Editor’s Note: Writer/researcher Katherine Stewart’s new book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury), examines the rise and reach of Religious Right groups in America and exposes how they are turning religion into a tool for political power.
Stewart, who will speak at Americans United’s National Advocacy Summit Sept. 13-15, discussed the book recently with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.
Q. Let’s begin with a straight forward question: What is religious nationalism?
Stewart: The first thing to know is that it’s not a religion. It is 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 the U.S. is founded on the Bible, and can succeed only if it stays true to this foundation. Christian nationalism is also a device for mobilizing and often manipulating large segments of the population, and for concentrating power in the hands of a new elite.
Let me say something else about what the movement is not. It’s not just about evangelicals. It includes many evangelicals, but it excludes many evangelicals too, and it includes representatives of a variety of Protestant and non-Protestant religions. What unites the movement is not a distinct theology but a political vision.
Religious nationalism makes use of religion, but it is not trying to achieve religious, social or cultural aims. It is trying to achieve political power. And it is an antidemocratic movement because it says the foundation of legitimate government in the U.S. is a strict interpretation of a particular religion.
Q. Your first book, The Good News Club, is about efforts by fundamentalist Christians to proselytize young children in public schools. The Power Worshippers has a broader scope, examining the rise and reach of religious nationalists, who in America are mostly Christian. Why did you decide to write this book?
Stewart: The first book was spurred by my personal experience of a Good News Club at my children’s public elementary school. It focused on public education, which Good News Club leaders referred to as their “mission field.” The more I learned about similar initiatives and the movement behind them, the more concerned I became. I was stunned by the movement’s legal sophistication, its determination, its coherence and high level of strategic thinking. As I was reporting on this assault on public education, I realized it was only one piece of a much bigger story. The Religious Right has launched an attack on America as a modern, constitutional democracy. We are at an all-hands-on-deck moment, and I felt I had to do my piece.
Q. Let’s talk a bit about the origins of the Religious Right. Many people assume that must be connected to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that recognized abortion as a constitutional right. Your book is about the Religious Right rising up in defense of white supremacy at a Christian college. Tell us a little about that.
Stewart: Any student of power knows that the first step in controlling the present is controlling the past. And one thing religious nationalists have been incredibly successful at is controlling the story of their own past. They have sold us this idea their movement was a grassroots reaction to abortion. But one of the key issues that animated the movement in its earlier days was the fear that racially segregated academies might be deprived of their lucrative tax exemptions.
Jerry Falwell and many of his fellow Southern, white, conservative pastors were closely involved with segregated schools and universities – Bob Jones Sr. went so far as to call segregation “God’s established order” and referred to desegregationists as “Satanic propagandists” who were “leading colored Christians astray.” As far as these religious leaders were concerned, they had the right not just to segregate people but to also receive federal money for the purpose. So they coalesced around the fear that the Supreme Court might end tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools.
They knew, however, that “Stop the tax on segregation!” wasn’t going to be an effective rallying cry to inspire a broad-based hyperconservative counterrevolution. There’s a fascinating episode where they got together and basically went down a laundry list of issues that they thought might unite their new movement. I’m talking 1979 or so, about six years after Roe v. Wade. Number one was what they viewed as a threat to the tax privileges of racist academies. The women’s rights movement was another. There were several others on the list, then they came down to abortion and basically said, wow, that could work.
This part of the history has been effectively erased by movement leadership, and many conservative-leaning American voters have been persuaded, over time, that abortion is the single most important issue when it comes to their vote.
So let’s look at that “over time” piece of it. When Roe v Wade was passed, an editorial in a wire service run by the Southern Baptist Convention hailed the decision. Most Republican Protestants at the time supported liberalization of abortion law. Ronald Reagan passed the most liberal abortion law in the country in 1967; conservative hero Barry Goldwater supported abortion law liberalization too, at least early in his career. And Goldwater’s wife, Peggy, was a cofounder of Planned Parenthood in Arizona.
But activists, including Phyllis Schlafly, who saw the potential for this issue to unite a new movement, purged pro-choice voices from the Republican Party. The “pro-life religion” that we see today is a modern creation, and it was created for political purposes.
Q. Over the years, I’ve heard various pundits pronounce the death of the Religious Right as a political force several times. Yet right now the movement has more power than ever. How do we explain this?
Stewart: There are several mistakes observers often seem to make when they generalize about the fate of the Religious Right. The first is that because they see it as a cultural movement, they assume that its power must go up and down with cultural trends. So they think that because secularism in the aggregate in our society appears to be on the rise, then the movement must be fading. But this is a political movement, and its power doesn’t depend so much on the culture as the ability to manipulate and mobilize it through political tools for political power. The movement has built up the infrastructure of modern political campaigns over decades, including data, media and messaging, and these tools have staying power.
A simple piece of evidence on this is that 50 years ago, conservative Christians were spread fairly evenly across the political spectrum and were associated with a wide range of political positions, including on such questions as abortion. But now there is a far stronger association between religious identity and political association, and that’s a consequence of this political movement.
Another mistake that people often make on this topic is that they assume that the majority rules in a country like the United States. It doesn’t. In a country where 40 to 50 per- cent of people don’t turn out to vote, and an additional number are disenfranchised through gerrymandering and voter suppression, you don’t need a majority to win. At most, you simply need a committed, and surprisingly small, minority to access the levers of power, and that’s what the movement has succeeded in doing.
Q. You go into considerable detail about Rousas John Rushdoony and the openly theocratic Christian Reconstructionist movement. Who are these people and what role did they play in the rise of the Religious Right as a political force?
Stewart: This movement doesn’t have a central leadership, but it does have a collection of thought leaders, and a number of people who shaped it early on. I’m thinking of, among many others, David Barton, Jerry Falwell, Francis Schaeffer, D. James Kennedy, Howard Phillips and so on. Some of these figures aren’t well-known now, but all knew or know of Rushdoony, and some had warm exchanges with him or helped promote his work. They, among others, brought his ideas into the movement.
The main thing to know about Rushdoony is that he was intensely hostile to the principle of equality. He endorsed an austere biblical literalism and rigid hierarchies, which he asserted were ordained by God. He saw it as his job to rescue America from its commitment to godless secularism. His theology also included an opposition to government assistance to the poor, and he cast social welfare programs as “slavery to the state.”
So he shares much with Christian nationalists today. The idea the U.S. is a Christian nation, chosen by God; that it should be an orthodox Christian republic; that at some point America deviated horribly from its mission and fell under the control of atheist and/or liberal elites – this is the life of Rushdoony’s thought. And it has remained a cornerstone of Christian nationalism.
In particular, Rushdoony wrote that the First Amendment aimed to establish freedom “not from religion but for religion.” We hear this phrase widely parroted by Christian nationalists today, people like Barton are saying this all the time. And it has become an article of faith among much of the rank and file.
Q. Speaking of Barton, he has been peddling fake “Christian nation” history since the early 1990s. What accounts for his popularity among the Christian nationalist crowd?
Stewart: He tells the stories that they want to hear. These stories are fundamentally false or misleading, but that doesn’t stop him or them. These myths are necessary to provide cover for the great lie at the center of Christian nationalism. What Barton and other leaders of the movement don’t want you to know is that America’s founders proudly and explicitly created the world’s first secular republic.
Q. Religious freedom is a cornerstone of American life. Yet we seem to be undergoing an effort to redefine what that principle means. How do you define religious freedom?
Stewart: 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.
In the hands of the movement, it has been turned into the idea that conservative Christians should be permitted to discriminate against 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, 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.
Q. How do we balance religious freedom against claims by conservative Christian business owners that they don’t have to serve certain classes of people?
Stewart: Any organization or person who is involved in serving the public according to our laws must respect those laws and must treat all members of the public with equal consideration. So religious people and nonreligious people alike are free to handle their personal associations as they please, but it is preposterous to suggest they have a right to discriminate in their public commercial activities. We now accept without question that no business has a right to discriminate on the basis of the proprietor’s views on race and ethnicity. And discrimination on the basis of an owner’s views on religion is fundamentally no different. Indeed, for a long time, in many places in the American past, many white people took it as their religious duty to discriminate against people of color. And we now rightly know that this is utterly incompatible with a true democracy.
Q. In your Epilogue you say, “In some ways Christian nationalism is the fruit of a society that has not yet lived up to the promise of the American idea.” What do you mean by that?
Stewart: When you have massive economic inequality as we now have, and multiply it by a range of other inequities, two things happen in society. First, a population with a considerable amount of resentment and anxiety emerges. Second, a moneyed elite rises to power, and it needs a way to manipulate the disempowered masses. Christian nationalism is really the offspring of a kind of marriage between plutocracy and a resentful subset of the population.
Religious nationalism now does what it has done throughout history and around the world: It unites the greed and drive for power, the small moneyed elite, with the anxiety and resentment of a large part of the disempowered population.
Ultimately, the way to make this particular form of tyranny over the mind go away is the one that America’s founders chose. It is to establish the kind of genuine freedom and equality that was the original promise of the American republic.
Q. The Trump years have seen an unrelenting assault on the wall of separation between church and state. Some people are feeling despair over the current situation. Do we have cause for optimism?
Stewart: Yes, we do have cause for optimism. The American republic has been through many crises in the past, and has often come through, even if in imperfect ways, to advance freedom. And we can come through again if enough people recognize what is happening and engage in the political process in meaningful ways.