Christian Nationalism and Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The depth and breadth of White evangelical support for Donald Trump before and since his election has perplexed most observers. But a team of sociologists, freshly-analyzed data in hand, may have the answer that has eluded journalists, scholars, and political consultants. They recently wrote an essay in The Washington Post titled, “Despite porn stars and Playboy models, white evangelicals aren’t rejecting Trump. This is why.”

Clemson University sociologist Andrew Whitehead and his colleagues Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma and Joseph Baker of East Tennessee State University say that religious support for Trump is driven by Christian nationalism, which is not so much about moral purity as it is about power––the kind of power to defend and to deliver the Christian nation that never was. Previously, pollsters and pundits have attempted to link religious identity with political choices by such measures as how frequently people attended church. However, the focus on analyzing the components of Christian nationalism is a departure that has revealed a powerfully animating element for the Christian Right, guiding their electoral choices and helping explain why they continue to stand by their man, despite everything. Analyzing data from the Baylor Religion Survey, conducted in the wake of the 2016 election, the trio wrote, “The more someone believed the United States is––and should be––a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.”  In fact, they found that it was the single greatest religious predictor that a voter would support Trump in 2016.

This may seem counterintuitive to many, since few observers believe that Trump is particularly religious himself. But Trump not only featured Christian nationalism in his campaign and during his presidency so far, but he has done so much in the manner of Christian Right leaders––casting perceived attacks on religious liberty as part of a broad attack on Christianity, and even faith itself.

Whitehead, et al., say the data they crunched from the Baylor Survey show that “Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.” This, they say, can be correlated, but is not synonymous with “a variety of class-based, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric views.”

They aver, however, that Islamophobia has also been independently well established as a strong predictor of whether someone would vote for Trump, and their own study, although focused on Christian nationalism, tended to bear that out. Thus, they say, “Christian nationalism and Islamophobia, with respect to the Trump vote, might be understood as two sides of the same coin.”

Their extended study, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election,” is forthcoming in the journal, Sociology of Religion. Such a report might not ordinarily get much attention but because its conclusions are so dramatic, and because it was billboarded in The Washington Post, it will be hard to ignore.

Taken together with a wealth of other data, the Baylor Religion Survey allowed Whitehead’s group to figure out if Christian nationalism mattered to Trump voters. The Baylor Survey asked many of the right questions, including giving respondents the opportunity to declare a measure of agreement or disagreement with such statements as:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values,”
  • “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state,”
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces,”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan,” and
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”

This contrasts with the approach of pollsters over the past decade or so, which Whitehead thinks has not helped us understand Trump voters. Whitehead explained to Paul Rosenberg of Salon, “Knowing how religious someone is, like how often they attend church or if they view the Bible as God’s literal word to them, doesn’t help us predict” whether they voted for Trump.  While one’s personal faith is not unimportant, Rosenberg reported, the connection between faith and voting behavior is indirect. Whitehead concluded, “So the influence of personal religiosity on whether someone voted for Trump ‘flows through’ Christian nationalism.”

All this may come as a revelation to many. But to longtime students of the Christian Right and to the Christian Right itself, it is not surprising. The political organizing manual of the Family Research Council emphasizes Christian nationalism in its justification for Christian political action. Christian nationalist authors, such as David Barton, William Federer, and John Eidsmoe (a longtime advisor to unsuccessful Alabama Senate candidate, Roy Moore, a famous Christian nationalist in his own right) have been fixtures of Christian Right political conferences for decades. Political Research Associates has been reporting on Christian nationalism and how it intersects with Dominionism as driving elements of the Christian Right since the early 1990s. Like Dominionism, Christian nationalism has been hiding in plain sight.

What’s more, although candidate Trump often sounded Christian nationalist themes during the campaign, Whitehead, et al., note that Trump’s appeals to Christian nationalism during and since the campaign have typically been “overlooked” by the media. Reporting, during the campaign, they say, “focused more on whether a relatively non-pious candidate could win the vote of the Religious Right.”

For example, coverage of a speech at Liberty University in 2016, focused on whether Trump quoting a Bible verse as being from “two Corinthians” rather than the conventional “second Corinthians” would hurt him with religious voters. The gaffe caused students to laugh and certainly suggested he was unaccustomed to discussing the Bible. But Trump’s direct appeal to Christian nationalism immediately afterwards was met with applause––largely unnoticed in news reports. Trump said:

But we are going to protect Christianity. And if you look what’s going on throughout the world, you look at Syria where they’re, if you’re Christian, they’re chopping off heads. You look at the different places, and Christianity, it’s under siege. I’m a Protestant. I’m very proud of it. Presbyterian to be exact. But I’m very proud of it, very, very proud of it. And we’ve gotta protect, because bad things are happening, very bad things are happening…Other religions, frankly, they’re banding together and they’re using it. And here we have, if you look at this country, it’s gotta be 70 percent, 75 percent, some people say even more, the power we have, somehow we have to unify. We have to band together…Our country has to do that around Christianity.

Trump returned to his Christian nationalist theme when he returned to campus to deliver a Commencement address in May 2017. He cast himself as the defender of the faith and U.S. Christian identity:

In America we don’t worship government, we worship God…America is better when people put their faith into action. As long as I am your president no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart. We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God and to follow his teachings.

A Feature, Not a Bug

Christian nationalism, according to Whitehead, “draws its roots from ‘Old Testament’ parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.”  This means that “Christian nationalism can be unmoored from traditional moral import, emphasizing only its notions of exclusion and apocalyptic war and conquest.”

This understanding of the immoral Trump: the destroyer of the enemies of Christendom and the unlikely defender of the faith, stands in the tradition of the kings of “Old Testament” Israel, just as Christian Right leaders portrayed him in justifying his candidacy in 2016. This ideology is significant not only because of its politics of nostalgia for a Christian nation that never was, but because, as Rosenberg emphasizes in Salon, it explains why people can support such a “vicious” leader as Trump. Rosenberg observes that Trump’s “impious leadership makes perfect sense, once you realize what’s at stake. It’s a feature, not a bug. And evangelical voters, Whitehead argues, know it.”

Although, it is premature to say much about it, the possibility for religiously motivated violence in this atmosphere cannot be discounted. There have been rumblings of theocratic violence emanating from neoconfederates and elements of the Christian Right in the Republican Party for a long time. But there have been no overt organized efforts, with the possible exception of Charlottesville. But these elements have never before had potential warrior king to follow. Whether they can view Trump as that figure, and whether he can envision himself in that role, remains to be seen.

While Fischer Takes the Blame, RNC Israel Trip Will Be Led By An Even More Influential Christian Nationalist

Much has been made of RNC chairman Reince Priebus and 60 members of the Republican National Committee taking a trip to Israel under the sponsorship of the SPLC-certified hate group American Family Association (AFA). But while AFA has tried to minimalize the controversy by firing Director of Issue Analysis Bryan Fischer (although he’ll continue hosting their radio program), the right-wing operative actually hosting the trip is a less known, but much more significant player.

This duplicity of those on the Right known for loudly declaring their love for Israel in an effort to inoculate their activism from charges of Christian supremacism has become increasingly transparent thanks to the RNC’s trip. Waving Israeli flags at rallies may no longer be enough to camouflage an agenda that attacks the rights of American Jews and those of other faiths

The host of the RNC’s trip, and the man we should be more concerned about, is David Lane, head of the American Renewal Project at the AFA. While Bryan Fischer has received most of the public notoriety for declaring that only Christians should have free exercise of religion and that immigrants should be forced to convert to Christianity, David Lane’s work has successfully flown under the radar—until now.

Christian Right political operative David Lane

Christian Right political operative David Lane

David Lane: Wage War to Restore a Christian America

Lane just finished up his duties organizing The Response in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a religio-political rally headlined by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and funded by AFA.  Lane, a self-declared political operative, has mostly stayed out of the limelight for the last decade, while hosting over 10,000 pastors in more than 10 states encouraging pastors to run for office, known as “Pastors’ Policy Briefings” or “Pastors and Pews.”  These briefings are often held over a couple of days in luxury hotels, with all-expenses-paid for pastors and their spouses, and have featured numerous politicians. For example, one event last year in Iowa featured Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) (and his father) and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (R), and was also attended by billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks. Another Iowa event on the schedule for this coming March will include Jindal and Cruz.

As noted by PRA Fellow Frederick Clarkson, Lane’s rhetoric has become increasingly militant. An article by Lane later removed from the WorldNetDaily website was titled “Wage War to Restore a Christian America.”

As to the future of America – and the collapse of this once-Christian nation – Christians must not only be allowed to have opinions, but politically, Christians must be retrained to war for the Soul of America and quit believing the fabricated whopper of the “Separation of Church and State,” the lie repeated ad nauseum by the left and liberals to keep Christian America – the moral majority – from imposing moral government on pagan public schools, pagan higher learning and pagan media.

Lane frequently quotes Christian Reconstructionist Peter Leithart’s call for Christian martyrs, and says“Christianity has always been persecuted beginning in Acts 4 and throughout 2000 years of history.” According to Lane, the only exception is in the U.S., where Christians have had religious and civil liberty for about 200 years, but he adds that Christian America is now in ruins, “destroyed by liberal secularists.”  He equates the supposed failure of Christian America to fight back against secularism with the failure of the church of Germany to fight back against the rising Nazi party.

Gene Mills, head of the Tony Perkins-founded Louisiana Family Forum, presents Governor Bobby Jindal with the "Gladiator Award"

Gene Mills, head of the Tony Perkins-founded Louisiana Family Forum, presents Governor Bobby Jindal with the “Gladiator Award”

Events organized by Lane have also featured calls for like-minded Christians to “take back” government and society.  One of the organizers of The Response in LA was Gene Mills, head of the Tony Perkins-founded Louisiana Family Forum.  During his speech, Mills challenged the audience to take back the “seven mountains” from “enemy occupation.” This is a reference to a campaign marketed internationally for like-minded Christians to take control over society by taking dominion over arts and entertainment, business, education, family, government, media, and religion.  Mills presents annual awards each year to politicians who support the organization’s agenda, a number that he says has quadrupled during his tenure.  This past year he awarded the sword for the “Gladiator Award” to Gov. Jindal.

A Christian Nationalist Rewriting of History

AFA’s Bryan Fischer, at the heart of the RNC trip controversy, is known for his virulent homophobia. In Fischer’s version of Nazi history, Adoph Hitler himself was an active homosexual, who recruited other homosexuals.  Therefore, in his version of history, homosexuals were not victims but the villains of the Holocaust.

Lane has taken politicians to Israel, including former Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) and Rand Paul, and is credited with helping the latter improve his credentials with evangelicals.  This past November, Lane hosted a group of “political and faith leaders” on a trip to Europe, including former Arkansas Governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee, as well as pastors from Iowa and South Carolina. The trip was dubbed “The Journey: A Spiritual Awakening,” and the itinerary included sites related to the lives of Pope John Paul II, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and concluded at the Ronald Reagan Library.

Also on the trip was Floyd Brown, founder of Citizens United and the political operative behind the infamous Willie Horton ad and the ExposeObama website. Brown wrote about the trip in an article titled “Huckabee Declaring Holy War?,” and quotes Huckabee as calling for resistance against tyranny.  But the tyranny they claim to be fighting is that of President Obama’s administration and the “cultural Marxism” that Lane believes is part of a communist plot to indoctrinate Americans.

Stops at Auschwitz and Birkenau were also included, but they were spun by Lane and Huckabee and (as well as in coverage of the trip by conservative media) as a warning to rise up against encroaching threats in America.  An article in the Christian Post about the trip equated the actions of the Nazis with America today, saying, “The comparison to America could not be more blantant. The article quoted Austrian-born Kitty Werthmann, president of the North Dakota chapter of the Eagle Forum, the anti-ERA organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly, who gives speeches based on her claimed experiences in Nazi-occupied Austria and portraying Hitler as a leftist who abolished free enterprise and insisted on “equal rights for women”

Inoculating Christian Nationalism with Christian Zionism

Many Christians feel affinity with the Holy Land and the state of Israel, but Christian Zionism refers to activism attempting to hasten the second coming of Jesus, and helping Jews along with the role they are supposed to play in the drama of the end times. In recent decades, leaders embracing Dominion Theology have often rejected Christian Zionism, but some Charismatic Christians have embraced a different form of dominionism that couples aggressive Christian triumphalism with “pro-Israel” activism. In this hybrid narrative, Jews must be converted (particularly in Israel) to bring about Jesus’ kingdom on earth.

Although this brand of Charismatic dominionism is sweeping the globe like wildfire, many Jewish leaders either remain unaware of its agenda, or are hesitant to criticize the religious bigotry of those labelled pro-Israel.  The Israeli flag waving, shofar blowing, and Messianic music are sometimes mistaken as affection, when these are actually expressions of Christian triumphalism and a strategy to build Messianic congregations and communities. (Messianics are Jews who convert to Christianity but retain trappings of Judaism and a Jewish identity.)

This coupling of Christian nationalism with pro-Zionist activism is most visible among the modern-day “apostles” of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), many of whom helped David Lane organize, market, and lead The Response prayer rallies headlined by Rick Perry in 2011 and Bobby Jindal last week.  At both of these events, a designated “prayer for Israel” segment of the program included overt calls for the conversion of Jews.  At the Perry event in 2011, the call was made by Apostle Don Finto and Marty Waldman, rabbi of one of the nation’s largest Messianic congregations.  Finto is known for his role in promoting the “Israel Mandate” directing Christians to support Messianics.

The leader of the afternoon segment of Perry’s 2011 all-day prayer rally was Mike Bickle, head of the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, an international youth-oriented ministry that also prioritizes the Israel Mandate.  The Response events were patterned after, and incorporated leaders from, TheCall, a tax-affiliated ministry of IHOP led by Lou Engle. TheCall holds large-venue events around the world that include prayers for conversion of Jews, including TheCall Jerusalem in 2008.

At David Lane’s prayer rally last weekend, the Prayer For Israel speakers included Rosemary Schindler, a distant relative of Oskar Schindler and a prominent speaker among Christian Zionists and Messianics. Last year, Rosemary married Jim Garlow, a pastor who organized support for California’s Proposition 8. Another speaker at Lane’s rally shouted, “We declare as a united body, revival in the land of Israel in the name of Jesus!”  (Garlow also spoke at both Perry and Jindal’s rally.)

This shift in theology has resulted in ugly undertones of religious bigotry among people who claim to love Israel, and a new acceptability in evangelizing Jews.  For example, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI), led primarily by NAR apostles and Messianics (including Rabbi Marty Waldman), featured Glenn Beck in 2012 at their annual gala and fundraiser. The following year the event featured former President George W. Bush.

The RNC’s trip with Lane will be accompanied by popular Messianic writer Joel Rosenberg, who also calls for the evangelization of Jews and has recently immigrated to Israel.  The Haaretz article also quoted David Lane from a past interview with Glenn Beck saying “Restoring America to our Judeo-Christian heritage and re-establishing a Christian culture is the only way that we get out of where we are.”

Haaretz published an oped I wrote in August, 2011, when Glenn Beck was hosting events in Israel.  Beck had already alienated many American Jews with the promotion of virulently anti-Semitic writers and an attack on George Soros using anti-Semitic memes. His anti-Semitic words caused a protest from 400 rabbis, representing all four branches of Judaism. In the op-ed, I warned that Beck’s embrace by Israeli leaders would be further indication to Americans that support for Israel is linked to an extremist political agenda in the United States—one that threatens to further alienate both Jews and Christians, Democrats and Republicans.  Likewise, Reince Priebus and the RNC’s trip with David Lane risk further alienating not only American Jews, but all Americans who value religious pluralism and the separation of church and state.

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