The following is adapted by the author from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury Publishing). Stewart is the recipient of the Council for Secular Humanism’s Morris D. Forkosch Award for best humanist book of 2020. —Eds.
Most of us are by now familiar with the public face of Christian nationalism. In the Trump era, we came to recognize the power preachers such as Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham, the pious politicians such as Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, and some of the deep-pocketed funders such as Betsy DeVos and her extended clan. But behind the scenes is the vast machinery of a movement that remains a defining feature of our political landscape. Its preferred candidate may have been defeated in the 2020 national election, but the movement long preceded the former president and will long outlast him. It is still taking your taxpayer dollars, together with the good will of many believers, and using them to mobilize and train a partisan political army bent on rewriting our history, seizing control of the American legal system, disenfranchising voters who don’t agree with their agenda, and undermining our constitutional principles and democracy itself. As the disgraceful events of January 6 should have made clear, moreover, this is a movement that views democratic politics as an option—and even an obstacle—in the pursuit of power.
The machine has many components: data operations that make use of personalized, psychographic targeting; pastoral initiatives that preach to elected officials what are supposedly biblically correct stances on public policy issues; legislative initiatives that flood the states with identical bills intended to chip away at the separation of church and state; right-wing activist groups; networking organizations; and a vast messaging sphere.
The movement’s greatest asset is its national infrastructure, and that infrastructure consists not only of organizations uniting and coordinating its leadership, and a burgeoning far-right media, but also in large part the nation’s conservative houses of worship. The churchesmay be fragmented in a variety of denominations and theologies, but Christian nationalist leaders have had considerable success in uniting them around their political vision. They know very well that pastors drive votes. Through them, the faithful can be persuaded to cast their ballots for the movement’s preferred candidates and join the army of volunteer activists who will canvass other voters, run for minor political offices, and do whatever it takes to save the country from “the humanists” and “the homosexual agenda” and take it back for God.
In researching my book The Power Worshippers, I attended innumerable Christian nationalist conferences, gatherings, and strategy meetings. I interviewed leaders of the movement as well as members of the rank and file. I don’t doubt that many of the people I met on my journey mean well. The rank and file come to the movement with a variety of concerns, including questions about life’s deeper meaning, a love of God and scripture, ethnic and family solidarity, an appreciation of community, and a desire to mark life’s most significant passages. Many also appear to be seeking certainty in an uncertain world. Against a backdrop of escalating economic inequality, deindustrialization, rapid technological change, and climate instability, people on all points of the economic spectrum feel the world has entered a state of disorder. Religion offers solace, identity, and the feeling that one’s position in the world is safe.
Yet all too often the price of certainty in America’s conservative congregations is the surrender 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. They relentlessly promote the message that the world is divided between the pure and the impure, insiders and outsiders, and assure their followers that if they conform, they will be on the inside. At gatherings of the faithful, loyalty is a test of truth, and supporting the “right” candidates is a key to the path to spiritual salvation.
* * *
North Carolina’s Unionville Baptist Church is a solid brick building on a country road surrounded by farmland. On a late morning in October 2018, I attended a Pastors’ Briefing sponsored by Watchmen on the Wall, an affiliate of the Family Research Council (FRC). I entered the spacious fellowship hall on the ground floor, joining dozens of local pastors and their guests, and took a seat at a table with a clear view of the podium. The walls were lined with colorful booths displaying promotional materials from the various right-wing policy groups in attendance.
From the flier publicizing the briefing, a passerby might have formed the impression that this would be a nonpartisan event focusing on issues of interest to church members and their leaders. The FRC, one of the most powerful and politically connected Christian nationalist activist and lobbying groups in America, routinely organizes similar convocations across the country through Watchmen on the Wall, which claims to have nearly 25,000 pastor-members. According to its promotional material, the briefings are “focused on shaping public policy and informed civic activism.” The organization’s website boasts an endorsement by former Vice President Mike Pence: “Keep being a ‘Watchman on the Wall.’ Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s making a difference.”
“This is also, I want to remind you, a (c)(3) event; we’re not making any endorsements,” said J. C. Church, a pastor and political activist and the FRC’s national director of ministry engagement. Church was referring to the tax-free designation that the IRS gives out for nonprofit organizations; under its provisions, qualifying groups are legally prohibited from endorsing candidates for political office. Here in Unionville, the disclaimer was little more than a perfunctory aside—the pretense of neutrality evaporated just a few sentences into the opening remarks by FRC President Tony Perkins.
“I believe this last election, 2016, was the result of prayer,” said Perkins. “We’ve seen our nation begin to move back to a nation that respects the sanctity of life.” Perkins speaks in the calm, mid-Atlantic voice of a Beltway operator, but his words are all brimstone and rage. The host of a daily radio show that showcases prominent right-wing figures, he is a practiced and effective speaker and knows the anger buttons of his audience well.
“‘Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places,’” he said, quoting a Bible passage from the book of Ephesians. “If we don’t know that to be true after what we’ve seen in the last three weeks, I don’t know what it will take,” he added, referring to the 2018 battle to place Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Folks, we’re headed in a new direction as a nation. And that’s what this battle over the court is all about,” Perkins continued. He ran through a familiar litany of how “the court has been used to impose a godless set of values on America,” tapping all the well-worn talking points about how the Bible was “taken out of school” and replaced with “calls for abortion on demand.” “It was the court that imposed it on America and made all of us complicit with the taking of innocent human life,” he inveighed. “Folks, is this an evil day?”
Then he pivoted to the message of the gathering. “Christians need to vote,” he said. “The members of your congregations need to vote. As pastors, you need to—I’m not going to say ‘challenge them’; you need to tell them to vote.”
Although Perkins never said the word Republican, there wasn’t the slightest doubt about which way he expected pastors to tell their congregants to vote. One party is “the party of life,” he suggested, and supporting it is a matter of eternal salvation. “We are a divided nation, and someone’s values will dominate,” he warned, leaving little doubt that in his view “the rulers of the darkness” and “the spiritual hosts of wickedness” were to be found on the Democratic Party’s side of the aisle. “We will be held accountable for what we allow to happen,” he told the assembled pastors. “My question to you this morning is: What will you do? What will you do with this moment that God has entrusted to us?”
In his talk at Unionville, Perkins asked the assembled pastors to “pray, to vote, and to stand.” “Stand” appeared to be a synonym for activity that would lead congregants to vote in accordance with “biblical” values. After Perkins finished speaking, participants were shown a video encouraging them to form a network of Culture Impact Teams (also referred to as Community Impact Teams) across the country.
These “CITs,” alongside Pastors’ Briefings, are central tools in the FRC’s campaign to turn out the vote. The idea is for pastors to create within their churches teams of congregants who will “advance Kingdom values in the public arena,” according to the manual. The assembled pastors were instructed to figure out which members of their congregation are politically active, well-connected with other members, and motivated to persuade them to vote according to “biblical values,” and then draft them as team leaders “to accomplish the Culture Impact Team’s mission of defending and advancing faith, family, and freedom.” Congregants on the CIT can take lead roles in the areas of communications (including written and social media outreach), research, strategy, and mobilization. Other team members may encourage “grassroots participation” and “involvement in pregnancy support centers, school board meetings, civil government gatherings,” and the like. Team members then set up a Culture Impact Center within the church to “give people an opportunity to become informed and, in turn, become involved.”
A fundamental motivation behind the creation of the elaborate architecture of Culture Impact Teams is to skirt the legal prohibitions governing the public activism of churches and other 501(c)(3) groups. IRS guidelines require that pastors refrain from campaigning for candidates through their office—that is, from the pulpit. But nothing stops congregants from undertaking their own church-based political activism—if it’s all about “culture.” In the unlikely event that their GOP-friendly campaigns of mass persuasion were to draw unwelcome scrutiny from the IRS, congregants and preachers alike can essentially reply, “It wasn’t me; it was the CIT.”
To guide the CITs in their actual mission—to turn out the vote for Republican and hyperconservative candidates—the FRC supplies dense, information-packed manuals. At Unionville, I spotted a stack of these instructional materials, some 180 pages of materials in a three-ring binder, at the FRC booth. As I passed by, I took one for myself.
According to the CIT, the Bible is very clear about the right answers to the political issues American voters face in the twenty-first century. Scripture, it maintains, opposes public assistance to the poor as a matter of principle—unless the money passes through church coffers first. God has challenged believers “to help the poor and widows and orphans”—but He expects governments to step aside.
The Bible also votes against environmentalism—a “Litany of the Green Dragon” and “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today,” according to the CIT manual’s sole recommended resource on environmental issues, the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. The Cornwall Alliance, whose list of board members, advisers, and signatories includes conservative evangelical leaders along with academics and scientists affiliated with right-wing think tanks and religious universities, has produced a declaration asserting, as a matter of theology, that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.”
The manuals reliably twist and spin a few Bible passages to prove that God also opposes gun regulations, the Affordable Care Act, tax increases for the wealthy, public assistance—in other words, pretty much every position associated with the Republican Party’s opponents. The Bible, as the CIT manual helpfully relates, also tells us that same-sex marriage is an abomination and emphatically does not want women to have access to comprehensive, twenty-first–century reproductive medical care; for good measure, the CIT manual also recommends literature that insists on male “headship” at church and home. The CIT manual directs readers to additional sources. I recognized one of them, Ken Ham, an author and activist known for promoting the claim that the earth is 6,000 years old.
* * *
In Unionville, voter guides were dispersed throughout the fellowship hall, including a table in the middle of the room that held thousands of them in neat stacks, ready to be loaded into the trunks of pastors’ cars.
“Take as many voter guides as you can, as you believe you can use effectively, giving one to every member of your church and then beyond,” said John Rustin, executive director and president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. “We survey all the candidates, over 400 candidates, running for U.S. House, the North Carolina Senate, the North Carolina House, the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the North Carolina Court of Appeals.” Rustin directed the audience to the organization’s voter guide website: “Type in your name and address and it will generate a personalized voter guide specifically for you … . Those are provided free of charge!”
Voter guides escape IRS limitations on campaigning for candidates on the theory that they offer voters a strictly nonpartisan assessment of where the candidates stand on key issues. However, every voter guide I came across in Unionville had a pretty unambiguous message. The candidates from one party are in favor of “life”; candidates from the other party apparently favor death. One party’s candidates support “religious freedom.” The other party’s candidates presumably endorse religious tyranny.
When the group broke for lunch, I wandered outside to check out a red-and-blue “Values Bus”—the FRC claimed to operate two of them—that was parked outside the church. Sizable and eye-catching, it had been repurposed as a mobile get-out-the-vote unit. Values Buses crisscross the country, hauling crews of firebrand orators and distributing hundreds of thousands of voter guides in contested states.
* * *
Perhaps the most dynamic presenter at the Unionville event was J. C. Church, the pastor who introduced Tony Perkins at the start. Church cheerfully launched into a story about the time he turned Ohio red. Twelve years ago, he said, he packed his family into a motor home, drove 14,000 miles up and down Ohio, and visited 2,500 churches in all of the state’s eighty-eight counties.
That initiative, called Awake 88 and sponsored by the FRC, included a substantive data component. “PASTOR—There’s A Sleeping Giant in AMERICA,” the Awake 88 website proclaimed, “and it’s sitting in the pews of your church!” The site also promoted timelines, suggested messaging, videos, and other tools with which diligent evangelical and conservative Catholic political organizers could activate voters. One tool advertised by Awake 88, the Church Voter Lookup, essentially paired a church database with a voter database. “You’ll then receive a report that tells you what percentage of your congregation is registered to vote,” the site enthused, “and what percentage actually voted in the last election!”
The payoff, as Church recounted, came in 2016. “If you watched that night, the map was turning red, 81 of 88 counties in Ohio went red. You know why? We had to beat the money, the media, our party, the left, our governor, et cetera. And you know why? Because pastors partnered together, were preaching and praying, and they mobilized and used their influence to get people to turn out and vote.”
The Christian nationalist movement is often characterized as a white movement. And indeed, for some of the white people making up its rank and file, it is at least implicitly a white movement. For them, it surely is part of a vision that involves recovering a nation that was once supposedly both Christian and white. It is a form of what now commonly goes by the designation of identity politics: It ties the idea of America to a specific set of approved religious and cultural identities.
At the same time, leaders of the movement understand the electoral consequences of the demographic future, so in recent years they have made a significant outreach to conservative Latino and Black pastors. There is an irony that the culture war crusades driving such recruitment ultimately redound to the benefit of a political party that has made voter suppression and race-based gerrymandering a strategic imperative.
At the Pastors’ Briefing in Unionville, J.C. Church went out of his way to stress that his efforts to turn Ohio red had nothing to do with keeping it white. Much of Church’s Awake 88 effort in Ohio specifically targeted Latino pastors. And Church’s disclaimer lined up with a message I’d long been hearing at Christian nationalist gatherings. At the September 2018 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., super-lobbyist Ralph Reed made much the same point bluntly. Mocking the mainstream pundits, he said, “They’re always talking about racial issues, it’s all about race and ethnicity. Not true! If you back evangelicals out of the white vote, Donald Trump loses whites.” Reed is absolutely right about these top-line numbers—but he also appears to brush off the ways in which conservative religion and racism often reinforce each other.
For Church, in any case, the agenda extended well beyond the colors of Ohio. Reaching the climax of his stemwinder, he thundered that “the number one thing” anybody can give another person is “the supreme Christ.” But “the second greatest thing we can give this generation,” he swiftly added, “is the Supreme Court.”
* * *
Many people see the Christian Right in its current, hyperpoliticized form as a modern creation. Indeed, with its embrace and mastery of the tools of modern political campaigns, it may feel at times like a new kind of religion. But there is a clear historical through line leading back from the hyperconservative religious nationalism of today’s movement leadership to religious theologies of the past—specifically, the form of faith that defended American slavery and Jim Crow–era segregation.
Proslavery theologians of the antebellum period were avid defenders of the biblical “righteousness” of slavery. The root of evil, for them, was democratic government itself, which interfered with the liberty of the slaveholding South. Theirs was an authoritarian, regressive form of the faith—a vision of a civic order rooted in hierarchy and deriving its legitimacy from its claim to represent an authentically Christian nation. The institution of slavery itself benefited from, and in turn promoted, the values of biblical literalism and absolute submission to authority. Borrowing the language that the Federalist theologians had developed in their earlier politicized assaults on liberal religionists and supporters of popular democracy, the new generation of leaders promoted a theological vision that emphasized the divine origins of the existing order.
The segregationists who followed similarly claimed their stance is biblically based. In his 1958 sermon “Segregation or Integration: Which?”—which appears to have borrowed its title and arguments from a wildly racist sermon that was delivered two years earlier from the pulpit of fellow Baptist Gerald O. Fleming—Jerry Falwell said, “The racial problem in this country is not one of hate—but one of Bible principle. Just because a person is opposed to integration does not mean that he hates the negro.” Defending the institution of segregation on more narrowly theological grounds, he argued that “it does not mean God loves one race less than another when he separates them.”
Of course, today’s most prominent Christian nationalist leaders repudiate slavery and segregation, and some are involved in efforts to promote racial reconciliation. But perhaps the most important aspect of the proslavery theology that far outlasted the high tide of antebellum slaveholding was its fusion of religion with a racialized form of nationalism, a vision of an American Christian nation with hierarchies rooted in the edicts of the Bible and an insistence on strict biblical literalism. The great adversaries then, as today, are the archetypes of the anti-Christian rebels—the liberals, the secularists, the progressive theologians, the advocates of women’s rights and LGBT equality—who continue to wreak havoc on the modern world.
* * *
Soon after I attended the pastor gathering in Unionville, I received an invitation to attend an outreach event for Latino pastors in Southern California, sponsored by a group called Alianza de Pastores Unidos de San Diego. It’s a regional affiliate of Church United, which is, in turn, closely allied with the Family Research Council even though it is a separate organization. From the stage of the Oceanview Church in Chula Vista, as in Unionville, speaker after speaker sought to reinforce the same fundamental message: the “correct” issues that conscientious believers must consider at the voting booth.
“Several years ago, our church was made aware of the fact that churches in California would have to be funding or paying for abortions,” said Jack Hibbs, a pastor who has made a point of flouting IRS rules on political activism from the pulpit, and who delivered his message through a translator. “So I refused,” he said.“And so we lost our insurance coverage because God is for ‘life.’”
This is a blatant distortion. California churches do not pay for abortions any more than they pay for Viagra or abdominal aortic aneurysm screenings. Instead, through the Affordable Care Act, they participate in health insurance exchanges that allow employers statewide to negotiate insurance coverage for their employees—some of whom happen to be women making use of reproductive care services. Characterizing this as churches paying for abortions is like saying that private motorists are compelled to transport tractor-trailers from state to state because they share the same roads. But this sham narrative has become a popular talking point among Christian nationalist leadership and is too valuable in activating the base to set aside simply because it isn’t true.
Hibbs circled back to the bottom line: Vote red. “Christian leaders, who is going to do it? Who will stand for the family? Who will stand for marriage? Who will stand for our culture? So I want to encourage you: Get involved. Have your people—you know, it’s legal—register to vote at your church.”
After Hibbs finished speaking, a man in jeans and a nicely fitting blue jacket took the stage. Pastor Netz Gómez came from the Houses of Light, a nondenominational church in Northridge, California, but his role here was apparently to build on a fantasy of persecution keyed to the dominant culture-war themes of the gathering.
“Look, brothers, we’re seeing an invasion of humanism,” he said in impassioned Spanish. “Our schools, our laws, our [state] Senate is full of humanism, brothers, and I feel an outrage.” Then he shifted his aim from the dreaded humanists to the even more despised members of the LGBT community. .“Homosexual groups, I have nothing against them,” he claimed, before launching into a diatribe about the things he does, in fact, hold against them. “They are a minimum percentage, not even 3 percent. However, they’re influencing the entire population.” And “that is why we have to rise up in a holy indignation.”
There is a sad irony in inviting people of color who were themselves once—and indeed remain—objects of contempt for other groups of religious nationalists to turn around and marginalize their own designated objects of contempt. But for Gómez, it was clearly just a matter of redrawing the lines between insider and outsider, and he was careful to reassure his audience that they were on the inside..
“Hispanic brothers, you came to the United States of North America as an instrument of God,” he said. “Some of you came here for work, others came here wet, others came here dry!” Everyone in the room laughed knowingly. “I don’t know how you guys came here,” he continued, “but what I know, brothers, is you are here as an instrument of God. And for those who are here as preachers, we have a tremendous responsibility.”
Then Gómez, too, pivoted adroitly to the bottom line. “I loved what my brother is giving us. Check it out,” he enthused, referring to materials that had been passed throughout the room. “He’s giving us a voter guide. It is important you see it. He’s giving us, on the first page, two governor candidates who were selected in the primary elections. Gavin Newsom, who is a Democratic person, is a person who has promoted the homosexual marriage, is one of the spokespersons, one of the people who go to the front of the homosexual groups.”
Gómez had no problem spelling out the “correct” conclusions to draw from the putatively nonpartisan voter guides.
“Please notice here, for example,” he continued, pointing to another part of the voter guide, “where it talks about the lieutenant governor, there are two candidates, and they are Democrats. There was no choice for a person with a little more of values.” Opening the cover, he said, “These two people who are listed here, one of the lieutenant governor candidates has 99 percent of a secular vision. Nothing of God. And the other candidate is a man who has 97 percent. It means that no one is good. Are you understanding me? There is no one to vote for.”
But just to reassure his audience that political talk at church is all well and good, Gómez said, “A lot of people are going to tell me, ‘No, brother, don’t meddle in political matters, because they’re going to shut down the church.’ It’s a devil’s lie, brothers. This thing is legal. Here it is written,” he said, gesturing toward a packet of papers, including content from the Culture Impact Team manuals, “so you don’t have the slightest doubt.”
* * *
The game of power really has two sides. You reach outside to voters and tell them what they need to hear so they will cast their ballots in your favor. But you also step inside and gather with the powerful individuals who actually call the shots.
In recent years, the Christian nationalist movement has had extraordinary success in playing the inside game. Even as some activists mobilize pastors and voters across the nation, others are walking the hallways of power, cultivating leaders and brokering deals between big money and big government. In the Trump administration, activists who in an earlier time would have been identified as extremists led prayer and Bible study sessions with officials at the highest levels of the executive and legislative branches. At the same time, these same power-minded prophets continue to network among some of America’s wealthiest individuals and families, many of whom fund the careers of right-wing politicians who advance policies favorable to plutocratic fortunes.
Outside observers tend to think that the political religion of the conservative movement emanates from the large population of right-wing Christian voters to whom it appeals. According to the conventional wisdom, the basic conservative religious agenda is simply to preserve so-called traditional values—and, perhaps more critically, to restore a sense of pride and privilege to a part of the American population that feels its status is slipping. But a closer look at the substance of this political religion, in the context of the movement’s involvement with political elites, reveals a very different story. The core political vision of Christian nationalism is decided in the inside game. The Bible, after all, can be used to promote any number of political positions. Many if not most of America’s faithful argue that it generally favors helping the poor. But the Bible of Christian nationalism answers to the requirements of the individuals who fund the movement and who have granted it power at the highest levels of government.
In the Trump years, perhaps no religious leader had better luck playing the inside game than Ralph Drollinger, head of a group called Capitol Ministries. A onetime NBA athlete and sports evangelist from California, Drollinger led weekly Bible study sessions in the White House for Cabinet secretaries and other officials—Mike Pence reportedly attended. But the 2020 national election outcome has not diminished his ambitions, and his operation continues apace, spawning ministry affiliates in state capitols as well as among political leaders overseas.
“Scripture is replete with illustrations, examples, and commands that serve to underscore the importance of winning governmental authorities for Christ,” Drollinger has written. “A movement for Christ amongst governing authorities holds promise to change the direction of a whole country.” In hopes of learning more, I purchased a ticket to Capitol Ministries’ twentieth anniversary celebration, which took place at the World Ag Expo, an annual agricultural exposition in Tulare, a commercial capital in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Under the VIP tent at the Ag Expo, Drollinger, who stands more than seven feet tall, took the stage in an exuberant mood, thanking state and regional directors and attributing his success to support from California’s Central Valley. “Capitol Ministries really grew up, I think, on carrots and milk,” he announced—a reference to Central Valley business leaders such as Rob Hilarides, a prosperous dairyman who chairs the board of Capitol Ministries, and large-scale carrot producers who donated substantially, through their charity, to Capitol Ministries in its earliest years.
Onstage, Drollinger swiftly communicated his proximity to power. “All of a sudden, Trump got elected, and Pence chose the best out of our House and our Senate Bible studies, to where we had twelve, I think now, twelve of the Cabinet members are strong believers, and they said, come with us, we’d like to start a ministry in the White House Cabinet,” he proudly noted.
Drollinger was keen to assure the crowd that their donations would be put to good use. “Most of the money we raise here goes to the expansion of ministry overseas,” he said. “Our biggest limiting factor is really our ability to resource that. … So that’s what this partnership with you can be all about.”
What is the difference, in this cross-fertilized world of power and piety, between Bible study and policy advocacy? In the curriculum that Drollinger has offered to powerful officials through Capitol Ministries, the distinction is far from clear. He lays it all out in his book Rebuilding America: The Biblical Blueprint, and a subsequent book, Oaks in Office, and he’s filled in many of the details in publicly available manuals for his weekly Bible study sessions.
The expansiveness of Drollinger’s positions on domestic, economic, and foreign policy underlines the fact that today’s Christian nationalism is a political movement, not merely a stance in the so-called culture wars. According to Drollinger, the Bible has a very clear message on U.S. fiscal policy. Just a few weeks prior to the Tulare event, Drollinger published a Bible study titled “Solomon’s Advice on How to Eliminate a $20.5 Trillion Debt.” The study guide stressed God’s unwavering devotion to deregulation. “Leaders must incentivize individuals and industries (which includes unencumbering them from the unnecessary burdens of governmental regulations).”
Drollinger has offered spiritually infused economic counsel for workers as well. In a Bible study called “Toward a Better Biblical Understanding of Lawmaking,” he cites 1 Peter 2:18–21: “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.” As Drollinger explained, “The economy of Rome at the time of Peter’s writing was one of slave and master. The principle, however, of submitting to one’s boss carries over to today.”
Drollinger’s reading of the Bible as a blueprint for an economic program of unregulated markets and a compliant workforce has ample precedent—notably in the theological speculations of midcentury figures such as the influential Southern California Congregational minister James W. Fifield Jr. With funding from oil and automotive tycoons, Fifield preached a militantly pro-capitalist, Christian libertarian response to what he saw as the rampant and idolatrous statism of the New Deal. America is a Christian nation, he asserted, and government must be kept from interfering with God’s will in market economics. Fifield’s ideas were later embraced by the midcentury theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony and other key figures of the Christian Reconstructionist movement. They mobilized around the idea that the United States is a Redeemer Nation, chosen by God; that it is tasked with becoming an orthodox Christian republic in which women are subordinate to men, education is in the hands of conservative Christians, and no one pays taxes to support the poor. They further insisted that at some point in the past the nation deviated horribly from its mission and fell under the control of atheist and/or liberal elites—pioneering many of the central themes now fueling the activism of today’s Christian nationalist leaders.
This potent mélange of cultural decline and spiritual mobilization appeared to be music to the ears of the agribusiness leaders at Drollinger’s anniversary event in Tulare. Many important issues confront managers of agricultural concerns these days, among them major policy shifts in matters of labor, foreign trade, water access, subsidies, and other regulatory spheres. It is not surprising that some industry leaders may look to a certain kind of religion for answers—not in the sense of praying for rain (although another featured speaker in Tulare, Sonny Perdue, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, has done that too), but in the sense of working with religious nationalists to elevate the policies and politicians that operate to their benefit.
Of course, those policies, which favor major rollbacks in regulation and worker protections, are bound to exacerbate existing wealth inequalities in the Central Valley. But that’s the way inequality works. On the one hand, it creates concentrations of wealth whose beneficiaries are determined to manipulate the political process to hold onto and enhance their privileges. On the other hand, it generates a sense of instability and anxiety among broad sectors of the wider public, which is then ripe for conversion to a religion that promises authority and order.
As I strolled out of the dusty fairground, past the vast exhibition halls full of tractors and fertilizer displays, it struck me that the theology of the evening is all but inseparable from a certain form of life. It is the string that ties together a bundle of identities, assumptions, business dealings, and political favors. It is the latest form of a certain political and social vision that entitles a select few to work the earth with other people’s hands.
* * *
By the 2000s, the late C. Peter Wagner, a writer and former professor of “church growth” at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Missions, began to speak of the “seven mountains,” an idea that was gaining traction in Pentecostal circles. The idea is that God has commanded true Christians to gain control of the “seven molders”—or “mountains”—of culture and influence, such as government, business, education, and the media.. Wagner laid it out in his 2008 book Dominion! How Kingdom Action Can Change the World. “Apostles,” he argued, have a “responsibility for taking dominion” over “whatever molder of culture or subdivision God has placed them in.” This, he asserted, is a simple matter of taking “dominion” back from Satan.
When I first started hearing the term seven mountains in evangelical churches and religious circles, it was cloaked in whispers. Maybe it seemed too close to the broad caricature of religious conservatives as would-be theocrats, even to leaders of the movement. Popular commentators attacked those drawing attention to the authoritarian and theocratic ambitions of the movement as alarmist and assured the public that the Christian Right had been sidelined. The time has come to set aside these premature dismissals.
At Unionville Baptist Church, winding down his speech, J. C. Church said, “If we can secure the judiciary side of things, from the Supreme Court on down, we can build a firewall for our children and grandchildren that they just might scale the seven mountains of influence.”
They really mean it. The seven mountains, and the theocratic dominionism it represents, isn’t just a whispered fantasy anymore. It is their declared aim, and they think they’re closing in on the peaks.
This essay is adapted from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2020 by Katherine Stewart.
The following is adapted by the author from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism (Bloomsbury Publishing). Stewart is the recipient of the Council for Secular Humanism’s Morris D. Forkosch Award for best humanist book of 2020. —Eds. Most of us are by now familiar with the public face of Christian nationalism. …