For 40 years now, the religious right has been a fixture in American politics and for all that time it has befuddled observers who continually misunderstand it, beginning with its support for Ronald Reagan, a divorced Hollywood actor, against Jimmy Carter. Reagan was the first US president to describe himself as a “born-again Christian”.
But Reagan – whose wife consulted an astrologer for guidance as first lady – was a virtual saint compared to Donald Trump, the most recent presidential beneficiary of their enthusiastic support, and someone that 81 percent of self-described white evangelical protestants rewarded with their votes.
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The secret to making sense of them is simply stated in the title of Katherine Stewart’s new book: The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. It draws on more than a decade of first-hand experience and front-line reporting that began when her daughter’s public elementary school was targeted to house a fundamentalist Bible club.
“The purpose of the club was to convince children as young as five that they would burn for an eternity if they failed to conform to a strict interpretation of the Christian faith,” she recalls.
The struggle to stop them, and what she learned in the process about the broader plan to undermine public education and make way for sectarian religious education, led to her 2012 book, The Good News Club.
But that was only one facet of the larger Christian nationalist movement The Power Worshippers explores, complimenting her own up-to-the-minute reporting with vital historical backstories that contradict and correct much of what most Americans think they know.
Christian nationalists have betrayed what might have been their strongest suit. Christianity, as most people understand it, has something to do with loving our neighbours. But leaders of this movement have thrown in their lot with a bunch of selfish economic reactionaries who tell us we don't owe anybody anything.
She argues – echoing Karen Armstrong’s argument about the nature of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam – that it is not premodern, as both adherents and critics commonly assume.
It is, in fact, modern in its methods and doctrines, which “notwithstanding their purported origins in ancient texts have been carefully shaped to serve the emotional needs of its adherents, the organisational needs of its clerical leaders, and the political needs and ambitions of its funders”.
Stewart is hardly alone in writing about Christian nationalism, but this formulation of how it fits together as a powerful power-seeking movement is uniquely clarifying, and provided the starting point for this interview with her.
Al Jazeera: In your introduction, you write that the Christian nationalist movement has been misunderstood and underestimated, that: “It is not a social or cultural movement. It is a political movement and its ultimate goal is power.” Can you explain that distinction?
Katherine Stewart: We are kidding ourselves if we just look at this through a “culture war” framework.
It is helpful, in understanding this movement, to distinguish between the leaders and the followers. The foot soldiers of the movement – the many millions who dutifully cast their votes for the movement’s favoured politicians, who populate its marches and flood its coffers with small-dollar donations – are the root source of its political strength. But they are not the source of its ideas. They may believe that they’re fighting for things like traditional marriage and a ban on abortion.
But over time, the movement’s leaders and strategists have consciously reframed these culture war issues in order to capture and control the votes of a large subsection of the American public. They understand if you can get people to vote on just one or two issues, you can control their vote.
So they use these issues to solidify and maintain political power for themselves and their allies, to increase the flow of public and private money in their direction and to enact economic policies that are favourable to their most well-resourced funders.
Al Jazeera: As your reporting shows, conservative-leaning churches are targeting voters with messages about how they need to vote with so-called “biblical” values. How does this fit in with the movement?
Stewart: A lot of people attending conservative churches would not characterise themselves as members of the movement but large numbers of them have nevertheless allowed their voting habits to be shaped by its leaders.
Generalising about what draws people to the movement is difficult because people come for a wide variety of reasons. These reasons include questions about life’s deeper meaning, a love and appreciation of God and scripture, ethnic and family solidarity, the hope of community and friendship, and a desire to mark life’s most significant passages or express feelings of joy and sorrow.
People also come with a longing for certainty in an uncertain world. Against a backdrop of escalating economic inequality, deindustrialisation, rapid technological change and climate instability, many people, on all points of the economic and political spectrum, feel that the world has entered a state of disorder.
The movement gives them confidence, an identity and the feeling that their position in the world is safe. Yet the price of certainty or belonging is often the surrendering of one’s political will to those who claim to offer refuge from the tempest of modern life.
Al Jazeera: What are some of the ways in which the emotional needs of adherents are exploited by movement leaders?
Stewart: Among the emotional needs of some adherents is a desire for a certain empowerment as members of a special or uniquely virtuous group of people. So religious nationalism goes overboard in insisting on the unique virtues of the religion and culture with which its followers identify.
An additional emotional need of some adherents, exploited by leaders of the movement, is to validate feelings of grievance and resentment, and to focus them on some imagined impure “other,” a scapegoat.
Christian nationalism, like other forms of religious nationalism around the world and throughout history, delivers a set of persecution narratives that represent the “good” religious people as under threat and as victims of an evil “other”.
Al Jazeera: How have the doctrines been shaped to meet the needs of the movement’s clerical leaders?
Stewart: Fundamentally the doctrines of religious nationalism reinforce authority – of scripture, of course, but also the authority of religious and political leaders.
This is what religious nationalism does around the world. Their doctrines make an absolute virtue out of obedience to a literalist or strict interpretation of their religion.
This is very handy both for the clerics and the politicians and elites that they serve, as it reinforces their authority, power and privilege.
Al Jazeera: Who funds the movement, and how have the doctrines been shaped to meet their needs?
Stewart: The movement has multiple sources of funding, including small-dollar donors, various types of public subsidy and funding, and affluent donors.
Many of those affluent donors belong to super-wealthy hyperextended families. So it is not surprising that many of the doctrines the movement favours are about money. They say the Bible and God oppose progressive income taxes, capital gains taxes and minimum wage laws. That the Bible favours low taxes for the rich and minimal rights for the workforce. They argue that environmental regulation, regulation of businesses, and public funding of the social safety net are “unbiblical” or “against the biblical model”.
In this way, I think, Christian nationalists have betrayed what might have been their strongest suit. Christianity, as most people understand it, has something to do with loving our neighbours. But leaders of this movement have thrown in their lot with a bunch of selfish economic reactionaries who tell us we don’t owe anybody anything.
These doctrines, of course, preserve plutocratic, often nepotistic fortunes. This is why religious nationalism often goes hand in hand with authoritarianism, which around the world frequently exploits religious nationalism to suppress dissent and keep the disempowered members of their societies in a subordinate position.
Al Jazeera: The third chapter of your book is titled, “Inventing Abortion”. Christian nationalists did not invent abortion itself, but they did invent it as a defining political framework. How did that come about?
Stewart: When Roe v Wade was passed, an editorial in a wire service run by the Southern Baptist Convention hailed the decision.
Most Republican Protestants at the time supported liberalisation of abortion law.
Reagan passed the most liberal abortion law in the country in 1967. Billy Graham himself echoed widely shared Protestant sentiments when he said in 1968, “In general I would disagree with [the Catholic stance],” and added, “I believe in Planned Parenthood”.
Over time, pro-choice voices were purged from the Republican party. That process, which I cover in detail in my book, took several decades.
Al Jazeera: You note that the pre-abortion origins of the modern Christian nationalist movement defended segregation and you also trace the origins of Christian nationalism back to slavery and its theological defence. Can you expand on this?
Stewart: The theological defence went in both directions. In my book, I discuss the contributions of maybe a dozen abolitionist theologians, including Charles Grandison Finney, William Wilberforce and Adin Ballou. It is important to note, however, that at the time of the Civil War, most of the powerful denominations in the South had either promoted slavery or had at least made their peace with it, and many conservative theologians of the North concurred.
Pro-slavery theologians consciously refrained from making any judgement to upset the established order or else they supported it outright. For instance, the Georgia Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church said that slavery, as it existed in the United States, was not a moral evil. Episcopalians of South Carolina found slavery to be “marked by every evidence of divine approval”. The Charleston Union Presbytery resolved that “the holding of slaves, so far from being a sin in the sight of God, is nowhere condemned in his holy word”.
Yes, folks like Wilberforce and Ballou argued for abolitionism, and they did so in the name of religion. But Frederick Douglass observed at the time that these religious abolitionists tended to be a distinctly disempowered minority in their own denominations.
Furthermore, abolitionist theologians also tended to support women’s equality, while pro-slavery theologians were unabashedly patriarchal, arguing that the subordination of women, like subordination of Black people, was a part of God’s plan. Some abolitionist church services, at which women were allowed to speak with authority, were attacked by pro-slavery theologians as “promiscuous assemblies”.
James Henley Thornwell of South Carolina, a pro-slavery theologian, described the conflict this way: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders – they are atheists, socialists, communists, red Republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.” Here, he is identifying “order” and “regulated freedom” with the enslavers, and “atheists” with the abolitionists.
Al Jazeera: What is most important for people to know about these origins of the Christian nationalist movement?
Stewart: Pro-slavery theologians, like Christian nationalist thought leaders today, were intensely hostile to the principle of equality, plurality and critical thinking. They endorsed an austere biblical literalism and rigid hierarchies, which they asserted were ordained by God.
The idea the US is a Christian nation, chosen by God; that it should be an orthodox Christian republic; that women should be subordinate to men; that at some point America deviated horribly from its mission and fell under the control of atheist and/or liberal elites – these ideas are still at the heart of Christian nationalism today.
Al Jazeera: How did segregation fuel the birth of the modern Christian nationalist movement?
Stewart: Movement leaders may have sold us this idea their movement was a grassroots reaction to abortion. But one of the key issues that animated the movement in its earlier days was the fear that racially segregated academies might be deprived of their lucrative tax exemptions.
Jerry Falwell and many of his fellow Southern, white, conservative pastors were closely involved with segregated schools and universities. The influential pastor Bob Jones Sr went so far as to call segregation “God’s established order” and referred to desegregationists as “Satanic propagandists” who were “leading colored Christians astray”.
As far as these pastors were concerned, they had the right not just to separate people based on their skin colour but to also receive federal money for the purpose. So they coalesced around the fear that the Supreme Court might end tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools.
They knew, however, that “Stop the tax on segregation!” wasn’t going to be an effective rallying cry to inspire a broad-based hyperconservative counterrevolution. There is a fascinating episode where they got together and basically wrote down a laundry list of issues that they thought might unite their new movement. I’m talking 1979 or so, about six years after Roe v. Wade. Number one was what they viewed as a threat to the tax privileges of racist academies. The women’s rights movement was another. There were several others on the list, and they crossed one after the other. Then they came down to abortion and basically said, wow, that could work.
Al Jazeera: How do the battles started then affect us today?
Stewart: The basic question we are still struggling with is whether we can build a republic based on a universal idea, or whether we have to fall back on some kind of petty ethnic and religious nationalism. The idea of the American republic is that we can find unity on the basis of being human and thus deserving of dignity.
Can we find unity in this principle of humanity and equality, or are we compelled to coalesce around mythological ideas about ethnic and religious greatness – an impossibility in a society as inherently pluralistic as ours?
What ails us is not something specific to the United States, but rather a condition that plagues many parts of the modern world. The lesson from history we haven’t yet learned is that whenever we try the latter, we spread injustice. And whenever we hold true to the former, we reach for justice.