Contemporary Christian nationalism is working hard to make faith the defining virtue of U.S. government. Who else can we trust, right?
A disturbing New York Times article about the increasing fusion of U.S. evangelical Christianity and right-wing politics reveals a growing aspirational narrative thrusting Jesus front and center in American government.
It is the opposite of what America’s founding fathers envisioned for their new, secularly governed democratic republic based on Enlightenment values.
Yet, fundamentalist Christians since colonial times have relentlessly tried—with notable success over centuries, unfortunately—to embed Christian dogma, rites, and symbols into the nation’s public governance and, indeed, throughout the public square and the life of the nation.
That is why, for example, today we still have inevitably Christian prayers opening official public meetings and even a traditional government-endorsed National Day of Prayer, an emphatically Christian event. And why some states allow public tax money to be spent on private Christian school tuition, a dubious government act the Supreme Court increasingly and curiously has viewed as constitutional.
And this reactionary faith trend is not unique to the U.S. A former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is part of a campaign to reconstruct “Christian civilization” in Europe, although, like his fan-boy Trump, Putin sure doesn’t act like a Christian.
Trump ushered in evangelical creep in politics
The creeping merger of evangelicals and white Christian nationalists in recent decades culminated with the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump. Faith-driven conservatives then poured into government, including Rapture-awaiting, evangelical Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General Bill Barr, a fundamentalist Catholic who promoted a theocratic government for America based on Judeo-Christian traditions.
Author Katherine Stewart has written extensively and perceptively on the Christian Right in books and essays. Stewart analyzed contemporary Christian nationalism in a recent interview. Even some Christian organizations wary of the Christian Right are pushing back.
Evangelicals still comprise the core of the defeated former president’s political base.
And the disingenuous, purposeful insinuation of Christianity into the American body politic continues, as evangelicals increasingly see their aggressive religio-political strategy as divinely sanctioned.
The Times, reporting on a faith-tinged political event earlier this year in Phoenix, Arizona, wrote that this is part of a broader trend in the U.S.:
“This was not a church service. It was worship for a new kind of congregation: a right-wing political movement powered by divine purpose, whose adherents find spiritual sustenance in political action. …
“The infusion of explicitly religious fervor—much of it rooted in the charismatic tradition, which emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit—into the right-wing movement is changing the atmosphere of events and rallies, many of which feature Christian symbols and rituals, especially praise music.
“With spiritual mission driving political ideals, the stakes of any conflict, whether over masks or school curriculums, can feel that much larger, and compromise can be even more difficult to achieve. Political ambitions come to be about defending God, pointing to a desire to build a nation that actively promotes a particular set of Christian beliefs.”
Of particular note to me in all this are the phrases “explicitly religious fervor,” “especially praise music,” and the “power of the Holy Spirit.”
‘Hyped-up emotion, not truth and facts’
These ideas intimate that the driving force of this right-wing religio-political movement is hyped-up emotion, not truth and facts. It’s the religious activist version of Fox “News.”
I myself have been deeply moved by gospel music, but the difference between me and evangelicals is that I accept the core power of the art form lies in its manipulative packaging—as with all charismatic music—not the presumed truth of its messaging. Musicians understand the emotionally potent assumptions their audiences carry with them.
The “Holy Spirit,” the iconic mainstay of charismatic Christian Pentecostal denominations, is the imaginary force that compels believers to “speak in tongues,” or, in fact, to intone untranslatable gibberish believed to be actual language. Or to faint in divine ecstasy. Or to get jacked-up for Trump.
This is the heart of the Christian nationalist program: edgy emotional fantasy.
Christian nationalists see messiahs in their midst
This is why Trump aficionados still believe the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from their dear leader, whom many conservative Christians still believe is a messianic character sent by God to save America, not destroy it (although that is what he is manifestly striving to accomplish).
The Times article quoted Patty Castillo Porter, a local Republican operative who attended the Phoenix rally:
“What is refreshing for me is, this isn’t at all related to church, but we are talking about God. Now God is relevant. You name it, God is there, because people know you can’t trust your politicians, you can’t trust your sheriffs, you can’t trust law enforcement. The only one you can trust is God right now.”
Which is the same as saying God should run the government.
Music ‘the most powerful element’ for Christian Right
Times staffers Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham, who wrote the Times article, suggest that “the most powerful element” at Christian Right political rallies is music:
“The anthems of the contemporary evangelical church, many of which were written in just the last few years, are blending with rising political anger, becoming the soundtrack to a new fight.
“Religious music, prayer and symbols have been part of protest settings throughout American history, for diverging causes, including the Civil Rights movement. Music is personal, able to move listeners in ways sermons or speeches cannot. Singing unites people in body and mind, and creates a sense of being part of a story, a song, greater than yourself.”
With all this charismatic emotionalism, the greatest danger is that believers believe their feelings are equivalent to truth and a clarion call for Constitution-busting activism, whether it be defending Trump, defying vaccines, or decrying abortion and LGBTQ rights:
“It is not unusual for participants to describe encountering the divine and feel they are doing their part to install God’s kingdom on earth,” wrote Dias and Graham. “For them, right-wing political activity itself is becoming a holy act.“
As it also became for Hitler and Stalin, Pol Pot, and now Putin, even though they were all terribly wrong in believing their crusades were not only morally justified but necessary.