There appear to be two ways to interpret the surge of Christian nationalism around Trump. One way is to see this primarily as an extension of the Religious Right’s culture war. Another way is to understand the stated culture war, and its hot-button issues like abortion, as merely one piece within a larger and perhaps more sinister project. In The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, Katherine Stewart argues for the latter, marshalling a synthesis of history and reporting to make her case.
Stewart has been following the Christian nationalist movement for over a decade as an investigative reporter and journalist. Her latest book highlights the way in which this movement is decentralized, consisting of a dense ecosystem of organizations, operatives, and Christian billionaire clans. Instead of collapsing Christian nationalists to single issues like abortion or gay marriage, she claims that it is an anti-democratic political movement with deep roots in a Christian opposition to civil rights, the New Deal, and abolition.
I recently spoke to Stewart about her book. The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Camacho, Sojourners: You claim that America's Christian nationalist movement has been misunderstood and underestimated. How so?
Katherine Stewart: When we think of the Religious Right, we usually imagine it is just one special interest group in the noisy forum of modern American democracy. We might agree or disagree with its positions. We often see it preoccupied with cultural issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage, but we often just see it as competing within the existing system for votes while looking for a seat at the table. But Christian nationalism does not believe in modern, pluralistic democracy. Its aim is to create a new type of order, one in which Christian nationalist leaders, along with members of certain approved religions and their political allies will enjoy positions of exceptional privilege in politics, law, and society. So, this is a political movement and its goal is ultimately power. It doesn't seek to add another voice to America's pluralistic democracy, but rather to place our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded in a particular version of religion, and what some adherents call a biblical world view.
I do think it's helpful in looking at the movement to distinguish between the leaders and the followers. The foot soldiers might believe that they're fighting for those cultural issues, like a ban on abortion or a defense of what they call traditional marriage. But over time, the movement's leaders and strategists have consciously reframed these culture war issues to capture and control the votes of a large subsection of the American public. They understand that if people can be persuaded to vote on a single issue, or two or three, you can essentially control their vote by concentrating your messages in this way. 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 also to enact economic policies that are favorable to some of their most well-resourced funders.
If you look at leaders like Putin in Russia or Orbán in Hungary or Erdoğan in Turkey, when they bind themselves closely to religious conservatives in their countries in order to consolidate authoritarian form of power, we rightly identify this as a kind of religious nationalism. That's what we're seeing today with Trump's alliances with hyper-conservative religious leaders in America.
Camacho: You noticed that Christian nationalist leaders are making inroads with non-white Christians, specifically Latino pastors in places like Ohio and California. How does this fit into their overall strategy?
Stewart: The Christian nationalist movement is often characterized as a white movement. I think for some of the people in the rank and file who are white, it is an implicitly white movement because for them it involves recovering a nation that was once supposedly both Christian and white. Leaders of the movement tend to paper over the ways in which white evangelicalism and racism often reinforce one another. Of course, Trump appeals to the racism of many of his followers. But leaders of the movement can see the demographic future as clearly as you or I can. They understand that the electoral future of the movement is not ethnically homogenous. In recent years, they've made a significant outreach to Latino and black pastors. There's an irony that they're being enlisted to fight culture wars that drive support for a political party that has turned voter suppression, race-based gerrymandering, the cruel and inhumane treatment of migrants and separation of families, into a strategic imperative.
I want to give you an idea of what this looks like on the ground. In one chapter, I focused on an organization called Church United, which is a pastoral network operating in California. The founder of the group, Jim Domen, acts on racial inclusiveness in a really systematic way. Many of the fastest growing religious movements in America are in the charismatic and Pentecostal vein. These are often explicitly multiracial movements. Racial unity in Christ is one of the core themes of Church United. They organize gatherings in which the organization is introduced to pastors across the state. The aim is to get them to persuade their congregations to vote for so-called biblical values, which are typically all about the culture war issues like abortion and LGBTQ equality. A substantial number of Church United gatherings are conducted in the Spanish language.
An organization has spun off, one affiliate called Alianza de Pastores Unidos de San Diego. The members minister largely to Spanish-speaking congregations. I went to one of their events. Jim Domen was generous enough to invite me knowing that I was an opposition journalist. One of the speakers who was at this event said to the pastors, I'm going to paraphrase: “When you talk to your fellowship about abortion and these issues, what's more important, talking about the minimum wage or about life?” The message is very clear: Life is more important. So, these are the issues that you need to be emphasizing with your congregation.
They make it easy for pastors to communicate these issues to their congregants. The movement leaders understand that pastors drive votes and that's why they've made an enormous effort to create these vast pastoral networks that gets pastors on the same page. They give them sophisticated messaging and media tools to turn out the vote.
Camacho: In your book, you make connections between the current Christian nationalist movement and the Christian opposition to civil rights and the New Deal and Christian debates over the Civil War and abolition before that. Some might consider that to be a stretch and they might cite figures like William Wilberforce. So, I'm in interested in why you decided to make this broad historical link.
Stewart: I do discuss the contributions of maybe a dozen abolitionist theologians in my book, including Wilberforce. 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. Pro-slavery theologians consciously refrained from making any judgment to upset the established order or they supported it outright. For instance, the Georgia Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church said that slavery as it exists 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.” I think a lot of people don't realize that many representatives of the churches of the North were in agreement.
Yes, folks like Wilberforce and Charles Denison 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.
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.” He's identifying order and regulated freedom with pro-slavery theology.
Camacho: As you know, Betsy DeVos is the secretary of education. The argument from her camp would be that Christians are trying to combat a bias in public education that is stacked against Christians. Why do you think public education is such an important battleground?
Stewart: There's so much to unpack here. Let's just start with the hostility to government schools. The hostility goes back in time to some of those pro-slavery theologians. After Emancipation, they argued against taxing white people to educate black children. These kinds of arguments persisted to the middle of the 20th century when folks like Bob Jones objected to integration. He actually published a radio address called "Is Segregation Scriptural?" and called segregation "God's established order." We see this hostility to public education even in the 1980s and 1990s. Jerry Falwell Sr. said, around 1980, that he hoped to see the day when there are no more public schools, churches will have taken them over, and Christians will be running them.
For many members of the movement that have expressed hostility to public education and what they call government schools, it reflects a concern that children attending public schools, their children in particular, will learn tools like critical thinking or will become tolerant of religious pluralism and leave the flock. I think they've developed a persecution narrative around public education that anything failing to affirm their religion is somehow hostile to it. They reject the values of pluralism and diversity that our democratic system is meant to support. Public schools, because of their pluralism and diversity, are nonsectarian. They are meant to neither affirm nor deny any particular religious viewpoint.
The movement has, over the years, engaged in a two-pronged strategy. Number one, they start to force their program and their agenda into the public schools through things like Good News Clubs, or promoting a partisan view of American history, attacking things like the teaching of evolution. Two, they promise to deflate the schools and weaken them as Jerry Falwell Sr. hoped to see. In particular, they deflate public schools by reducing the amount of money that goes toward public schools and poor families, diverting money over to private religious schools, which, as we know, are allowed to discriminate against students that don't participate in their religion, against LGBTQ Americans and so many others.
Camacho: Reading your book really provides perspective on how much money, organization, and long-term vision the Christian nationalist movement has. And honestly, it can also be slightly depressing. What gives you hope?
Stewart: I'm seeing a lot more activism today than I saw, say, five or six years ago. We can't begin to meet the challenges that we face until we recognize what they are. And I think there's a growing awareness that we're not just dealing with a culture war. We're actually dealing with a political movement. I think that makes it incredibly helpful. While it's true that a sector of the media has basically been enlisted in a propaganda campaign, working with far-right platforms, being mouthpieces for disinformation and hate, there's so many others that are working to bring the truth to light.
Christian nationalism in some ways is the fruit of a society that has not lived up to the promise of the American idea. There is a lot of work to be done. But for now, we're free to do it. We've met these challenges in the past well enough that we made it to the present moment. 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.