Religious Nationalism and the Reopening of America

stay-at-home, protest, Ohio
Rally protesting against stay-at-home orders in Columbus, OH, on April 18, 2020. Photo credit: Becker1999 (Paul and Cathy) / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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Many of the anti-lockdown protesters we’ve seen in places like Michigan, Florida, and Texas are part of the religious right. Some are members of Christian nationalist groups which proclaim to be pro-life in the extreme but also don’t seem to care that thousands may die in the name of their freedom to go shopping and bowling.

In this week’s podcast, we talk with Katherine Stewart, a journalist who has spent years examining the religious right. In her first book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, she wrote about their attempts to influence the public school system; in her more recent book, The Power Worshippers, she turns her attention to religious nationalism.

She argues that this group is proudly anti-science, anti-fact, and anti-expert, and that their cavalier attitude toward the coronavirus mirrors their denial of climate change.

She discusses a Bible study group in Washington, DC — which includes Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and Alex Azar — whose leader preaches regularly that God approves of deregulation and wealth acquisition. 

According to Stewart, the group’s leaders have turned religion into a tool for attaining political power. We are kidding ourselves, she says, if we look at this purely through a “culture war” lens. 

The religious right, argues Stewart, is a political movement whose leaders want power and use religion to justify their ultimate goal of a Bible-based authoritarianism. Some of the leaders of these groups go so far as to argue that the virus is a plague caused by the sins of nonbelievers.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Even in these troubled times, we are divided. At a time when we should all be pulling in the same direction, even issues of life and death are political. Politicians who have professed to be pro-life are suddenly more pro-money regardless of the body count. Many have asked recently, particularly in the push to prematurely open the economy, how we got here. The answer has nothing and everything to do with our current politics, but the roots go much deeper. The line is very straight between what’s ripping us apart today and a religious movement masquerading as a social movement that has roots in the late 1970s.

Jeff Schechtman: To explain, I’m joined by Katherine Stewart. She’s written extensively about the religious right. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Prospect, and The Atlantic. Her previous work includes The Good News Club, an investigation into the religious right and public education, and The Power Worshippers, a look inside the rise of religious nationalism. It is my pleasure to welcome Katherine Stewart to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Katherine, thanks so much for joining us.
Katherine Stewart: Thanks so much for having me, Jeff. Good to be here.
Jeff Schechtman: Explain, first of all, what religious nationalism is. What does that phrase mean?
Katherine Stewart: Sure. The first thing to know is that it’s not a religion. It’s a political ideology. Its representatives insist that the foundation of legitimate government is bound up with a reactionary understanding of a particular religion. It basically says that US is founded on the Bible and can succeed only if it stays true to this foundation. So, Christian nationalism is also a device for mobilizing and often manipulating large segments of the population and for concentrating power in the hands of the new elite. I want to say something else about what the movement is not. It is not about evangelicals only. It does include many evangelicals, but it excludes many evangelicals too, and it includes representatives of a variety of both Protestant and non-Protestant religion. What unites the movement is not a distinct theology, but more a political vision.
Jeff Schechtman: How did that political vision emerge from religious roots?
Katherine Stewart: Oh, that’s a very interesting question. I think that we can look, as you mentioned in the introduction, back to the 1970s and early 1980s. One thing the movement has been incredibly successful in doing is in controlling the past, so they’ve sold us this idea that their movement was a grassroots reaction to abortion, but it’s simply not true. There was a moment when leaders of what would become today’s religious right were going down a list of issues that could bring the movement together. They were upset at the time about the direction the culture was taking and the political … of the politics of the movement, and they looked at the issues that concerned them. One was the … the primary issue for them was the unfair tax treatment in their view of these segregation academies, these racist academies. They were very upset that IRS was looking at groups like Bob Jones’ schools and saying, “Well, why are these segregated schools getting tax privileges?”
Katherine Stewart: They were very upset about this, and that really animated their concern, but they realized that this wasn’t an issue that was really going to be very attractive in uniting the movement, so they looked at some other issues. The women’s movement, they were unhappy about, and there were several others on their list. They crossed one after the other. They realized that they wouldn’t work to unite the movement, and define an enemy. They came to the issue of abortion. It was like number five or so on the list, and later, the movement thought, “Wow, that could work.” So, they basically … At the time, let’s remember that most Republican Protestants supported some form of abortion law liberalization.
Katherine Stewart: Remember when Roe v. Wade was passed? This Southern Baptist Convention actually hailed the decision as what they thought as a middle ground, and other Republican leaders like Betty Ford hailed it as a great, great decision. Barry Goldwater supported the liberalization of abortion law at least early in his career, but over time, and thanks to leaders of this movement, the Republican party was purged of its pro-choice voices. Now, we see today a sort of movement that appears to be united around these culture war issues.
Katherine Stewart: I think when you’re looking at the movement, you have to distinguish between the leaders and the followers of the movement. The followers may believe they’re fighting for things like a ban on abortion or a defense of what they see as a traditional family, but those issues have been created over time in order to capture their votes. The leaders know very well that if you can get people to vote on a single issue, you can control their vote, and so they’ve created almost like a religion of pro-life in order to control the votes of a large subsection of the American public.
Jeff Schechtman: Is the object simply political power for political power’s sake or is there a broader and specific agenda that is a lot deeper than the culture war issues that they use as their patina?
Katherine Stewart: Yeah. I mean, I think something to understand about the kind of political movement that it is, it’s an anti-democratic movement, because it says that the foundation of legitimate government in the US is a strict interpretation of a particular religion. So, the movement is hostile to pluralism. It’s hostile to many of our most cherished constitutional principles, and they don’t believe in equality. One way they do this is they create a mythical history of America’s allegedly Christian founding and what to believe as their religion reigned. That’s what religious nationalisms do. Christian nationalism in America has invented a history in which America’s founders were all Bible thumpers intent on establishing America as a conservative Christian nation.
Katherine Stewart: I think Americans, Christian national leaders, talk a lot about American exceptionalism, but there’s nothing particularly exceptional about religious nationalism in America. It’s garden variety religious nationalism where leaders bind themselves very closely to religious conservatives to solidify a more authoritarian form of political power.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the way that it’s playing out now given the current pandemic, given the battle to reopen some of these states. It’s really the full flowering of the anti-science, anti-fact, anti-elitist aspect of the religious right and of the Trump base.
Katherine Stewart: That is true. When you mentioned the hostility to science, I think that’s really salient today, and I think understanding that we should understand that Trump is beholden to a movement that has for decades derided science, bashed government, hollowed out the social safety net and I think this is really key understanding, this is key to grasping the source of the Trump administration’s dysfunctional response to the current healthcare crisis. I mean, first and foremost, the movement has rejected science for certainly since the 19th century, rejecting the evidence of science, rejecting expertise and critical thinking. That has obviously contributed to our inability to address the Coronavirus crisis in an evidence based fashion.
Katherine Stewart: Misinformation about science is rife in hyper conservative religious communities that were all in for Trump. So, I think that sometimes people look at the sort of movements’ hostility to science as an interesting quirk and almost like a cultural feature of the movement. Often the consequences of this type of misinformation don’t reveal themselves for quite some time, but in the face of a global pandemic that’s actually killing people, the consequences are unfortunately right in front of us.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean, it repeats itself because early on when there was all this talk among the president and Sean Hannity and so many others that somehow the virus was a hoax. It echoed exactly the language about climate change.
Katherine Stewart: That’s absolutely true. I mean we’ve seen surveys, evidence shows that like people who deny climate science tend to be overrepresented in these hyper religious communities. In the Trump administration, he spends everything for partisan gain. Everything is either for him or against him. There’s no idea that anything is based on reality. So, you look at some of these religious leaders who were all in for Trump, his most devoted allies and they too were calling the Coronavirus a hoax. Folks like Jerry Falwell Jr. suggested that this was just another attempt to take Trump down as though liberals and Democrats invented the Coronavirus in order to bash their favorite leader. I mean, it’s really kind of extraordinary.
Jeff Schechtman: The other aspect and a lot of that, this has been talked about over the past couple of days, the pro-life basis of the religious right. At least that being the argument that they’ve put out there so much as you talk about and this attitude about life with respect to this pandemic, which seems very different.
Katherine Stewart: Yeah. I get a lot of mail from folks who write about the folks in the religious right and folks in the Christian nationalist community has signed up for various mailing list. The past couple of days, I’m starting to see some really alarming messages. They’re saying things like, this virus is going to purify the land or God is going to purge a lot of sin from the land and this is … These are really neolistic messages as though somehow the virus has been brought upon as a consequence of sin, of nonbelievers or sin of people who support LGBT equality and things like that.
Katherine Stewart: Then you get these other voices that say, we should really sacrifice a generation for the youth and we need to ignore the recommendations of our public health experts and just carry on as usual and some number of people die in order to preserve the economy, and yet the same people are willing to tell women that we should sacrifice all bodily autonomy and the economic futures of our families in order to preserve every single zygote. So, there is an irony here.
Jeff Schechtman: How do they reconcile that? I mean, it is just admittedly playing out right now, but you’ve talked to these people, you’ve deeply researched this. How do they reconcile this?
Katherine Stewart: I think if you view this as a political movement, if you understand that this is a political movement and not just a stance in the so called culture wars, you see that so many of the positions they adopt are based in a drive for political power. Of course, the ironies can be justified when the drive for political power is the ultimate aim. It goes back to the question that so many people continue to ask. How can people who purport to care about values support a leader like Trump with all of his many obvious issues? I mean, I don’t know where to begin. I think some people view this as just a kind of transactional support. They think he’s going to appoint justices that are favorable to their positions and so-called culture wars or enact economic policies that are favorable to their pocketbooks, but let’s not overlook something that’s really important.
Katherine Stewart: The support for Trump is not entirely transactional. Yes, it’s true. They got the deal that they look for. You can’t explain the tenacity of the movement, the hyper loyalty of their support on purely transactional terms. There’s something about his style of politics that speaks to this group and that is tribal politics, authoritarian politics. This group doesn’t want a nice guy who follows the rules and obeys the law. If you’re looking to establish a King, if you’re looking to replace the democratic constitutional republic that we have with a more authoritarian religious order, more authoritarian theocratic order, you don’t want someone who’s going to just take a seat at the table. You want someone who’s going to smash the table and crack heads as long as those heads belong to your so-called enemies.
Jeff Schechtman: If they had the power they want, if they were able to achieve even more power, be it in state legislatures or in the federal government, if they had control over all the levers of power and could create this more authoritarian theocratic focused government, what would their agenda be? What does that power turn into in their ideal world?
Katherine Stewart: That’s a great question, and I think that a lot of the movement’s strategic direction is coming through the courts. When we’re talking about power, let’s just look at what they’re achieving in their courts. So, thanks to this massive influx of Trump appointees, last I checked, it was 192 federal judges. That’s just over 22% of the judiciary, federal judiciary. The courts are now stamped with the consequences of that election and they understand the importance of capturing the courts and they’re already bringing cases to the courts that are intended to just among many things increase the flow of public funding to conservative religious entities. Religious groups in America already, let’s remember, received substantial public money through special subsidies and tax deductions, grants, vouchers and other schemes. They have other benefits that other non-religious nonprofits don’t have, but they want to increase that flow of public money.
Katherine Stewart: This is really obvious, for instance, in the field of public education where religiously motivated voucher advocates argue that public funding of religious schools is a religious liberty issue. I mean, America now spends something like $500 or $600 million per year on public K through 12 and these religious entities want to capture, they already captured some portion of that, but they want to increase that flow, but it goes even further than that. So, 8 federal agencies have proposed changes to the rules governing how they work with religious organizations.
Katherine Stewart: They propose to allow these religious organizations to receive taxpayer money without complying with non-discrimination law. In some instances, that taxpayer money is delivered through vouchers or indirect aid, which means the organizations can proselytize or require participation in religious services. So basically, one of the things that they’re after is taxpayer funding of conservative religious entities that are free to proselytize and discriminate against people whose characteristics or very being that they disapprove. So, it’s basically the creation of a two tier system of America. You’ve got sort of one group in America, people who believe rightly, who receive the privileges of taxpayer money and the privilege to discriminate. Then there’s everybody else who’s sort of an underprivileged or less privileged group.
Jeff Schechtman: How did that-
Katherine Stewart: So, that’s just the start.
Jeff Schechtman: Yeah. How did they view the social justice side of religion today?
Katherine Stewart: That’s really a great question. I mean, Christian nationalists reserve some of their most hateful words for people who dare to identify as Christians of another sort. It’s important to remember that there are large numbers of Christians, perhaps even most American Christians who do not agree with the politics of conquest and division that this movement represents. Some of them question whether the movement is even Christian in the first place. Members of the movement are constantly in sometimes in their written materials or even when they’re just speaking, characterizing them at best as wrong-headed and at worst, as unbiblical.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a new generation coming up in this movement? So many of the original leaders, particularly if we look back to the 70s are aging out it seems, is there a new generation coming along?
Katherine Stewart: Wow, that’s a great question. It’s true that the demographics are shifting, but I think that many Progressives are under the illusion that time will heal all of this and it won’t. I think what time may well do is convert demographic change into new supporters of the hard right. The thing to bear in mind here is that members of the movement vote in disproportionate numbers. I go to these right wing conferences in my research and I remember Ralph Reed who’s the head of one of the leading right wing policy groups saying something to the effect of, I’m going to paraphrase here. He said, “Don’t pay attention to the polls. What matters is not the percentage of the population. Our percentage is declining. All that matters is who turns out on election day. It’s important to remember that 40% to 50% of our population doesn’t vote at all. So, if you have a large segment of the public that just isn’t turning out to vote, all you really need is a small and committed group to dominate.
Jeff Schechtman: Are they as motivated today as they were 10 years ago?
Katherine Stewart: I think they’re even more motivated than they were 10 years ago. They’re far more organized. They continue to perfect their data machine, their media and their messaging, their targeting. They have all of these really sophisticated tools. One of the tools that they employ is they understand that pastors drive votes, and so they make a great effort to get these conservative-leaning pastors into these networks and give them the right tools that they need to turn out their congregations to vote for the conservative candidates that the movement favors. So, they’ve just done a lot of organizational infrastructure building using all the tools of modern political campaigns to turn out their vote. So, I see them as more devoted than ever before.
Katherine Stewart: On the other hand, not to feel depressed about this, I also see the opposition is more motivated than we were five or six years ago. I think first of all, we can’t begin to face our challenges as a society unless people know what’s happening. Five or six years ago, a lot of people were really unaware of the influence of this movement. I think that’s really changing. Number two, I’m just seeing much more activism than I ever saw before. I think more people are politically engaged. They’re determined not just to vote themselves, but to hold their friends and neighbors accountable. I think we understand the need for unity more than we did five or six years ago. So, I’m really … I think the rise of religious nationalism is definitely a cause for alarm, but it’s not a cause for despair.
Jeff Schechtman: How do you see it continuing to play out over the next several months with respect to this issue of the pandemic that we face and this issue of life versus death and the economy versus life?
Katherine Stewart: It’s really challenging. I mean, in order to meet the needs that this crisis are going to create, we’re going to need a … some collective solutions. We’re all going to need to pull together as a society and help all those people who have lost their jobs. Right now, we have a poorly developed collective infrastructure, and that, I have to say, is a consequence of right-wing economic policy. This movement is implicated in that too. It has completely allied itself with the libertarian pro-corporate economic wing of the Republican party and supports politicians and policies that have led to the privatization of the healthcare system and the undermining of the social safety net and government everywhere.
Katherine Stewart: They’re constantly demonizing government and seeking to tear down the social safety net. Even going so far as to call government- funded food and housing assistance unbiblical. So, this is an enormous reason why we aren’t prepared for this crisis, but I think the fact that Republicans are not … the solutions that they’re proposing are intended to assist corporate power at the expense of the workforce is really stark and people are starting to understand that, and hopefully will start to understand the need to pull together as a society and help every single member.
Jeff Schechtman: Is that coming from just an economic argument from a corporatist argument or is there some religious underpinning that the religious nationalists are using to foster this argument of business over individuals?
Katherine Stewart: That’s so great. There’s completely a religious basis for it. So, I’ll just give you one example. There’s this fellow named Ralph Drollinger, I write about him in my book. He’s a founder of a group called Capitol Ministries that targets political leaders at the highest echelons of power. So, a dozen … If you look at the Capitol Ministries website, all of this is online. You can just see it. A dozen current and former members of Trump’s cabinet are listed as cabinet sponsors and have attended or attend his weekly Bible study in the nation’s Capitol. We’re talking about Alex Azar, Mike Pence, Pompeo, folks like that. So really powerful folks. Drollinger also has Bible study groups targeting the House of Representatives and the Senate. So, he is arguably one of the most politically influential pastors in America today.
Katherine Stewart: So, he has all of these theological papers, his Bible study programs that he puts online, you can read them, promoting the idea that social welfare programs have no basis in scripture. He is against progressive income taxes, has a theology of taxation that unabashedly favors the rich. He supports the flat tax. He says any deviation from the flat tax is unbiblical. He also writes that God believes in deregulation of businesses and environmental deregulation, that laborers in the workforce should “submit to their bosses.” He actually finds a theological basis for the submission of the workforce to bosses in the first letter of Peter in the New Testament, and he compares it to this passage that had to do with slavery. It’s really amazing.
Katherine Stewart: He says the economy of Rome back then was one of slavery, master and slave, but the same principle holds true today to the workforce and their bosses. It’s kind of astonishing. Well, this is a theology that is music to the ears of the movement’s plutocratic funders, many of whom rely on minimal workers’ rights and economic deregulation to maintain and increase their profits. So, it reflects the movement’s longstanding alliance with certain moneyed interests and hostility to the notion of social and economic equality. In many ways, you have to say it’s the exact opposite interpretation of the Christian religion as many, and perhaps most American Christians understand it.
Jeff Schechtman: When the rubber meets the road in this, and you get people like Glenn Beck and Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, talking about how they would rather die than see the economy die or see American exceptionalism die, how much of that is pure hypocrisy and how much of it is that they really believe in this religious nationalism?
Katherine Stewart: Well, I think when it comes to religious nationalism, there’s a tremendous amount of unity and they tend to take a kind of all spin, all politics view of the world. Again, everything is spun for political gain. So, if this is the word of their leader, and this is the word on the street, then everybody’s going to mouth it. I mean, I think if you look at the failures of Trump’s response to the virus now and how much he’s trying to aid corporations rather than the workforce, what we can start to see is that at the end of the day is you have to question is he really trying to aid every American citizen or is he working overtime to direct potential profits to political cronies. I think there’s some of both of those things happening here.
Jeff Schechtman: How do you see this playing out in this crisis? Is this going to be good for the movement or bad for the movement?
Katherine Stewart: Well, I’m not in the business of predicting the future, but I do know that when it comes to the 2020 election, the movement is as sophisticated and organized as it has ever been. The religious right is really a machine. It’s not exactly leaderless but it is centerless. It consists of a large variety of for profit, nonprofit organizations, policy groups, legal advocacy groups, messaging groups and other groups that are working hand in glove. So, what unites them … there are obviously differences among the leaders and some theological differences among some of the leading organizations or folks in leadership positions, but what really does unite them is a determination to win and a desire for political power.
Jeff Schechtman: Katherine Stewart. Katherine, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Katherine Stewart: It’s a pleasure to participate. Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Lorie Shaull / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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