cultural”), whereby a congregation takes the initiative to inform itself politically. Each of these CITs is given close to 200 pages of information in a three-ring binder. Stewart notes some of its talking points:


      • “Scripture opposes public assistance to the poor as a matter of principle – unless the money passes through church coffers”;
      • Environmentalism is an anti-Christian movement, a “litany of the Green Dragon” and “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today”; it recommends the resources supplied by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which on its website tells us that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming”;
      • The Bible opposes gun regulations;
      • The Bible “favors privatization of schools through vouchers”;
      • It teaches that “same-sex relationships are an abomination”
      • It teaches that women should not “have access to comprehensive, twenty-first-century reproductive medical care” (17)


Additionally, the FRC has two red-and-blue “Values Buses” crisscrossing the country, and one of them was outside the church that day. As Stewart puts it, it obviously serves as a “mobile get-out-the-vote unit.” There were North Carolina voters guides on every seat at this event, dispersed throughout the fellowship hall, and thousands of them neatly stacked in the middle of the room for pastors to load up their trunks upon leaving.

What fuels this grassroots activism, besides its Christian veneer? Looking at some of the afternoon speakers and their extreme social conservatism, Stewart offers this hypothesis: she senses “an undercurrent of rage,” which speakers can adroitly channel into “a kind of political therapy.” She goes on:


“Here the anxieties over shifting gender roles and the resentments over fading economic privilege are transmuted into personal salvation – and political gold. Setting aside the big money, the key to hard-right Republican power in this state is an army of volunteer activists, people with the time and energy to canvass voters, run for minor political offices, and do whatever it takes to save the country from ‘the humanists’ and ‘the ‘homosexual agenda’ and take it back for God” (21).


I cannot move on from the power topic without mentioning perhaps the most dramatic speaker – retired Lieutenant General William Boykin, the famous commander of the raid in the movie Black Hawk Down. I mentioned him in one of my first posts on my human trustees website (August 2011, “Sharia Conspiracy Theories”). In the late 2000s he was one of the prominent communicators in the lucrative network of American Islamophobes. Besides his multiple speaking engagements, he contributed to a book with several other security analysts at the conservative Center for Security Policy in 2010, Sharia: The Threat to America. As I wrote in my blog, his views showed more penchant for conspiracy theories than any knowledge of Islam.

Here I invite you to connect the dots. One of President Trump’s signature immigration policies was the “Muslim Ban,” in its several iterations, forced on his by the courts. But this high-level military officer had also come “close to the heart of American military power” (24). From deputy director of special activities at the CIA, to a similar post in the Army, to deputy undersecretary for intelligence and war fighting in 2003 under President Bush, it was Boykin’s experience with the military in Iraq that colored his views of Islam.

Yet there is another layer here, one that touches me on a personal level. Stewart notes that in his work in Iraq “he worked with contractors with strong links to dominionist groups, who believe that Christians should seek to occupy all positions of power in government and society” (24-25). Though the indisputable theological father of the Christian Right is R. J. Rushdoony (1922-2001), starting in the late 1990s one influential thinker promoted the idea that Christians are called by God to influence all seven areas of civilization, “including government, business, education, the media, the arts and entertainment, family, and religion” – the seven “mountains” (25).

It turns out that this person, C. Peter Wagner, was a former missionary to Bolivia who taught mostly “church growth” at Fuller Theological Seminary when I was there working on my PhD there from 1997-2001, in Pasadena, CA. Besides taking a class with him in that area, he was the teacher of an adult Sunday School class my wife and I attended at Lake Avenue Church (6,000 members at the time). While we were there, he taught mostly from the book of Acts, since he was writing a commentary on it at the time. It was only near the end of our stay that he started to mention his new project of linking together various “apostles” worldwide to form a movement called “the New Apostolic Reformation,” based at the Wagner Institute he was founding in Colorado Springs.

From his 2008 book, Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World, Stewart quotes Wagner’s teaching that apostles (influential, Holy Spirit-empowered leaders) are responsible “for taking dominion” over “whatever molder of culture or subdivision God has placed them in,” which he casts as “taking dominion over Satan.” Knowing Wagner personally as I did ((he died in October 2016), I doubt he would approve of Paula White-Cain’s role of “personal pastor” to President Donald Trump, though her neo-Pentecostal theology has some clear affinities with his (here's an amazing OpEd in Chrisitanity Today explaining the unlikely support for her by virtually the male leaders of the Christian Right). If you listen to Wagner's 2011 interview with NPR Fresh Air hostess Terry Gross, you realize that “dominion” for him is more about influence than power, more to do with spreading the love of Jesus than with political power. He’s very clear that the pluralistic, democratic nature of the US is something Christians, along with all other US citizens, of whatever religious or non-religious background, should respect. Of course, that doesn’t stop others from interpreting “dominionism” in more aggressive and authoritarian ways.


Add deceit to the power mix

Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at the Massachussetts think tank Political Research Associates literally hit the jackpot in early 2018: following a tip, he “went fishing in a conservative website and reeled in a 116-page manual for a campaign called Project Blitz” (153). This discovery laid bare “the movement’s legislative strategy,” which is “to flood the zone with coordinated, simultaneous bills in the hopes that they will, eventually, become law” (read his article in Religion Dispatches here)

And all aimed to further “religious freedom.” Launched in 2015, the steering committee of four is led by a woman, Lea Carawan, who obtained a master’s in theology from Regent University (founded by Pat Robertson), cofounded and directed the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which aims to “protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer” (154). The interviewer of a Christian TV show in 2018 said to her, “Our country was founded by Christians on Judeo-Christian principles, and they intended for this to be a Christian nation.” “That’s right,” she replied. “It simply means that our laws will reflect Judeo-Christian or biblical values and concepts” (155). Apparently, this restricts “religious freedom” to Christians (and perhaps Jews).

Another steering committee member, Lindy M. “Buddy” Pilgrim, is the founder of Integrity Leadership. Stewart quips, “Pilgrim is an avid proponent of the merger between the Christian far right and the economic far right.” Quoting from an interview with him, Pilgrim stated that the “only way to make freedom work,” [is to have] “Godly men and women assuming positions of power and authority in business (and politics)” (155). Pilgrim does indeed know about business. He served as president of his uncle Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim’s firm, Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, listed in the Fortune 500. He later “worked as CEO of Simmons Foods and founded start-ups in residential housing, food distribution, and agribusiness. He also established businesses in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia” (155-6).

You should also note that Buddy Pilgrim has been on President Trump’s Evangelical Leadership Council, a name often given to the circle of evangelical leaders who regularly meet with him. Let me quote Stewart on an interview Pilgrim gave in a Point of View radio interview in November 2018:


“Pilgrim glowingly recalled a dinner he attended at the White House for evangelical leaders, including James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Kenneth Copeland, and Franklin Graham. ‘And here’s what was so special about it,’ he said. ‘This was the first ever dinner like this, and the dinner was literally named, “A celebration of Evangelical Leadership.”’ Not ‘a celebration of faith leadership in general,’ with a mix of Buddhists and Hindus and Christians and all these other groups” (156).


The next person on Project Blitz’ steering committee is David Barton, whom Stewart dubs the Where’s Waldo of the Christian Right” (173). He has his hands in literally dozens of keys projects and institutions, including the Washington Museum of the Bible. His epiphany came at age 33 (1987), while a math teacher and principal of a small Christian school in Aledo, Texas. He sensed God telling him to research the connection between the Supreme Court’s decision to ban prayers in public school and the drop in SAT scores. It turns out, those scores were rising steadily until 1963, a year after the case of Engel v. Vitale, which ruled that prayers offered in public schools violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. This was followed the next year by the case of School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp, “in which the Court declared that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional” (130).

Stewart is right: to argue for a causal relationship between the two events while totally disregarding “the massive changes” occurring in US education in that decade and ignoring the social scientific research on the issue is irresponsible. Besides the fact that whole sections of disadvantaged and marginalized populations were integrated in the school system at that time, “the majority of the nation’s school districts had minimized or ceased the practice of school-sponsored, sectarian prayer” long before this.

Since then David Barton has made documentaries and written books about American history that have been forcefully rebutted by secularist and evangelical historians alike. For instance, in a 1990 video, he recognizes that in Jefferson’s own words the First Amendment erects “a wall of separation between Church & State.” But then he argues “that Jefferson meant only to prohibit ‘the establishing of a single denomination,’” and that the wall was only to be “a one-directional wall protecting the church from the government” (133). His definitive work on the subject (recall that he has no training as a historian) is found in his 2012 book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson. The History News Network called the book “the least credible history book in print” (134). John Fea’s 2016 revised edition of his book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, was partly a rebuttal of Barton’s shoddy, and frankly, deceitful work.

I don’t have the space to mention the fourth player in Project Blitz, Bill Dallas, a man who did prison time for embezzling money but who found God in his San Quentin prison cell and later founded a state-of-the-art “data firm that turns out the conservative Christian vote” (156, see her Ch. 8, “Converting the Flock to Data”).

What I can say is that these four highly connected individuals have crafted a tool of enormous reach and success. Only three bills found their way in 2017 in state legislatures seeking to put to use “In God We Trust” in various public forums. But then by April 2018, over 70 bills churned out by Project Blitz appeared across the country. Many were defeated, but in at least five states some were adopted. Stewart comments, “‘It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ‘em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this,’ David Barton explained on a conference call about Project Blitz with state legislators from around the country” (157).

How is this strategy deceitful? On the surface it just seems like normal politics, albeit with a lot of money and grassroots support behind it. Stewart argues that the documentation of Project Blitz that was uncovered “shows that Christian nationalists have self-consciously embraced a strategy of advancing their goals through deception and indirection.” There are three phases: 1) introduce “symbolic or ceremonial gestures that can be fairly easily passes; 2) with their foot in the door, so to speak, phase II “consists of bills that propose to inject Christian nationalist ideas more directly into schools and other government entities; 3) phase III will seek “to legalize discrimination against those whose actions (or very being) offends the sensibilities of conservative Christians” (160). Declaring “Christian Heritage Week” in public schools, for example, accompanied with the appropriate Barton-inspired teaching on American history, is a recipe for “spreading the message, among children especially, that conservative Christians are the real Americans and everybody else is here by invitation.”


The Libertarian gospel

I mentioned that the master thinker behind today’s Religious Right was R. J. Rushdoony, a prolific writer who had graduated from UC Berkeley fully disgusted with his study of classical literature. It was all “humanistic garbage,” “classics of depravity,” he said. Stewart summarizes his mindset from the beginning: “a resolutely binary form of thought that classified all things into one of two absolutes; a craving for order; and a loathing for the secular world and secular education in particular. He promoted the pro-slavery writings of 19th-century theologian Robert Lewis Dabney, agreeing with him “that the Union victory was ‘a defeat for Christian orthodoxy’” and emphasizing that “Dabney’s adversaries, the abolitionists, were the archetypes of the anti-Christian rebels – the liberals, the communists, the secularists, the advocates of women’s rights – who continued to wreak havoc on the modern world” (112).

One wonders how the son of Armenian refugees who had escaped the 1917 genocide could hold such racist views. In his magnum opus, Institutes of Biblical Law, you can read, “Some people are by nature slaves and will always be so” (113). Yet this racist screed also had economic policy implications. The post-Civil-War Christian South, gradually coming under the new slavery of an atheistic federal government ended up advocating a “social gospel,” that is, the view that the state is delegated by God to take care of the poor, and in this case the Blacks. Whites should never should have had to pay taxes to uplift them economically, he opined.

David Barton liberally quotes from Rushdoony in his writings and aligns himself also with James W. Fifield Jr., a Congregational minister who in 1935 cofounded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization. It was laser-focused on dismantling the New Deal. As Stewart has it, the message was simple: “business has a friend in Jesus, and government is the enemy of God and man,” and theologically, the welfare state violates God’s Ten Commandments, and especially, “Thou shalt not steal.” To have the government muzzle business and “take from the rich to give to the poor” is stealing, plain and simple. Thus, Rushdoony wrote, “capitalism is supremely a product of Christianity,” and “socialism is organized larceny; like inflation, it takes from the haves to give to the have-nots” (118).

I cannot respond to this here, but I posted a three-part Lenten series in 2012 on Muslim and Christian poverty alleviation that attempted to cut through right and left ideological lines and show that the mainstream in both faith traditions is surprisingly aligned on the issue of social justice. ["A Muslim and Christian Holistic Approach to Poverty"; "US Poverty Growing, Values Eroding?"; "US Poverty Growing, Values Eroding?; "Zakat and Poverty Alleviation"]

Nowhere is this libertarian gospel more in evidence than in the Christian nationalist view of the role of government in education. I do not believe Stewart’s characterization of the movement’s goal is exaggerated: “to convert America’s public schools into conservative Christian academies, even as they weaken or even destroy public education altogether” (186). As I write, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose marriage cemented the union of two like-minded billionaire families from Holland, MI (DeVos and Prince), has managed to handsomely further her movement’s misleading slogan, “school choice” (195, see above photo with the Texas Capito in the background).

You can catch a glimpse of what our national education would look under such policies by observing what has happened in Michigan “with the DeVos money flooding the arteries of the state’s political system” (196). It has now become “a paradise for for-profit charter operators, most of them concentrated in urban areas.” Amazingly, over “half of Detroit’s children now attend charters – second only to New Orleans (and possibly Flint, MI) – and 80 percent of these are for-profit.”

The first element in this winning strategy is to establish for-profit charter schools. The second is that this multiplication of charter schools is fueled by “lucrative tax breaks.” How so? “Charter operators who own the property that they lease to their own schools demanded – and received – a tax exemption on that property, an arrangement that has become increasingly common around the country” (197). Finally, this boom could never be possible in Michigan without state laws that “are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses or poor academics.” “School choice,” in the end, is a race toward the bottom, especially for minority children.


The global conservative movement

Katherine Stewart attended the World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy in March 2019. In its thirteenth iteration, this congress gathers pro-life, “pro-family” (meaning anti LGBTQ rights) Christian Right supporters mostly from Europe and Russia. The worldwide enemy is “global liberalism,” a hydra with “multiple faces,” in the words of Ignacio Arsuaga, “founder and president of the ultraconservative Christian activist group CitizenGO” in Spain. In a familiar refrain he lists the enemies: “radical feminists, the abortion industry, and the LGBT totalitarians” (249). Migrants are the other enemy. As several speakers intoned at the congress, with these hordes breaking down our borders, “soon we will be extinct.”

As you might suspect, President Trump is revered by all in this gathering. In the words of a Georgian leader “who doubles as a private equity investor with interests in Russia,” Trump has marked “a turning point in the march against the global liberalism” (250). Then too, the interests of the religious Right and the Alt Right have converged, mostly in the person of Steve Bannon (251). As Ed Martin, one of the coauthors of the book, The Conservative Case for Donald Trump, put it in his speech, the vision can be summarized in three points: “Brexit, border, and Bible.”

Possibly the most worrisome development is the aura that Russia’s Vladimir Putin holds for this movement. The same Republican leader who in 1979 successfully urged an undecided group of religious and political leaders huddled around Jerry Falwell to form the Moral Majority to choose abortion as their central issue (62-64), Paul Weyrich was “among the first to grasp the potential for an alliance with religious conservatives in Russia and Eastern Europe” (270). But as the 2015 Republican nomination was heating up, “Russian oligarchs, having effectively deployed religious nationalism to gain control over their own populations, readily grasped that it could be used to shape events in other countries too.” They realized that these “pro-family” issues could be leveraged to mobilize religious nationalists elsewhere, “an excellent way to destabilize the Western alliance and advance Russia’s geopolitical interests.” Maria Butina’s arrest in the wake of the FBI’s scrutinizing the Trump campaign is now history, but Russia is already trying to use the current racial protests in the US to advance its own agenda and is poised to try and tip the balance in the 2020 election as well.


David Kuo’s important lesson

Ten years into his political activity in Washington, DC, Kuo found himself for the first time with a job at the White House – only a summer job, he had said to himself. Yet on his first day, after listening to the head of the White House Political Affairs brief the Domestic Policy staff on how they were “to understand the political world,” he had a sinking feeling. In his words,


“Listening to all of this I realized I had passed to the other side. I wasn’t just a Christian trying to serve God in politics. Now I was a Christian in politics looking for ways to recruit other Christians into politics so that we would have their votes . . . In my best moments I feared I wasn’t representing Jesus. Now it was different. Now I had to ask if I was a corrupting force in other people’s faith. Chuck Colson inspired me to tackle the great moral issues. Was I doing that, or was I part of an effort to get people to support a political leader? There were enormous differences between the two possibilities. One sought to serve Jesus’ concerns for people through political ends. The other sought to serve a political end by using Jesus’ concern as justification” (Tempting Faith, 168-9).


Kuo ended up staying three more years in the White House, doing his best to suppress this internal tug-of-war. A brain tumor in April 2003, which the doctors said would probably kill him, became the occasion for some soul-searching. Yet, miraculously, three weeks after brain surgery he returned to work, but in a different frame of mind. He was now telling himself the truth: the faith-based project was a “sad charade,” a ploy “to provide political cover to a White House that needed compassion and religion as a political tool” (242). He soon left politics, followed his dream for a while to become a professional bass fisherman (he still does this on the side). He’s now a contributing editor for beliefnet.com to the beliefnet.com website.

I kicked off this two-part post on Christian nationalism by framing it within the wider question of religion and politics. For Christians and Muslims, and by extension for people of any faith, this American Christian movement from 1979 to the present should cause all of us to take a deep breath – at least those of us who believe that democracy, human rights, human dignity, and the equality of all before the law are values worth fighting for (peacefully!). Today, Juneteenth 2020, is also the 23rd day of street protests across this nation for racial justice. Multigenerational crowds from every race and creed are marching with increasing determination to end the structural injustice that has oppressed African Americans for 400 years in America. And it looks like this time, substantial change will take place. Right now the people are voting with their feet. In November they will vote with their ballots. And that gives me hope.

I hope this infamous image will go down in history as a cautionary tale: President Trump’s photo-op brandishing a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House, minutes after the police and national guard teargassed the demonstrators that had stood in his path, including at least one Episcopal priest and a seminarian in the church courtyard. They were cleaning up after a day of providing water and other help to the protesters. Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde of the Diocese of Washington registered her “outrage” at the event, mostly because of “the president’s use of the Bible and the backdrop of St. John’s Church for his political purposes.” Had he opened the Bible, she mused, he could have read aloud about love of God and neighbor, about seeking “God in the face of strangers,” about the call “to the highest standard of love, which is justice.”

Leave Trump aside now. Focus instead on what happens when religion mixes with politics, and here specifically, when religion gets hijacked to bolster the power of a particular regime. As most of you know, I’m a Christian theologian and an Islamicist (Islamic Studies scholar). One of the topics I’ve written about is twentieth-century Islamism, or political Islam. From the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – a grassroots revival movement that quickly got involved in politics – to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, to the Taliban and all manner of Islamic parties worldwide, the temptation to mix religion and politics in Muslim-majority nations has seemed irresistible over the last hundred years.

You might object, “But haven’t Islamic polities always espoused some version of mosque-state integration since the Prophet Muhammad ruled in Medina (622-632)?” That is certainly true, just as it has been for Christians, from the Emperor Constantine until the modern period. In fact, the UK and Germany, among others, still have state churches. But for both Muslims and Christians, the God and politics formula has spawned authoritarianism. As Emory University professor Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im argued in his classic book, Islam and the Secular State, if they care about democracy and the equality of all before the law, governments in Muslim countries must be secular so that one version of Islam is not weaponized to oppress citizens of another religious school or persuasion.

That is what we had on display near the White House. An American president who was elected largely because he managed to secure 81 percent of the evangelical vote used tear gas to clear a path to a church from which he could remind his base that he was their champion in their fight to make America “Christian” again (note that his approval rating among this group has recently slipped from 80 to 62 percent). Trump was appealing directly to the nationalist ideology of the Christian Right that has been with us since at least Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority in 1979.

I hope to unpack this notion of Christian nationalism following historian John Fea in this post, and in the next, I’ll lean on Katherine Stewart’s acclaimed book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. Both books are finely researched and argued. In this instance I look at the phenomenon from the perspective of an evangelical historian. In the next, I dive into a wide-angle study of the movement here and abroad.


John Fea’s historical perspective

Professor of American history at Messiah College (an evangelical liberal arts college), Fea has bravely waded into political waters before. In 2011 he wrote a book that pushed back against the view that the United States was “founded as a Christian nation” (see the second edition here). He comes back to this theme in his 2018 book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. That theme resurfaces in the third part of this book. Fea’s overall thesis is that starting with Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1979, the so-called Christian Right hitched its wagon to the Republican Party and unashamedly pursued political power. In several instances, it did gain access to the Oval Office, though never as completely as in the Trump administration. Yet that is precisely what allows Fea to show why this is a fool’s errand: the edifice is built on three pillars that go against the way of Jesus: a) fear instead of hope; b) power instead of humility; c) nostalgia instead of historical truth.

Let’s start with fear, which is no stranger to American politics since the beginning:


“In 1800, the Connecticut Courant, a Federalist newspaper that supported President John Adams in his reelection campaign against Thomas Jefferson, suggested that, if the Electoral College chose Jefferson, the founding father and religious skeptic from Virginia, the country would have to deal with a wave of murder, atheism, rape, adultery, and robbery. In the 1850s, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigration Party, commonly known as the ‘Know-Nothing Party,’ was infamous for its American-flag banner emblazoned with the words ‘Native Americans, Beware of Foreign Influence’” (15).


Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win over his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, was in large part due to ads painting the latter as likely to drag America into a nuclear war. Sometimes, the fears are pure fabrications, like the “Pizzagate” incident when some Republicans alleged that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager was operating a child sex ring in a Washington DC pizzeria. Fortunately, the three shots fired by the man with an assault rifle who had traveled from North Carolina to exact justice didn’t harm anyone in the restaurant. Clearly, fear can be a strong trigger.

The same applied to Barack Obama, “the perfect foil for the evangelical purveyors of the politics of fear.” He embodied pretty much all that made white evangelicals tremble:


“. . . he grew up in Hawaii and spent time as a child in a predominantly Muslim country; he was the son of a white woman and a black man; he not only had a strange name, but he had the same middle name as a well-known Muslim dictator whom the United States had waged war against. Obama’s embrace of Christianity took place in a liberal African American congregation with a pastor who was not shy about calling America to task for its past sins. But most importantly, Obama embraced policies on a host of social issues that alienated him almost immediately from most American evangelicals” (18).


Those kinds of fears naturally give rise to conspiracy theories. The so-called “birther controversy” (stating that Obama was not born in the USA) took hold of the Republican electorate to such an extent that still in July 2017, 72 percent of registered Republicans doubted Obama’s citizenship. Many of them believed he was secretly a Muslim too.

But they also feared plenty of Obama policies: his pro-choice stance, and especially his signature health care plan, which for them infringed upon their “religious freedom” – namely, that Obamacare “required employers, even religious employers, to provide coverage for preventative care that included abortion-inducing contraceptives.” Here, most evangelicals made common cause with conservative Catholics. Then the final straw in the culture wars was the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized gay marriage (which was legal in 36 states already). More than ever, this landmark case galvanized the Christian Right’s opposition.

The politics of fear were also evident during the Republican debates in 2015-2016. “People are crossing our borders,” one could hear, “and the media won’t talk about how they’re security threats, carrying Ebola and bringing in ISIS terrorists – people who will steal, rape and kill.” Trump learned quickly how to tap into evangelical fears. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spoke at Messiah College in September 2016. Fea remembers, “In one of the more stinging lines of the talk, Douthat suggested that evangelicals seem to need Trump, a man with no real Christian conviction to speak of, to protect them in the same way that Syrians needed the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad to protect them against the threat of ISIL” (39). Have no fear: Trump, the strongman, is in the wings.

Another common fear of Americans, and evangelicals in particular, relates to Islam and Muslims. A Pew Research Center report in July 2017 found that “72 percent of white evangelicals believed that Islam and democracy were in conflict, prompting Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of anti-Trump white evangelicalism, to run an article entitled ‘Most White Evangelicals Don’t Believe Muslims Belong in America’” (39-40). Speaking in the spring of 2016 at Liberty University (Jerry Falwell Jr. remains its president), Trump promised to “protect Christianity” and to dismantle the policies of President Obama.

These, then, are some examples of the legacy of fear still very much in evidence among American white evangelicals. The second pillar on which Christian nationalism rests is hubris and the pursuit of political power. I will have much more to say about that in the next installment, but suffice it for me to mention here historian Daniel Rodgers’ analysis. He calls the 1980s the beginning of “the age of fracture”: the Reagan era was friendly to evangelicals while at the same time a chasm was forming between conservative Christians (including many Catholics) and the courts that seemed to move ever farther to the left. The former saw these fractures “as a threat to the nation’s moral core”:


“After they awoke to these changes, they organized politically and sought to put the American Humpty Dumpty back together again, with their own religious narrative at the core of the national origin story. Newly awakened to their political power, feeling spurned by the progressive policies of Jimmy Carter [ironically the first self-proclaimed “born-again” president], and deeply afraid of the direction the national culture was going in, they abandoned their earlier reluctance to become involved in politics and mobilized to fight back via politics. The political attempts to mend these fractures are still with us today. Evangelicals voted for Trump because they have been conditioned to a way of thinking about political engagement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a direct response to these cultural changes” (47).


“The earlier [white evangelical] reluctance” Fea mentions here can be illustrated by their aloofness, at the very least, to the 1960s civil rights movement. More than anything at the time, “they were far more concerned about – and opposed to – the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelical critique of government” (54).

Shamefully, it was the 1972 Supreme Court Green v. Connally decision that spurred the creation of the “Christian Right.” The court ruled that private schools and colleges that discriminated on the basis of race would lose their tax-exempt status. In 1975, the high court removed the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, a conservative evangelical school in the South, which had “banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans.”

In hindsight it seems surprising that the 1973 Supreme Court decision to allow specific kinds of abortion (Roe v. Wade) did not provoke much reaction in evangelical circles. As Fea puts it, “Most evangelicals thought abortion was a moral problem, and they believed that the pro-life movement was a distinctly Catholic crusade” (55-6). More than anything, they were irked by the rising tide of feminism and the attempt the year before to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. A woman’s choice to abort was both to endanger the child in the womb and to threaten the patriarchal structure of the family they assumed was God-given.

Influential Republican operative Paul Weyrich, a close friend of Jerry Falwell, told Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer in 1990 “that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts of the IRS to desegregate Christian academies” (59). In the next blog post, we will see how effective they were. The likes of Falwell thankfully lost on the issue of segregation (see the two images above), but as we are now witnessing in the federal courts and the Supreme Court itself, Trump has now amply fulfilled his promise to the “court evangelicals,” as Fea calls them. In his first three years in office, he has appointed 194 federal judges and two Supreme Court justices, all apparently to their liking.

Clergy were often seen in the courts of medieval monarchs, but Pope Pius II admonished his clergy to stay away from the kings’ courts, because it would be difficult for them to “rein in ambition, suppress avarice, tame envy, strife, wrath, and cut off vice, while standing in the midst of these [very] things” (117). Fea gives an example of how court flattery was on “full display” when President Trump invited his evangelical courtiers to the Oval Office on the occasion of the announcement of “a National Day of Prayer for the people of Texas and Louisiana who were hit by Hurricane Harvey”:


“Those in attendance used the opportunity to praise Trump for all he was doing for evangelical causes. Ralph Reed commended him for ‘acknowledging that God is our source of unity as Americans.’ Gary Bauer compared Trump to Washington and thanked him for defending the Judeo-Christian roots of America, alluding to the passage in the Declaration of Independence about rights coming from ‘our Creator.’ He then proclaimed America to be a ‘shining city on a hill.’ Paula White expressed gratitude for Trump’s practice of ‘calling our nation to God’ and for ‘always’ putting ‘God first.’ Trump sat at his desk, occasionally nodding his head in approval, and soaked in the adulation. [Robert] Jeffress closed the meeting in prayer. He described Trump as ‘a gift to the country’ raised up by God to bring ‘healing’ to a divided America” (119-120).


The last pillar of American Christian nationalism is its goal to “make America Christian again,” which nicely dovetails with Trump’s slogan to “make American great again.” In both cases, you might ask, why the nostalgia? My family and I, along with many members of our congregation, joined a crowd in front of our county seat in Media, PA, for a vigil lamenting the brutal killing of George Floyd and dozens other people of color killed by racist police brutality in our nation. The hour-and-a-half vigil was sponsored by the local chapter of the NAACP and the Media Fellowship House, an interfaith initiative founded in 1944 in reaction to a local restaurant refusing to serve two African American women and a baby. One black speaker expressed perfectly the sentiments John Fea reports in his book when he attended an evangelical conference on racial reconciliation as a keynote speaker. Having listened to a number of black pastors, he admitted, “I came face to face with the reality that African Americans have very little to be nostalgic about.” He explained,


“When African Americans look back, they see the oppression of slavery, the burning crosses, the lynched bodies, the poll taxes and literacy tests, the separate by unequal schools, the ‘colored-only’ water fountains, and the backs of buses. Make America great again?” (155).


John Fea’s theological perspective

Once those pillars are laid out in this fashion, it isn’t hard to imagine how Fea might critique them from a Christian perspective – or from any other faith perspective, for that matter. When it comes to fear, throughout the Bible God calls people not to be afraid but to trust in his love and care for them. Though God nowhere promises us a safe and prosperous life (contrary to what the purveyors of the prosperity gospel might teach), he does promise to always be with us, particularly as we follow his call to bring his love and peace in areas of conflict, poverty and pain.

Put otherwise, “The ‘proper conclusion’ to the Christian story – the direction in which history is ultimately moving – is the return of Jesus Christ amid the new heaven and the new earth. But in a world filled with distractions, it is easy to let this glorious hope become smothered by fear” (43).

With regard to political power, besides the fact that, as seems the case with the Trump administration, access to power gives little opportunity to actually influence policy, it is a weapon that often comes back to strike the people trying to wield it. Two of the Moral Majority’s most influential agents in time became disillusioned with the project. Journalist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson co-authored a scathing book in 1999 about their experience: Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? The answer was a definitive no. Power is “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” It’s seductive, and it clouds a person’s judgment. Worst of all, for Christians it hinders them from spreading the love of Christ, as they are called to do.

Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, James Davison Hunter put to pen his own vision for how the church should seek to impact the world (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World). In an “exclusive” interview with Amazon, he explains the reason why he wrote this book: “I saw a disjunction between how Christians talk about changing the world, how they try to change the world, and how worlds—that is culture—actually change. These disparities needed to be clarified.” In his conclusion, Fea quotes Hunter as he articulates his own prescription, “faithful presence.” Yes, we can and should be concerned with issues across the globe. He goes on:


“But with that said, the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us – community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which they are constituted. For most, this will mean a preference for stability, locality, and particularity of place and its needs. It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation – family, neighbors, co-workers, and community – where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible in which Christian holiness is forged” (253 in Hunter, 186-7 in Fea).


John Fea’s book ends with lessons learned in June 2017 as he led his family and several colleagues from Messiah College “through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.” In the eight cities they visited they were able to interview a number of personalities who had been involved in this movement during the 1960s. Theirs was a message of hope, not fear; of humility, not power; finally, they had “a clear understanding about the difference between history and nostalgia” (188). In fact, “History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction of their republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis [the day before he was killed], ‘All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you say on paper’” (188-9). King was well acquainted with his nation’s checkered history. But he and his followers “desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story” (190).

In the second half of this blog post I will fill out in more detail a couple of the points made here, but I will especially highlight what for me constitutes this religious nationalism’s most destructive aspect – its early alliance with the libertarian political ideology at the heart of the Reagan administration. If anything, the current coronavirus pandemic and the wave of anti-racist protests demonstrate how unfortunate those directions were. Racial injustice is plainly exacerbated by the rising economic inequality that has its roots in the early 1980s.