How Christian nationalism invents a mythical history about America’s founders
Investigative journalist Katherine Stewart didn't think about fundamentalist Christianity much until Evangelicals targeted her daughter's public elementary school as their mission field in 2009. Through after-school "Good News" clubs and summer camps, Child Evangelism Fellowship works to convert children as young as five to a sin-and-salvation version of Christianity. Stewart was surprised to learn that there were thousands of such clubs operating in public elementary schools nationwide, and she began to dig deeper. What she discovered in the process resulted in her book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.
Stewart's latest book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, took her once again into the heart of fundamentalist Christianity, this time the political version that some call dominionism and others call Christian nationalism. Stewart has spent years crossing the country, attending events that wrap radical right politicking in the language of righteous, regressive dogma. In this interview she offers a glimpse of what she saw.
Tarico: What is Christian nationalism?
Stewart: Christian nationalism involves the claim that the foundation of legitimate government in the U.S. is bound up with a reactionary understanding of a particular religion. So it is an anti-democratic political ideology, as well as a device for mobilizing people and concentrating political power.
America's Christian nationalism shares features with forms of religious nationalism around the world, where leaders bind themselves to religious conservatives to solidify a more authoritarian form of power. Consider Russia, Hungary, Iran, and Turkey, to name just a few.
Religious nationalist movements of this sort always appeal to a mythical history where true believers once reigned. Christian nationalism invents a mythical history where America's founders were all essentially Bible-thumpers intent on establishing a so-called Christian nation.
Tarico: How does the culture war play into this?
Stewart: It is a mistake to think that the culture war is driving the politics, that this is just a grass-roots expression of social discontent. So-called culture war issues have been cultivated and exploited for securing a certain kind of political power. The best illustration of that is in the politics of abortion. We've bought this narrative that Christian nationalism arose as a kind of unified reaction to the horror of one Supreme Court decision in 1973. In reality, abortion was consciously selected and cultivated as a political issue quite a few years after the Supreme Court decision.
Tarico: What is the organizational structure of the movement?
Stewart: Political movements are complex, and this one is more complex than most. It took me some time to navigate the dense ecosystem of for-profit and non-profit groups including right-wing policy groups, legal advocacy organizations, data initiatives, and media and networking groups. The leadership cadre consists of a number of often personally interconnected activists and politicians. The movement derives much of its power and direction from an informal club of funders, some belonging to extended hyper-wealthy families.
Tarico: The Right is always talking about so-called "religious liberty." What do they mean by that?
Stewart: True religious liberty is the freedom of thought, conscience, and worship. It includes the freedom to worship any god or sacred idea or none. It also includes the freedom from compulsory support of or participation in religion.
The Religious Right distorts this idea in two ways. First, they cast "religious freedom" as permission to discriminate against others whose characteristics offend their so-called sincerely held religious belief. This clearly privileges one variety of religion over others. If your commitment to equal treatment under the law is based on your sincerely held convictions or beliefs, there is no "liberty" in this type of religious liberty for you.
Second, the calls for religious freedom that characterize much of the activism today are aimed at substantially increasing the flow of public money in their direction. Religious organizations already obtain public money through subsidies, tax deductions, grants, vouchers and other subsidies. But they want to increase that flow. Eight federal agencies have proposed changes in how they work with religious organizations. They propose to allow religious organizations to receive federal funds without complying with antidiscrimination law. When the taxpayer funding is delivered through "indirect aid," the organizations may proselytize or require participation in religious services.
Once you start funding religion with public money, it becomes that much more political because it becomes dependent on public money. The end game is effectively an established church. It is antidemocratic, anti-pluralistic, anti-religious freedom, and anti-American.
Tarico: As an outsider, what do you see as most legitimate in their concerns?
Stewart: The rank and file articulate a lot of legitimate concerns. Emphasizing the importance of families to our society, the integrity of political leaders, and the role of personal responsibility are all respectable ideas.
Unfortunately leaders of the movement have utterly blown their credibility on all of those fronts. With respect to families, they have sided with economic reactionaries to undermine the supports that families need in order to be successful. They have waged war on many of the social and health tools that families need in order to thrive, most visibly family planning On the integrity of personal leadership, there is nothing to say. All you have to do is point to Trump to understand that this is the definition of hypocrisy.
On the matter of individual responsibility, that is fine when you are talking about things over which individuals have control. But there are many problems we can only solve together as a society, such as global pandemics, environmental issues, and challenges in health care. And here, I think, religious nationalists have betrayed what might have been their strongest suit. Christianity, as most people understand it, has something to do with loving our neighbors. But leaders of the movement have thrown in their lot with economic reactionaries who tell us we don't owe anybody anything.
Tarico: Hasn't Christianity always had a political dimension? What's different now?
Stewart: The conventional wisdom holds that the differences between America's two parties, now as before, amount to differences over questions of domestic and foreign policy, and that politics is just the art of give-and-take between the two collections of interests and perspectives they represent. The difference today is that one party is now beholden to a movement that does not appear to have much respect the two-party system or even representative democracy itself.
Tarico: Martin Luther King Jr. used religion for political purposes.
Stewart: I think that we can distinguish between the substance of a movement dedicated to civil rights and equality, and a movement dedicated to a racist and nationalist supremacy. But we also can't assume that every movement that uses religion in politics uses it in the same way. It is true that MLK Jr. relied heavily on church organizations to spread his messages, and on religious references to give them authority. But we should acknowledge that he made use of the churches in part because the people he sought to represent in particular, people of color, were radically underrepresented and in fact shut out of every other structure in American society and politics.
I think every school child knows that he mainly appealed to religion to reinforce a belief in universal values that could be used to hold society to account, to hold power to account, and unify all people regardless of belief or race. The same simply cannot be said of the Christian nationalists, who use religious messages to impose hierarchies of value on various categories of people and claim special benefits for members of their group.
Tarico: You got a lot of pushback on a piece you wrote for the New York Times titled, "The Religious Right's Hostility to Science is Hampering our Coronavirus Response." Why did this piece in particular elicit such a strong reaction?
Stewart: Movement leaders cast it as an attack on Christians. Not true. My concern is not with religion but with a political movement that cloaks itself in religious rhetoric. But this is how they build their base, one lie at a time. This is the way nationalist movements always work. There is a "we" under threat, and there is an insidious internal enemy that is responsible for all of "our" woes. They must be silenced or eliminated if the "real Americans" are to triumph.
Think about what people on significantly larger stages have to endure. Is Anthony Fauci really part of the "deep state"? Even asking the question is a way of entering this world of the absurd. And yet, this is how a base is built, through paranoia and fear.
Tarico: Obviously, there are a bunch of Americans who would prefer not to live in The Handmaid's Tale. What should we do?
Stewart: The movement is political and so the answer is political too. The right has invested in all the tools of modern campaign infrastructure – data, media, and messaging. They understand the necessity of unity in winning elections and above all the value of the vote. These tools are available to those who oppose the politics of division and conquest that the movement represents. Religious nationalists are using the tools of democratic political culture to end democracy. I continue to believe those same resources can be used to restore it.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
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