Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers," discusses how Christian Nationalism is a threat to all of us.
Religious freedom advocate Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, has been writing about politics, policy, education, and church-state relations for over a decade. The Power Worshippers won first place in the Excellence in Nonfiction Books category from the Religion News Association as well as the Morris D. Forkosch award for Best Book in Humanism.
Two years after the book’s initial release, I had the privilege of speaking with Stewart for an exclusive interview. We discussed the drastic path Christian nationalism has taken in recent years as well as what we can do moving forward.
A quick breakdown of Christian nationalism
You claim that America’s Christian nationalist movement has been misunderstood and underestimated. How so?
When we think of the Religious Right, we often imagine it as just one special interest group in the noisy forum of modern American democracy. We may view it within a culture-war framework, preoccupied with issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage but competing within the existing system for votes.
But Christian nationalism is a radically anti-democratic movement. Its leaders reject the principles of equality upon which our democracy depends. They aim to create a new type of order, one in which they, along with members of certain approved religions and their political allies, will enjoy positions of exceptional privilege in politics, law, and society.
So this movement is not just about the culture war or a dispute over theology. It is engaged in a political war over the future of American democracy.
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. 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 issues, 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 their cadre of super-rich funders.
How does the movement achieve its aims?
The strength of the movement is in its dense organizational infrastructure: a closely interconnected network of right-wing policy groups, legal advocacy organizations, legislative initiatives, sophisticated data operations, networking groups, and a vast right-wing messaging sphere, all working together for common political aims. I describe this network and its leadership cadre in detail in my book, The Power Worshippers.
A key point is this movement is leadership-driven and organization-driven, and it is unified by a commitment to a shared ideological vision and a certain set of messages. Over the past year, at the right-wing conferences, strategy gatherings, and other presentations I have attended and reported on, audiences were told, repeatedly and heatedly, that America is and always has been a Christian nation, that the Bible is on the verge of being outlawed, and that the 2020 election was corrupt.
How do the movement’s key organizations and lobbying groups get their financing?
The movement has three sources of funding: Plutocratic donors, the rank and file, and public money. So let’s look at the first piece of that. In recent years, the movement has come to depend critically on the wealth of a growing subset of America’s plutocratic class, many of whom are as committed to low taxation, opposition to labor rights, and a minimally regulated economy as they are to right-wing positions on the so-called culture war issues.
At the same time, much of the daily activity of the movement’s policy organizations involves an effort to obtain small-dollar donations from the rank and file through mailings and other appeals. And, to a large degree, the calls for “religious freedom” that characterize so much of the movement’s activity are an effort to obtain or strengthen public subsidies through various means.
Christian nationalism’s effects on our world
How come the Religious Right has so much power in such a diverse society?
Members of the Religious Right are still a minority of our population, but they are overrepresented at the ballot box because they are so organized, networked, and disciplined. In my book, I describe many of the key organizations that are using data, media, and messaging to turn out the vote.
In a country where 40 to 50 percent of people don’t vote, and an additional number have their votes essentially taken from them because of voter suppression and gerrymandering, you don’t need a majority to win elections. All you need is an organized and committed minority.
How is the Religious Right using the term “religious freedom” to mask their true objectives?
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 being required or obliged in any way to finance or participate in any religion if you don’t want to.
But in the hands of Christian nationalists, the term “religious liberty” has come to mean its opposite — it has become an Orwellian term that means religious privilege. It has been turned into the idea that conservative Christians should be permitted to discriminate against members of religious minority groups and progressive Christians, the nonreligious, LGBT people, and others whose characteristics or very being offends their so-called sincerely held religious belief.
This privileges certain religious views over others. If your commitment to equality and equal treatment under the law is rooted in your own sincerely held religious beliefs, there is no “liberty” in this type of religious liberty for you.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, the calls for religious freedom that characterize much of the activism today are aimed at a desire to substantially increase the flow of public money in their direction.
When I started reading your book in 2020, I was almost entirely unfamiliar with religious nationalism and had no idea that it was a serious threat. For those as unfamiliar as I was, can you list some of the areas of life that are affected that people might not realize?
America’s religious nationalism influences nearly every aspect of our lives, from economic policy to our courts, from our healthcare system to our education system. But more to the point, religious nationalism is deeply anti-democratic. It is hostile to the principles of pluralism and equality upon which our democracy depends. The movement’s political allies promote gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics that disproportionately affect people of color and others in Democratic-leaning districts.
And the movement is determined to undermine the legitimacy of our electoral system. So if you value freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom from corruption, voting rights, the economic health of the American workforce, and the legitimacy of fair elections, you need to understand this movement and its people.
How Christian nationalists keep power
How could a movement that claims to support “family values” justify — and continue to justify — their support for a candidate like Donald Trump?
First, some of the support was transactional. Trump delivered policies that were favorable to the interests of movement leaders and funders. He directed the flow of taxpayer money to their networks. He promised to appoint conservative judges who would rule in ways that help them achieve their aims.
But let’s not overlook something else that is really important. While it is true that this cohort got part of the deal they looked for, you can’t explain the tenacity of the movement, and hyper-loyalty of their support, on purely transactional terms. There is something about Trump’s style of politics that speaks to this group, and that is tribal politics, authoritarian politics.
Trump doesn’t respect the law and is willing to break things, which makes him the perfect leader for a movement that seeks to overthrow modern representative democracy and replace it with a more authoritarian and theocratic order.
In a recent report on the role of Christian nationalism on the January 6th insurrection, which was published by the Baptist Joint Committee, you laid out three mechanisms that the religious nationalism movement uses to influence voting. Briefly can you explain those three mechanisms:
- “controlling information flows to a significant part of the population”
- “manufacturing and focusing a sense of persecution and resentment”
- “reconciling two seemingly contradictory notions: that our nation is the greatest nation on earth precisely because it is a Christian nation; and at the same time that our nation is overrun with alien and evil forces”
The first point can be summarized as “propaganda.” Christian nationalism serves as a way of creating a population that will be receptive to certain forms of disinformation and immune to other types of information, which the present leadership often denigrates as “fake news” or “the lying media.” This gives the leadership cadre, and their political allies, a tremendous degree of power.
Second, by focusing a sense of persecution and resentment among the rank and file, the movement identifies and promotes grievance, then aims it at political opponents and out-groups.
To be clear, the movement draws on a range of preexisting frustrations. But a portion of this messaging is about blame. For example, many Americans feel the economic system is somehow tilted against them.
But it’s harder to grasp the impact of decades of wage stagnation against the cost of living, or grapple with the fact that the top one percent of earners now own nearly a third of the wealth in America, while the bottom half only own only 2.5 percent. The situation has to be blamed on something people can see, or at least an image in their minds. The movement provides them with an easy target.
And finally, the movement stokes paranoia among the rank and file by relentlessly promoting the idea that America is in the grip of malevolent forces, which they variously identify as “secularists,” “the homosexual agenda,” “the communist threat,” “CRT,” and even “demonic organizations,” and they insist they need to “take America back.” The ability to keep a population in this state of tension — engaged in an apocalyptic struggle between absolute good and its opposite — is critical to the movement’s power.
How to fight back
In the January 6th report, you wrote:
“Many Americans have underestimated the movement’s influence on our politics, in part because we often hear predictions of the movement’s imminent demise — usually accompanied by reporting on the rising numbers of the so-called “nones.” These predictions overlook the fact that you don’t need to win the support of a majority of Americans to dominate in election cycles or to transform society through the courts. In a country where around 40 percent of people don’t vote, an organized and committed minority that turns out to vote in disproportionate numbers can dominate in election cycles.”
Partially in response to this, more people turned out to vote for Biden in 2020 than have voted for a presidential candidate ever. Still, religious freedom hangs in the balance. How can we keep these “Nones” — and frankly, anyone of any religion who values religious freedom — mobilized to keep voting?
In election cycles, people should be encouraged to look beyond the personal quirks of the front-runners and think about the courts, about policy, about voting rights and civil rights, about corruption. Our rights and our democracy hang in the balance.
Elsewhere in the report, you wrote:
“The rank and file come to the movement with a wide variety of backgrounds, ideas, and interests, and a very substantial number do not explicitly support anything like a “theocracy.” Many would be unhappy to learn all of the details about what their leaders are proposing. Much of this group votes identity, not policy. When they vote for the candidates who promise to end abortion or defend the traditional family or re-unite church and state, they aren’t explicitly aiming for major fundamental changes in the way American government is organized; they are making a statement about who they are, what they value in themselves, and perhaps what they fear in other people.”
This is frankly alarming to hear — especially since it is so spot-on. How can we have hope when the other side seems to be trying to manipulate the system for their advantage?
Those of us who reject their agenda can cultivate a positive voting culture. The leaders of the Christian nationalist movement are constantly impressing upon the rank and file the importance of voting. As the longtime religious right strategist Ralph Reed said, “Pay no attention to the polls; our numbers are shrinking. All that matters is who turns out on election day.”
The good news is that a majority of Americans reject the politics of conquest and division that this movement represents. We need to organize and act like the majority that we are.
Of course, ours is a large and very diverse country and nobody’s going to get everything they want. And that’s fine — we don’t need to agree on everything. But in key election cycles, as some religious right activists have said, there is no victory without unity.
A book like The Power Worshippers can leave readers feeling helpless. What are the things we can do to actively combat religious nationalism?
We can’t begin to meet the challenges that we face until we recognize what they are. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness that we’re not just dealing with a culture war. We’re actually dealing with an anti-democratic political movement.
I think that makes it incredibly helpful to formulate an effective opposition, and to recognize that we need to engage with civic life and the political process on every level — that could mean:
- running for your local school board
- working on behalf of voting rights
- engaging in voter outreach
- holding elected officials to account
- lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill
- investing in media and messaging
- communicating what’s at stake to friends and family
- donating if possible
and much more!
There are no shortages of avenues for engagement. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment and everyone has to do their part.
The Power Worshippers will be out in paperback on April 26th. I personally urge you to pick it up to get a top-notch education on this ominous movement and its rise to power.