On December 6, President Donald J. Trump sat in the Oval Office at the Resolute desk, surrounded by Dominionist worship leaders who laid their hands on him and commenced to pray. While most in the group represented a nominally Christian charismatic movement whose members believe themselves to be “apostles” and “prophets,” they were joined by at least one Southern Baptist preacher, Trump adviser Robert Jeffress, whose denomination is far more reserved in worship style and has had a historically strained relationship with charismatic churches. Of course, televangelist Paula White, purveyor of the “prosperity gospel” strain of evangelism was on hand, seeing as she is now a White House aide, in charge of wrangling the leaders of right-wing Christian institutions to shore up the battlements of spiritual warfare around a President bedeviled by the perils of his impeachment trial. What binds them together, despite disparate theologies and practices, is a notion of America’s destiny that is best described as Christian nationalism, which holds that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation.
Just two days before, at the United States Capitol Building, White House policy aide Joe Grogan addressed the Department of Health and Human Services’s International Conference on Family Policy, which was co-sponsored by the authoritarian nationalist governments of Hungary and Brazil, whose repression of women and LGBTQ people is appreciated by many in the U.S. religious right. (Fandom for Hungary’s strongman leader Viktor Orbán is displayed in yearly gatherings of the World Congress of Families, an event put on by the International Organization for the Family, run by Christian nationalist Brian Brown, known in the United States as a leader in the failed fight against samesex marriage.) Grogan was joined by abstinence-only advocate Valerie Huber, the HHS special representative for global women’s health.
László Szabó, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, addressed the conference, as did Nestor Forster, who was recently nominated by Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to serve as his country’s top diplomat in Washington, D.C. Grogan offered praise for Hungary’s natalist policies—a lifetime income tax exemption for women who have four or more children, and the outlawing of nearly all abortion.
This is your government, America.
These two recent gatherings, reported by my colleague Peter Montgomery, represent a mere glimpse of Christian nationalist infiltration in the U.S. government. There are Christian nationalist Bible study groups in several Cabinet departments that attract what counts for A-list figures in the Trump Administration (Vice President Pence is said to be among them), Cabinet agencies led by religious-right figures with a nationalist bent (Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development; Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education), and a Christian nationalist sway over national policy on issues ranging from contraception to charter schools to the admissibility of transgender people to the military and the location of the U.S. embassy in Israel. Additionally, the bonds being made between U.S. Christian nationalists and their counterparts abroad are all of a piece with the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Europe and elsewhere.
Just as people are finally getting a little jumpy about climate change, given that the world’s on fire, perhaps this is at long last the moment when people who write about politics, who appear on television yammering about our polarized nation, start to take seriously this muscular political movement composed of people who speak in tongues and believe that demons walk among us together with those from sects with less dramatic expressions of worship and belief—all united in their contempt for universal human rights and fear of their impending status as a “racial” minority. Because right now, they’re in charge—an achievement
rooted in religious networks grown to immense scale over the course of 40 years while the chattering classes mostly ignored it, other than to occasionally point and laugh.
So as the earth burns, and the women-haters, and the queer-bashers, and the racists now run the show, perhaps l’haut monde is at last ready to receive a work such as Katherine Stewart’s book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. In this revealing and readable volume, Stewart offers a compact survey of the Christian nationalist landscape in the United States with an eye to the mechanisms—be they in the tax code, an amicus brief, a data file, or their rhetorical lexicon—by which the movement gained such power.
Stewart’s gift is in her analysis of the workings of that power within and without the Republican Party. Her method is a synthesis of the work of a particular generation of researchers and writers on various aspects of the religious right (full disclosure: the work of my colleagues at Right Wing Watch is heavily cited) combined with her own original reporting from her visits to gatherings large and small that manifest and direct the mighty power yielded from dark money and the yoking of prejudice with spiritual yearning.
Stewart, author of the 2012 book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, takes us into an event at a North Carolina Baptist church assembled by Watchmen on the Wall, an organization for pastors affiliated with the Family Research Council (the famously anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim group that hosts the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.), accompanying a minister friend with social justice beliefs who serves as a beard for her admission. (The author describes her attempt to render herself invisible through her clothing choices that day, but her chosen outfit, “a floral print blouse with a complicated arrangement of ribbons off to one side,” sounds more ladies-who-lunch than Southern Baptist wife.) We join her later at the 2018 Values Voter Summit and at the annual anti-choice March for Life on the National Mall, at a teach-in targeting Latino pastors at a San Diego church, at a “prophets” event at Washington’s Museum of the Bible, and the event’s surprise move to the Trump International Hotel, where dignitaries from around the globe appear to line the President’s pockets with their expense accounts. Along the way, she serves up a few interviews, including a fascinating one with Jim Domen, a California-based “ex-gay” pastor who is an effective organizer in the American Christian nationalist movement, who tells her of the fabulous life he lived as a gay man until his boyfriend ditched him after Domen’s visit to a salon to have his eyebrows and lashes dyed.
Christian nationalism is not a new phenomenon in America. For example, the Fellowship Foundation (also known as “The Family”)—the secretive, influential “Christ-centered” organization chronicled by journalist Jeff Sharlet (most recently in a Netflix documentary)—got its start in the 1930s as a gathering of businessmen looking to, in the words of businessman Abraham Vereide, “break the spine” of organized labor, according to Sharlet. Stewart notes the overlaps between the Fellowship Foundation and other nationalist entities such as the equally secretive Council for National Policy, an agenda-setting umbrella group of those who lead various religious and secular rightwing organizations co-founded in 1981 by the Christian nationalist Tim LaHaye, the late author of apocalyptic novels.
By that time, the religious-right takeover of the Republican Party was well underway—but you would hardly have known that by reading the political journalism of the day. As Stewart explains in her introduction, “When journalists do draw attention to the authoritarian and theocratic ambitions of the movement, some have been quick to minimize concern and complain of alarmism.”
For all of its talk of a “godly” past in which real Americans were white, women were stay-at-home moms, and queer people did not exist, Christian nationalism is rooted in economic ideas whose execution redounds to the benefit of the very rich, especially those whose source of wealth is in privately-held corporations. Contempt for taxes, environmental and financial regulation, and labor law, joined with enthusiasm for the shrinking of government and unbridled veneration of the so-called “free-market system”—these pillars of right-wing economics are all theologized by U.S. Christian nationalist leaders as God’s plan for America, God’s exceptional nation. The lure to the mostly white hoi polloi who fill the pews is the promise that the divine plan also includes the subjugation of women, the persecution of gays, discrimination against blacks, and shutting the gates to refugees and brown-skinned immigrants—a retreat to an imagined and supposedly blissful past in which values deemed “traditional” reigned supreme. As Stewart succinctly explains, “The game of power really has two sides. You reach outside to voters and tell them what they need to hear so they will vote in your favor. But you also step inside and gather with the powerful individuals who actually call the shots.”
Those powerful individuals calling the shots in the Christian nationalist world comprise a familiar cast of characters—pretty much the same crowd that funnels millions in dark money to secular right-wing institutions: Dick and Betsy DeVos, Art Pope, Charles Koch, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, among others. The money that flows to Christian nationalist institutions that claim themselves to be churches is doubly dark, its uses barely regulated under the vague language of the tax code’s criteria for houses of worship. Stewart demonstrates several ways in which the tax code is gamed, including tax-exempt church support for outrageously opulent “parsonages,” but more importantly, for claims to the use of public schools and other public buildings for religious gatherings (made under the free speech clause of the First Amendment—not the establishment clause), as well as freedom from anti-discrimination laws. Stewart pithily names these “opportunities in church-state fusion.”
It’s important, Stewart warns us, not to regard the term “Christian nationalist” as interchangeable with “evangelical”; not all evangelicals are right-wing or nationalist, and right-wing Catholics have a significant presence in the Christian nationalist movement, especially in the area of law. Among the Christian nationalist legal groups rewriting, with notable success, the meaning of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech is the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, which enjoys yearly revenue of around $50 million, according to Stewart) and the Becket Fund, both of which were long run by far-right Catholics, Alan Sears and Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, respectively. Stewart credits Jay Sekulow, founder of the American Center for Law and Justice and now Trump’s personal attorney, with concocting the “religious liberty” arguments used to such great effect by ADF and Becket. (Sekulow is not Catholic; he affiliates with Jews for Jesus.) Leonard Leo, the force behind the Federalist Society—the sprawling and wealthy legal organization that is effectively choosing Trump’s nominees to the federal bench, including the Supreme Court—is a Knight of Malta. Stewart demonstrates how these legal organizations are transforming the notion of religious liberty in ways designed to nullify the guarantee of religious freedom for all, using a cascade of lawsuits that have conferred new rights to private employers claiming religious-conscience
exemptions to federal law (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby) and to dominant religious groups over the claims of minority groups, as in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the Court’s conservative majority held that a town’s practice of opening its meetings with a prayer from clergy did not violate the Establishment Clause or infringe upon the rights of members of minority sects.
Few in the pews or pulpits of right-wing churches would recognize the name J. Rousas Rushdoony, who provided the ideological and theological underpinnings of the U.S. religious right. In a well-stated explanation of the role of Rushdoony’s “Christian Reconstructionism” in the development of Christian nationalism, Stewart finds correlation between his and the work of the Civil War-era pro-slavery polemicist Robert Lewis Dabney, who opposed public schools, defended slavery for its biblical “righteousness,” and served as a chaplain in the Confederate Army. In his own writings, Rushdoony looked forward to the day when Old Testament law—including execution for adulterers and people caught having gay sex—would become the law of the land. Stewart quotes Rushdoony from his magnum opus, the Institutes of Biblical Law: “Some people are by their nature slaves and will always be so.”
Among those who organized the religious right as an incursionary force in the Republican Party was the late Christian Reconstructionist Howard Phillips. Working with far-right Catholics Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, Phillips and friends settled on Jerry Falwell, a segregationist Baptist pastor in Lynchburg, Virginia, as the face of a “grassroots” movement they called the Moral Majority. Despite Falwell’s segregationist past, the Moral Majority never overtly advocated for separation of the races, but rather staked its claim of the right-wing agenda to a defense of supposed “traditional values,” such as opposition to abortion and gay rights. But as the Christian nationalist movement has evolved, its rhetoric on matters of race has become ever more ominous and threatening in tone. Stewart notes an observation by the journalist Sarah Posner (author of the forthcoming book, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump): “Evangelicals have traded Ronald Reagan’s gospel-inspired depiction of America as a ‘shining city on a hill’ for Trump’s dark vision of ‘American carnage.’ And in doing so, they have returned the religious right to its own origins—a movement founded to maintain the South’s segregationist ‘way of life.’ ”
Stewart devotes the better part of a chapter to the work of Ralph Drollinger, a California-based preacher who played one season in the National Basketball Association with the Dallas Mavericks running Bible study groups through his Capitol Ministries at the White House, in the U.S. Capitol, and in several Cabinet agencies. Attendees include Cabinet secretaries and their underlings, as well as the vice president of the United States. Echoing Rushdoony, Drollinger preaches that right-wing policy positions on issues ranging from the environment, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ equality are a matter of Biblical mandate. He also refuses to let women preach in his ministry, based on his teaching that wives must submit to their husbands.
Along the way, Stewart tells several stories of individuals who have suffered real harm by the incursion of religious doctrine or the privileging of one faith’s views by the state in a given setting—most dramatic among them her own brush with death at the hands of a Catholic hospital that refused to abort the fetus she was in the process of miscarrying, leaving her to lie in her own blood as she nearly blacked out.
Much has been made of those seemingly odd bedfellows: the vulgar, philandering Trump and his Christian nationalist boosters. But in truth, the Trump presidency is the logical result of the religious right’s takeover of the GOP.
From the outset, Christian nationalism has always been a con, sold to its followers on the false claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. David Barton, Stewart shows us, is the foremost purveyor of this myth; she notes that the publisher of Barton’s 2012 book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, felt compelled to withdraw it after National Public Radio checked Barton’s biblical citations only to find that “not one of them checked out.” Additionally, he rejected widely accepted scholarship on the six children The Thomas Jefferson Foundation says he had with Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved on his plantation. But that hasn’t put a damper on Barton’s career as the right’s favorite “historian,” or in his career with the GOP. For nine years, Stewart notes, Barton served as vicechair of the Texas Republican Party, and in the 2016 presidential campaign, he ran a super-PAC that supported Ted Cruz’s candidacy.
The con is in Christian nationalist and religious-right rhetoric that falsely describes common methods of birth control as abortifacients, routinely and falsely links Muslim Democrats to terrorist groups, claims that “homosexuals” seek to “recruit” your children to their “lifestyle,” and posits that the Earth is a mere 4,000 years old. There’s the rhetorical con that is effectively rewriting the First Amendment to advantage its own religion over all others and compares the social safety net to “slavery.” To a constituency already so distanced from any objective notion of truth, the greatest liar of all the U.S. presidents is a Moses to his people.
If The Power Worshippers has a shortcoming, it’s that it omits the story of exactly how the Christian nationalists took over the Republican Party through its delegate slates. It happened decades ago, which makes it all the more flabbergasting that a political host with the high profile of NBC’s Chuck Todd could find himself shocked! shocked! at the notion that Republicans just put out false information, fully aware that what they’re saying isn’t true. That omission notwithstanding, Stewart has accomplished the near-impossible in a volume lacking doorstop heft: a truly informative and smooth read about a sprawling movement and the many ways it exercises power over the lives of all Americans. If you’re not alarmed by the time you reach the last page—if not long before—you may lack a pulse altogether.