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The Christian Nationalist Threat Gets Real

What are we to make of the fact that a number of far-right politicians and activists, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, the U.S. Representative from Georgia, and Andrew Torba, the founder and CEO of Gab, a social media platform flooded with extremist content,1 are now owning the label “Christian Nationalist”? Greene has equated Christian nationalism with patriotism, declaring herself “a proud Christian Nationalist” (while encouraging her followers to “claim your Proud Christian Nationalist shirt now and share your love for our great country”2) and Torba co-wrote and self-published a book, Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide for Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations.3 Conversely, conservative Christian leaders such as Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Russell Moore, chief editor at Christianity Today, are repudiating Christian nationalism by reframing it as a type of extremism relegated to the fringes (Mohler) or, oddly, a “virulent form of secularism” (Moore).4 According to the Family Research Council, a leading Christian Right policy group that organized a presentation on the topic last October, the term is part of a plot to suppress the votes of conservative Christians.5

These conceptions of Christian nationalism are misleading at best. Christian nationalism is neither a labeling trick nor peripheral to American politics. Like authoritarianism, to which it is closely related, religious nationalism is a political dynamic that affects political systems, not just a theory embraced by those who lend their support to it. Yet for too long America’s Christian nationalist movement has been misunderstood and underestimated. Many Americans continue to see it as a cultural movement centered on a set of social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights or preoccupied with a belief in America’s supposed founding as a conservative Christian nation. But Christian nationalism is not just a set of ideas.

The ideology of Christian nationalism is a tool—and a most useful tool at that—for a leadership-driven political machine that turns this story, and set of ideas, into political power.6 Political movements are by their nature complex, and this one is more complex than most. It consists of an extremely well-funded organizational ecosystem that has been built up over decades. There are right-wing policy groups including (but not limited to) the Family Research Council and the American Family Association; think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research; and legal advocacy groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, First Liberty Institute, and Pacific Justice Institute.7 These legal advocacy groups and others align with the aims of The Federalist Society and related organizations, which raise money (some of it dark) to shape the courts.8

Recognizing that a certain degree of unity is the key to victories in the political realm, networking organizations play a critical role. The Council for National Policy gets much of the movement’s leadership cadre on the same page and brings them together with deep-pocketed funders.9 Other networking organizations target elected officials and clergy. Legislative initiatives such as the formerly named Project Blitz and Americans United for Life craft model bills, which allied lawmakers may then introduce into state legislatures. Education initiatives spread the Christian nationalist narrative and take aim at public education. Sophisticated data-mining operations partner with conservative church networks to turn out the vote.10 And a vast media and messaging sphere actively generates or exploits cultural conflict, promotes grievance, and spreads conspiracism in order to improve its grip on its target population.

Some people may question whether everyone who works at such organizations may be called “a Christian nationalist.” Surely not. But what we can say is these organizations and their leaders are lending support to a Christian nationalist agenda.

Sometimes religious nationalism is easier to recognize when it’s happening in other countries, whether Russia or Turkey, Iran or Brazil. When political leaders closely associate themselves with ultraconservative religious figures in their own countries to consolidate authoritarian forms of political power, we rightly recognize that as religious nationalism. These leaders bubble-wrap themselves in sanctimony to guard against any democratic check on their corruption and shield themselves from transparency regarding abuses they may be perpetrating against their own people.

There are of course nuances specific to different regions and countries. But illiberalism takes a common shape in most places. Would-be authoritarians everywhere use the language of exclusionary nationalism to send a message about who gets to properly belong in the nation and who does not.

* * *

The general lack of awareness of how the movement works leaves many Americans perplexed by the growing incivility in our politics. They may have a sense, for instance, that many Republican leaders have become more extreme on a number of issues, promoting strict abortion bans, passing measures that support taxpayer funding of or proselytizing in public schools, and declining to hold our former president to account for his actions even in the face of evidence of criminality.11 But they may not know that Christian nationalist organizations pressure them to support those extreme positions, and threaten to mount primary challenges if they don’t.12

Similarly, they may be shocked by the news of unpopular rulings of conservative Justices on the Supreme Court. But they don’t hear much about the Federalist Society, the organization that has played an outsized role in shaping the courts. All six right-wing Justices have current or former ties to the organization, and close to 90 percent of former president Donald Trump’s appellate nominees have ties to the group.

For decades the Federalist Society has been steered by Leonard Leo, a powerful figure who has mobilized hundreds of millions of dollars through a range of affiliated organizations in pursuit of his agenda. Early in his career, Leonard Leo realized that the Christian right had little hope of winning the culture war at the ballot box. A Catholic ultraconservative, Leo was sure that the public would never voluntarily submit to the moral medicine needed to save the nation. The last best chance to rescue civilization, he concluded, was to take over the courts. If activists could funnel just enough true believers onto the bench, especially onto the Supreme Court, they just might be able to reverse the moral tide.13

“He figured out twenty years ago that conservatives had lost the culture war,” said Leo’s former media relations director, Tom Carter. “Abortion, gay rights, contraception— conservatives didn’t have a chance if public opinion prevailed. So they needed to stack the courts.”14

Along with his role at the Federalist Society, Leo also joined the boards or leadership of other religious right initiatives, such as the national anti-abortion organization Students for Life of America and the Napa Institute, which brings together hard-right Catholic clergy with right-wing business leaders and conservative Catholic activists. In 2022, Leo took the helm of a new political advocacy venture; Barre Seid, an elderly billionaire from Chicago, founded the Marble Freedom Trust with a $1.6 billion dollar donation— the largest known donation to a political advocacy group in U.S. history.15 It is unclear exactly how Leo will utilize that vast sum, but the initiative is sure to super-charge American politics on the right.

* * *

Then there is the movement’s claim to patriotism, which may be seen as ironic given the fact that Christian nationalism played a critical role in former president Trump’s attempted coup against the U.S. government, which broached the surface of American politics with the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. In their responses to the election outcome, some prominent religious right leaders enabled or remained true to the false Trumpian line of election fraud. Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota congresswoman and 2012 presidential candidate, said, “Smash the delusion, Father, of Joe Biden as our president. He is not.”16 Mat Staver, chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, added, “What we are witnessing only happens in communist or repressive regimes. We must not allow this fraud to happen in America.”17

Such coordinated actions show very clearly that this is a leadership-driven movement.

These figures were not outliers; consider where some of the most militant and coordinated support for Mr. Trump’s election fraud claims came from. The Conservative Action Project, a group associated with the Council for National Policy, made its position clear in a statement issued a week before the insurrection. It directed members of the Senate to “contest the electoral votes” from Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states that were the focus of Republicans’ baseless allegations. Cosignatories included over dozen movement leaders, many representing organizations that play a disproportionate role in turning out the conservative Christian vote.18

Such coordinated actions show very clearly that this is a leadership-driven movement. Understanding its appeal to a broad mass of American voters is necessary in explaining its strength but is not sufficient in explaining the movement’s direction. The leaders of the movement have quite consciously reframed the Christian religion itself to suit their political objectives and then promoted this new reactionary religion as widely as possible, thus turning citizens into congregants and congregants into voters.

The movement’s leadership cadre includes a number of personally interconnected activists, funders, strategists, and politicians, many of whom are involved in multiple initiatives. I have covered this movement for nearly 15 years and I lay out as much of this vast organizational infrastructure as I can in my book, The Power Worshippers. Yet the important thing to understand about the collective effort is the source of its unity—a common political vision.

The movement derives much of its power and direction from a subsection of America’s hyper-wealthy class, and many of these megadonors are as committed if not more committed to economic policies that serve their interests, such as low taxation for the rich and minimal rights for the workforce, as they are to right-wing positions in the culture wars. The religious right claims to defend family values, yet it drives support for politicians whose economic policies are making it harder for so many American families, particularly those in the working and middle classes, to succeed.

Many of those funders belong to extended hyper-wealthy families, such as the DeVos-Prince family juggernaut, the Green family, the Bradley Foundation, the Wilks brothers, and many others as I document in my book and reporting elsewhere.19 Without them, along with the donor-advised funds such as the National Christian Foundation, which have channeled billions of dollars in donations anonymously, and the massive flow of money targeting the courts—the Christian nationalist movement would not be what it is today.

A minority of Americans support the suite of regressive policies that the movement promotes. But because sectors of the movement serve effectively as a giant voter-turnout machine, its supporters punch above their political weight by voting in disproportionate numbers. In addition, gerrymandering and voter suppression schemes disproportionately target Black voters and others in democratic-leaning districts.20 Yet political losses remain inevitable—which is why, in recent years, the movement has openly embraced election conspiracies and worked to undermine the integrity of the electoral system.

* * *

From the perspective of the movement’s leadership, vast numbers of America’s conservative churches are playing an outsized role. The churches may be fragmented in a variety of denominations and theologies, but Christian nationalist leaders have had considerable success in uniting them around their political vision and mobilizing them to get out the vote for their chosen candidates. Pastors are among the most trusted sources of information in their communities. So the movement draws pastors into organizations such as Watchmen on the Wall, Faith Wins, Church United, and Ministros Hispanos.21 Through hundreds of presentations that reach many tens of thousands, these organizations communicate the message that it is pastors’ biblical duty to become politically engaged. They give pastors tools including voter guides, sermon starters, videos to air at church, and instructions for establishing teams of politically active congregants that will induce fellow parishioners to vote their “biblical values.” At an event attended by dozens of pastors, I witnessed one speaker, a former member of the Trump communications team who was billed as an “elections integrity specialist,” hawk election conspiracies that had been debunked months earlier by Republican-led committees. One of the pastors leading the presentation told us “The church is not a cruise ship. The church is a battleship.”

Just as important as the pursuit of private money to Christian nationalism is the effort to secure public sources of funding. The movement has learned to reallocate public money in the form of subsidies, tax deductions, vouchers, and other schemes. This flow of funds has in turn shaped the ambitions and tactics of the movement.22

Perhaps the most salient impediment to our understanding of the movement is the notion that Christian nationalism is a “conservative” ideology. I would describe it as “radical” or “authoritarian.” A genuinely conservative movement would seek to preserve institutions of value. It would hold its leaders accountable to the law. It would prize the integrity of electoral politics, the legitimacy of the judiciary, the importance of public education, and the values of equality, accountability, and mutual respect that represent the best of the American promise.

At every step in the rise of Christian nationalism, some popular commentators have declared that the movement is in terminal decline. Secularization and modernization, we have been told, are the immutable laws of history, and demography will put the nail in the coffin. When journalists and researchers have drawn attention to the theocratic ambitions of the movement, some have been quick to minimize concern and complain of alarmism. It is “a movement that could fit in a phone booth,” as one prominent Republican commentator put it in the Washington Post.23 The “phone booth” was installed in the White House and in the Capitol in 2016; it refused to leave in 2020; and threatens to return in 2024. And it’s not phone booths but stadiums, all across the country. It is long past time to set aside these dismissals. END

Parts of this essay are adapted from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury).

About the Author

Katherine Stewart is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. Her previous book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, was an examination of the movement’s efforts to infiltrate and undermine public education. Her work appears in the New York Times opinion, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and elsewhere. The Power Worshippers won first place for Excellence in Nonfiction Books from the Religion News Association, as well as a Morris D. Forkosch award for Best Book in Humanism. You may follow her on Twitter @kathsstewart.

  7. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.

This article was published on March 15, 2023.

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