By Katherine Stewart. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. 352 pages. $28/hardcover; $19.60/eBook.
If you want to understand how Christian nationalists helped Donald Trump to get elected in 2016, and how they plan to turn the United States into a right-wing Christian theocracy, this book is a must-read. Its author is not a conspiracy theorist. She is a diligent, conscientious, and highly readable investigative journalist who went to Christian nationalist events; interviewed participants; and provides detailed descriptions of their beliefs, actions, and strategies. Stewart shows that they aren’t interested in just a few hot-button issues like abolishing abortion or gay marriage: they want to transform the entire culture and government to reflect their vision of what a Christian nation should be.
We Quakers also want to transform our nation based on our Quaker values, but our methodology is vastly different. Peggy Craik, a board member of Friends Committee on Legislation of California, recently spoke at Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, Calif., and succinctly summed up Quaker lobbying as follows: “Integrity; don’t demonize opponents; tell the truth; cultivate humility.” This book shows that Christian nationalists use an antithetical approach. They see themselves, and the Republican Party, as the party of God and life. They often spread unsubstantiated myths, such as the claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and should be restored as such. And they often have no problem with embracing rich benefactors (including ones who exploit the poor and promote racism) if it helps them to achieve their goal of political control.
Stewart busts many myths with careful research. For example, she shows that the evangelical Right was not born with Roe v. Wade, as many believe. At that time (1973), most evangelicals didn’t care much about abortion; their main concern was seeking federal funds for Christian schools that were predominantly White. (It still is.) Jerry Falwell and his ilk did not take up the cause of abortion until five years after Roe v. Wade, when it became politically expedient to make abortion opposition (instead of supporting segregation) their rallying cry.
Stewart traces the theological and intellectual history of the Christian nationalist movement to the White supremacism of the antebellum South, when proponents of “liberty” were using that word to defend their right to hold human beings as property. Many continue to use it to justify White supremacy, and to promote libertarian economics that devastate low-income people, especially those of color.
The religious nationalist movement should not be underestimated. It is not only well-funded by plutocratic networks like the DeVos family, its members are also very politically savvy. With consummate skill they have infiltrated, divided, and “steeplejacked” mainline churches. They flood evangelical congregations with right-wing voting guides and propaganda reflecting their conservative worldview. To gain political control, they use “blitz” tactics to turn states into “laboratories of theocracy.” They inundate states with seemingly innocuous bills like allowing schools to post “In God We Trust” on their walls so that they can make liberals look bad just by opposing them. Then they pass bills requiring “In God We Trust” on all public buildings, and then try to pass bills requiring “biblical literacy” to be taught in schools. Little by little they erode religious freedom and undermine social justice in the name of liberty and patriotism.
In reading this book, I realize that those of us who love our country and espouse Quaker values don’t have the option to sit silently by and allow the United States to be taken over by this dangerous movement. In her epilogue, Stewart offers hope, and that hope is us. Speaking of liberal Christians and organizations “working in opposition to right-wing legal advocacy groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom,” she writes, “These organizations may not have as much money to devote to the cause, but their efforts are critical.” She would doubtless agree that the work of nationwide Quaker organizations promoting pluralism and inclusivity, as well as social justice for all, are also critical. It is incumbent upon Friends to be part of the effort to oppose “religious nationalists who are using the tools of democratic political culture to end democracy.” As we see only too well during this pandemic, our future depends upon restoring democracy to our sick and divided country.
Anthony Manousos is a member of Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, Calif., and a peace activist, teacher, and author. He has served on the board of several Quaker organizations, including Friends Committee on National Legislation, Friends World Committee for Consultation, Friends General Conference, and Pendle Hill. He is cofounder of a housing justice nonprofit called Making Housing and Community Happen. He blogs at laquaker.blogspot.com.