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Katherine Stewart: The Christian nationalist roots of the coup attempt

Katherine Stewart
Katherine Stewart signed copies of her book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, at FFRF’s national convention in Boston on Nov. 19. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This article is part of the comprehensive report, “Christian Nationalism and the January 6, 2021, Insurrection,” published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. The full report is available here:

By Katherine Stewart

By now, most Americans understand that Christian nationalism played a role in last year’s violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. But the movement’s contribution is much more complex and goes deeper than is widely appreciated. Understanding its part involves looking beyond the Christian nationalist activists and signage at the specific event of Jan. 6, the day that former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election crossed into violence.

In order to grasp the role of Christian nationalism in this and other recent political developments, it is helpful to know something about the movement itself — its structure, its forms of operation, and its ultimate goals.

Because Christian nationalism is identified (or, more accurately, because it identifies itself) with a religion, the movement is often understood as a set of religious and/or theological positions that are then assumed to lead in a deductive way to a certain set of cultural and policy preferences, and from there to a certain kind of politics. But Christian nationalism is, first and foremost, a political movement. Its principal goal, and the goal of its most active leaders, is power. Its leadership looks forward to the day when they can rely on government for three things: power and influence for themselves and their political allies; a steady stream of taxpayer funding for their initiatives; and policies that favor “approved” religious and political viewpoints.

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, leadership training initiatives, and media and messaging platforms, all working together for common political aims. Its leadership cadre includes a number of personally associated activists and politicians, some of them working through multiple organizations. It derives much of its power and direction from an informal club of funders, a number of them belonging to extended, hyperwealthy families. 

It took me some time to navigate the sea of acronyms, funding schemes, denominations, and policy and kinship networks, and I lay out much of this ecosystem in my book, The Power Worshippers. Yet the important thing to understand about the collective effort is not its evident variety but the profound source of its unity.

Commitment to vision

The top-level leadership of the movement is unified by its members’ consistent, and often performative, repetition of their commitment to a shared ideological vision and a certain set of messages. Many of the movement’s conferences, summits and strategy gatherings have a “religious” character — not necessarily in the sense that they are promoting specific religious or theological doctrines, but that those meetings center on the constant repetition and back-and-forth of the core messages. 

At the conferences and presentations I have reported on over the past year, audiences were told, heatedly and repeatedly, 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. This is part of the reason why the hold of Trump on this wing of the Republican Party has been so hard to break: because Christian nationalist gatherings generally don’t involve open debates about facts or policy, but rather displays of fidelity to a message and loyalty to the leaders who have managed to identify themselves with that message.

When Trump launched the effort to overturn the election by promoting the lie that it was stolen, consider where some of the most militant and coordinated support came from. The Conservative Action Project, a group associated with the Council for National Policy, which serves as a key networking organization for America’s religious and economic right-wing elite, made its position clear in a statement issued a week before the insurrection.

It called for members of the Senate to “contest the electoral votes” from Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states that were the focus of Republicans’ baseless allegations. Co-signatories included nearly two dozen powerful movement figures including Bob McEwen, a leader of the Council for National Policy; Morton C. Blackwell of the Leadership Institute; Alfred S. Regnery, a former publisher; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; conservative lawyer and activist Cleta Mitchell, who was on the phone with Trump when he urged Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” extra votes; and Thomas Fitton of Judicial Watch.

Even as Republican figures like former President George W. Bush and Sen. Mitt Romney attempted to nudge Trump toward a graceful concession, many religious right leaders doubled down on conspiracy or denial or provided indirect support for election lies by articulating “concerns” about supposed “constitutional irregularities” in battleground states. Today, many of the movement’s most influential organizations have embraced the cause of “election integrity” as a fairly transparent means of undercutting faith in elections as a cornerstone of our democracy.

Delivering votes

A key to the movement’s durability is its influence on elected political leaders (and their appointees). Its influence on these leaders depends in large part on its ability to deliver large numbers of votes in a consistent way. And its ability to deliver these votes rests on at least three important mechanisms:

• The first is that Christian nationalism serves as an effective tool for controlling information flows to a significant part of the population. It is 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 political allies, a tremendous degree of power.

• A second mechanism for mobilizing mass political power involves manufacturing and focusing a sense of persecution and resentment among the rank and file. To be clear, the movement draws on a wide range of pre-existing anxieties and concerns. But its real contribution consists in identifying and promoting grievance and then aiming it at political opponents.

• And finally, the movement offers its supporters a means of 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. 

On the one hand, Christian nationalists are America, at least in their own minds. On the other hand, movement supporters are persuaded that America is in the grip of malevolent forces, which they variously identify as “secularists,” “the homosexual agenda,” “the communist threat,” 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.

All three mechanisms were on display during the attempted coup, which erupted in violence on Jan. 6. On the matter of information flows, there was no shortage of publicly available evidence on the question of the integrity of the 2020 election. There was no factual support for the fraudulent claims that were repeatedly promoted by Trump and used as the pretext for his attempted coup. There are, of course, many sources of disinformation, and a number have become the focus of commentators: social media in general, Fox News, Breitbart News Network and too many others to count. 

All played significant roles, no doubt. But it is clear that disinformation about the 2020 election was promoted by many Christian nationalist leaders and organizations, and it had a lasting impact among the rank and file. Within the Republican base, survey data shows that white evangelicals are the most likely cohort to believe in Trump’s election lies.

To be clear, however, not all white evangelicals do. Many evangelical Christians either do not support or actively oppose Christian nationalism, and a substantial number of America’s religious nationalists are not evangelical. The movement includes representatives of both Protestant and non-Protestant religion, and it receives support from some people and groups that do not identify as Christian at all.

Top down leadership

An important point is that the movement is led from the top down, rather than the ground up. Understanding its appeal to a broad mass of American voters is necessary in explaining its strength, but is not sufficient in explaining the movement’s direction. It is a means through which a small number of people — quite a few of them residing in the Washington, D.C., area — harness the passions, concerns and resentments of a large and diverse population in their own quest for power. Movement leaders have quite consciously reframed religion itself to suit their political objectives and then promoted this new reactionary religion as widely as possible, thus turning citizens into congregants and congregants into useful foot soldiers.

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 reunite 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.

They may also be drawn to the movement’s promise of certainty in an uncertain world. Against a backdrop of escalating economic inequality, deindustrialization, rapid technological change and climate instability, many people, on all points of the economic spectrum, feel that the world has entered a state of disorder. The movement gives them confidence, an identity, and the feeling that their position in the world is safe. 

Yet the price of certainty is often the surrendering of one’s political will to those who claim to offer refuge from the tempest of modern life. The leaders of the movement have demonstrated real savvy in satisfying some of the emotional concerns of their followers, but they have little intention of giving them a voice in where the movement is going. 

I can still hear the words of one activist I met along the way. When I asked her if the anti-democratic aspects of the movement ever bothered her, she replied, “The bible tells us that we don’t need to worry about anything.” 

Conveying messages

The leadership of the Christian nationalist movement conveys messaging to their followers through a wide range of means. Among the most important is the targeting and exploitation of the nation’s conservative houses of worship. The faith communities may be fragmented in a variety of denominations and theologies, but movement leaders have had considerable success in uniting them around their political vision and mobilizing them to get out the vote for their chosen candidates.

Leaders of the movement know that members of the clergy can drive votes. They also understand that if you can get congregants to vote on a small handful of issues, you can control their vote. And, so, they draw pastors into conservative networks focused on political engagement and offer them sophisticated tools that they can use to deliver the “correct” messages about the issues that they wish to emphasize in election cycles.

It is fair to say that the coup attempt started with the actions of Trump, who very few people identify directly with the “family values” that Christian nationalists frequently claim to support. But this misses the point about the way this kind of movement operates. Once the movement laid the basic groundwork for an anti-democratic politics, others in Trump’s position could have done what he did. The movement threw its support behind Trump at a critical moment, delivering to him the Republican Party’s most reliable slice of electoral votes. He in turn gave the movement everything he had promised them: power and political access, access to public money, policies favorable to their agenda, and above all the appointment of hard-right judges. At the 2021 Road to Majority conference, a gathering of religious right activists, strategists, and political leaders, Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “Bottom line is President Trump delivered, don’t you think?”

No doubt things might have played out differently had a different Republican politician come to power in 2016. 

But as we look to the future, it would be false comfort to imagine that the entire episode can be written off to the actions of a single bad leader. With or without Trump, the movement will remain committed to the illiberal, antidemocratic politics that the former president so ably embodied.

Columnist Katherine Stewart is author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.