By David Rosen
Steven Andrew is pastor of the USA Christian Church in San Jose, Calif., who warns, “Obeying God protects the USA from diseases, such as the coronavirus.” He goes on, Bible thumping, “Our safety is at stake since national disobedience of God’s laws brings danger and diseases, such as coronavirus, but obeying God brings covenant protection. … God protects the USA from danger as the country repents of LGBT, false gods, abortion and other sins.”
Andrew is not alone in decrying the coronavirus as God’s curse. Rick Wiles, a Florida minister and founder of the media outlet TruNews, said the virus is a “plague” sent by God.
“My spirit bears witness that this is a genuine plague that is coming upon the earth, and God is about to purge a lot of sin off this planet,” he ranted. He stressed that such a plague is part of the “end times,” a period of tribulations that precedes the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Both Andrew and Wiles share a belief that the coronavirus plague is due to widespread immorality, especially involving abortion, homosexuality and gender nonconformity.
Andrew declared March to be “Repent of LGBT Sin Month.” He claims, “God’s love shows it is urgent to repent, because the Bible teaches homosexuals lose their souls and God destroys LGBT societies.” He calls himself the leader of the American Christian Denomination, an association “made up of Christians of all denominations who believe like our founding fathers.” He’s gone so far as to declare 2020 as “Jesus Is King Year – a year of liberty and blessings.” His press release notes that “he has monthly revival events. These outreaches cost $350,000 for the year. Those wanting to help share the Gospel can donate at USA Christian Church.”
Wiles rants, “Look at the spiritual rebellion that is in this country, the hatred of God, the hatred of the Bible, the hatred of righteousness.” He goes on, “Just vile, disgusting people in this country now, transgendering little children, perverting them. Look at the rapes and the sexual immorality and the filth on our TVs and our movies.”
For postmodern secularists, the opinions of Andrew and Wiles may seem absurd if not ridiculous, easily dismissed. Their moralistic judgments seem more appropriate to the 19th – if not 17th – centuries than to 21st century America. Sadly, their religious fundamentalist beliefs appear to be shared by millions of Americans who helped elect Donald Trump. Most worrisome, they embody a moralistic authoritarianism that has congealed into a powerful political movement threatening the nation’s very democratic being.
“The rise of the religious right should be cause for alarm among all who care about the future of democracy in America,” warns Katherine Stewart in her new book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.
Stewart’s invaluable study is a detailed investigation into how, over the last quarter century, the culture wars morphed into a political campaign. The book documents how as this movement failed to gain popular support for its moralistic agenda, it turned to politics to impose its Christian fundamentalist values on American society.
When Trump and other top administration officials took office, they pledged to fulfill the 2016 Republican Party’s platform that asserted, “Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values. We condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, which wrongly removed the ability of Congress to define marriage policy in federal law.”
Trump’s election occurred as Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and, once in office, he appointed two conservatives to the Supreme Court – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – consolidating the Religious Right’s control of the nation’s legal authority. Compounding this situation, numerous members of Trump’s inner circle are drawn from the Religious Right, including Vice President Mike Pence; William Barr, attorney general; Jay Sekulow, the president’s counsel; and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The hardcore Christian nationalist movement played a key role in Trump’s 2016 victory and will likely try to do so again in 2020.
“The Christian nationalist movement,” Stewart notes, “is far more organized and better funded than most people realize.” And then she warns, “It seeks to control all aspects of government and society. Its successes have been stunning, and its influence now extends to every aspect of American life, from the White House to state capitols, from our schools to our hospitals.”
When Trump and other top administration officials took office, they pledged to fulfill the 2016 Republican Party’s platform that asserted, ‘Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values. We condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, which wrongly removed the ability of Congress to define marriage policy in federal law.’
Stewart details how the Christian right effectively employs a network of think tanks, advocacy groups, pastoral organizations and the fortunes of the very, very rich to achieve its power. She is a journalist who anchors each chapter in a compelling story of a distinct facet of the Christian nationalist movement. In one chapter she visits Unionville, N.C., to attend a seminar sponsored by Watchmen on the Wall considering how to end the Johnson Amendment restrictions on religious organizations endorsing political parties or candidates.
Stewart introduces the cabal of key leaders of the movement, including: Ralph Drollinger (who offers weekly Bible study groups for White House officials); Paul Weyrich (who led the antiabortion movement); Jim Domen (an ex-gay anti-gay activist who leads Church United, a voter outreach group); David Barton (of Project Blitz that seeks to end separation of church and state); and R. J. Rushdoony (whom she calls “an unacknowledged leader of the movement”). She also explores the role of the Religious Right in the rise of the home schooling movement and how calls for “free speech” led to the erosion of the traditional wall separating church and state.
As Stewart warns, Christian nationalism is a movement that aims “to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity … that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders.”
The Puritans landed in New England four centuries ago, in 1620. During the first quarter-century of settlement, occasional accusations of witchcraft were raised, but no one was executed. However, during the following half-century, 1647-1693, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft, and about 30 were executed. Most of these alleged witches were women who came from more than 30 communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, including Easthampton, Long Island, now part of New York. Following the notorious Salem trials of 1692-93, convictions and executions for witchcraft essentially ended.
Few remember just how troubled the lives of the early Puritans were. Their settlement was inspired by the desire to civilize the New World, to wrest from the devil both the natural world and the aboriginal people, and thus create New Jerusalem. Yet, they found themselves confronted at every turn by formidable threats, in constant fear of nature’s uncertainties and in dread of innumerable battles with hostile Native tribes. The New World was a troubled environment in which to create heaven on earth.
Making matters worse, their attempt to establish New Jerusalem was hampered most by the very fragile humans who were expected to accomplish this religiously inspired mission. Humans were imperfect creatures, scarred for all eternity by original sin yet, given the predetermination that directed all of God’s actions, capable of being saved and achieving a state of grace. These troubled beings were subject to a nearly inexhaustible list of sins that fell into two broad categories — sins of character and sins of the flesh.
Among the former were pride, anger, envy, malice, lying, discontent, dissatisfaction and self-assertion. Among the latter were seduction, lust, bestiality, masturbation, fornication, adultery, incest, polygamy, sodomy and temptations like carnality, drunkenness and licentiousness. Almost anything could be a sin.
The Puritans fought mightily against the overpowering threats that were as much external as internal, especially sexual threats. They fashioned, in the words of historian Richard Godbeer, “a culture of sexual surveillance and regulation to strictly oversee and control interpersonal relations.” First and foremost, this surveillance was intended to prevent premarital sex and pregnancy or what was known as “bridal pregnancy.” It was not uncommon for neighbors to carefully observe interpersonal encounters taking place in homes or in fields, on roadways or in the woods.
For Puritans, no place was considered private, beyond the bounds of community monitoring. This control was only intensified given the close physical proximity under which Puritan settlements existed. The personal information garnered through surveillance provided the basis for many of the reported scandals involving alleged witchcraft.
Puritans distinguished between a sinner, even one convicted of a sexual offense, and a witch. According to historian Elizabeth Reis, “a witch [was] the most egregious of sinners.” She insists: “Those who admitted signing [the devil’s pact] crossed the forbidden line between sinner and witch.” This act, signing the devil’s book with one’s own blood, marked forsaking God and aligning with Satan. Equally critical, it was a voluntary act, a personal decision, motivated neither by seduction nor temptation.
The sinner and the witch could engage in the same sexual act, but the meaning for each was fundamentally different. For the sinner, sin was a survivable offense and offered a chance for redemption. This was especially true for male as opposed to female sinners. For the witch, however, there was only hanging and eternal damnation. In addition to fornication, women accused of witchcraft could also be charged with other sex offenses, including adultery, illegitimacy and, the worst, sex with the devil.
As judgment for a sinner’s bad conduct or warning to one so tempted, the Puritans drew upon a wide assortment of punishments to enforce social control. They ranged from excommunication, disenfranchisement and banishment, to public shaming and whippings, to selling a convicted person’s children into bondage, to branding, cutting off body parts (e.g., an ear) and body mutilation (e.g., disfiguring the nose), and, when all else failed, to hanging and even being pressed under rocks until death. Unfortunately, these threats and punishments did not work.
It’s now 2020 and Old World Puritanism survives as postmodern Christian nationalism. It is, as Stewart argues, a complex phenomenon. On one level, it is a populist, nonviolent movement, “a militant minority.” She estimates that it consists of “26 percent of the voting age population” who supported electoral candidates in 2016. That year, the voting age population was 250 million people, so it would seem that 65 million Americans might be part of the Christian nationalist movement.
However, given the sizable population that Stewart suggests as composing the Christian nationalist movement, it also operates on still other levels. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identified within it a host of segments, including the broad Religious Right, Christian Identity groups, neo-Confederate groups, Ku Klux Klan groups, racist skinheads and others sharing white supremacist beliefs.
In a recent report, “The Year in Hate and Extremism, 2019,” SPLC found that the number of white nationalist groups was up slightly to 155 from 148 in 2018. It notes that since 2017, there has been a 55 percent increase in the number of these groups, some of which are calling for bloodshed and a race war. “Most notably,” it found, “some are advocating violence and encouraging their foot soldiers to prepare for (and precipitate) a race war.”
The SPLC notes that “the movement’s followers are breaking into two major strategic camps,” between “mainstreamers” and “accelerationists.” The “mainstreamers” are often referred to as the “dissident right” faction “who are attempting, with a degree of success, to bend the mainstream political right toward white nationalist ideas.” The “accelerationists” “wholeheartedly embrace violence as a political tool” and, as the SPLC warns, “much of the movement’s energy lies in the growing accelerationist wing, which, for the most part, is organized in informal online communities rather than formal groups.”
One factor that might have contributed to the increased militancy of some aspects of the Religious Right is the significant decline among those who self-identity as Christians. Pew Research finds that in the decade between 2009 and 2019, there was a 12 percent decline among such people, from 77 percent down to 65 percent. Perhaps more revealing, those who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” now stands at 26 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009.
The worldwide spread – and unraveling global crisis – caused by coronavirus pandemic seems like a perfect historical moment for religious fundamentalist – and other racial identity nationalists – to invoke the Puritan past to persecute alleged offenders, nonbelievers. For some religious ranters, when moral suasion fails, it’s time to invoke the power of the state to impose order.
As Christian nationalists secure ever-greater influence, if not control, of the American political system – at the federal and state levels – they will exploit the power of state authority to impose their values as law and enforcement. For these religious reactionaries, the 2020 election is not about Trump but about power – their power to control America and increasing aspects of the lives of all of us.
David Rosen is a writer and business development consultant. He is the author of three books, most recently Sin, Sex & Subversion: How What Was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal (Skyhorse/Carrel). He has also published numerous academic studies, book reviews and popular pieces, as well as chapters for nonfiction anthologies. His website is www.DavidRosenWrites.com. This article originally appeared on Counterpunch.org.