Christian nationalism’s insidious hold on America is not an overnight phenomenon

By David Neiwert | 3 April 2020
Daily Kos

(Screenshot via YouTube)

The unwavering devotion of pious, church-going fundamentalist Christians to President Donald Trump—undoubtedly the most impious, worldly, and sin-drenched president in American history—is an ongoing source of astonishment. How exactly did this happen?

In her new book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Christian Nationalism (Bloomsbury, 342 pp.), Katherine Stewart does her best to explain the mystifying relationship between the religious right—the same faction that relentlessly pursued Bill Clinton for his philandering in the 1990s—and the serial adulterer (not to mention profane hatemonger) who occupies the Oval Office. Eventually, it comes down to one word: authoritarianism.

As Stewart limns early on in the book, the religious right is not really all that much about religious belief and thought and more about political power and social conformity. When viewed through the lens of its real-world outcomes, fundamentalist Christianity is less a coherent theology than it is a form of spiritual or religious totalitarianism, one that requires abject submission to what is actually a very perverse and narrow interpretation of the meaning of Scripture.

This approach translated naturally into political authoritarianism—the kind that Donald Trump practices. And Trump in turn has proven very adept at feeding the psychological needs of the kinds of personalities that adhere to such movements.

Many leaders of the Christian right like to dress up in red, white, and blue and announce themselves as true patriots. But they are the same people who seek to pervert our institutions, betray our international alliances, treat the Constitution as a subcategory of their holy texts, demean whole segments of the population, foist their authoritarian creed upon other people’s children, and celebrate the elevation of a “king” to the presidency who has made a sport out of violating democratic laws and norms.

One of the keystones of these authoritarian politics, Stewart demonstrates, was the conversion of the right-wing culture of resentment built around race and segregation—fired into action by the civil-rights movement, and particularly by the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954—into an ongoing political movement beyond the civil-rights era by shifting its focus from segregation to abortion. Indeed, as she explores in detail, abortion was not initially opposed by conservatives, but the Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973 came just as the American far right began searching for a kind of substitute issue for race with which to inflame conservative churchgoers.

Many of the political and religious operators from that era—Jerry Falwell, Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, Phylis Schlafly—have all passed on, succeeded by a generation even more strident, well-financed, and deeply organized and entrenched within the political establishment: Falwell’s son, Jerry Jr.; Steve Bannon; Tony Perkins; Ralph Reed; Betsy DeVos; and Kellyanne Conway.

Their path was paved by an army of historical revisionists and authoritarian pastors who preach a kind of Gospel built around their particular, and narrow, version of biblical inerrancy—particularly one in which men hold the upper hand in all matters. White men.

So in many regards, the running religious hysteria over abortion—one that reaches such a fever pitch that its advocates cannot even distinguish between miscarriage and deliberate termination—has multiple components even beyond the control of women’s bodies, since the issue is a sublimated response against other kinds of civil rights, notably the racial kind.

Stewart also effectively reminds us that even though the religious right comprises a minority of the American populace, it has become very effective at insinuating itself in the national, state, and local seats of power. Once installed, they absolutely overwhelm the democratic institutions whose existence their entire campaign is designed to undermine and destroy.

Nor, she suggests, is the answer to reinvent America—rather, it’s to reinvigorate its democratic roots. “We don’t need to create a new majority; we just need to give our existing majority the power to which it is entitled,” she writes. “Everything that restores the power of people to govern ourselves undermines the pretension of those who would dominate us in the name of God.”

It’s a powerful and persuasive argument, one that Stewart illuminates with an array of history and political reporting, effectively weaving a portrait of our current grim situation with the threads from the past. The problem is that expertise of this variety is often ignored by the very people it would most benefit.

Too many would-be defenders of democracy tackle the task without a clear understanding of what they’re up against. This book is an excellent remedy for that.

The Power Worshippers: The Rise of Religious Nationalism (with Katherine Stewart)

The Roots of Evangelicals’ Political Fervor | Retro Report

How Segregation Influenced Evangelical Political Activism | Retro Report

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