“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a Bible.” –SinclairLewis
The Reagan campaign for President in 1980 embraced the religious right and its anti-abortion rhetoric. Following Reagan’s election and inauguration, the evangelist Billy Graham issued this warning: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”(i) About that time, the Moral Majority was gaining traction—a coalition of evangelical leaders and right-leaning Republicans pushing a conservative social agenda to win votes. From that point on, many GOP politicians saw “weaponizing religion” as a winning political strategy.
Culture Wars and Minority Rule
Today’s culture wars are an example of how politicians are continuing to use religion for political gain. Republican legislators and conservative school boards in states across America are attempting to legislate morality much like the failed experiment of the Puritan colony in 17th century Massachusetts. A record-high number of over 400 anti-LGBTQ state bills have been introduced in 2023 and twenty states have banned gender-affirming care for youth, making it a criminal offense for parents or health care professionals to assist them. More than twenty states have enacted legislation to ban or severely restrict access to abortion—some as early as six weeks into one’s pregnancy, before most women know they are pregnant. Drag shows are being curtailed for fear of emotionally scarring children.
In Florida, students and teachers in grades K through 12 are forbidden by the state to discuss issues of sexual orientation or gender identity; other topics such as racism and the true history of slavery are also barred. In Missouri, a conservative school board has revoked a 2020 anti-racism resolution stating “we will speak firmly against racism, discrimination, and senseless violence against people regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability.” (ii) And as a result of the "Parent’s Rights" movement sweeping the country, over 2,000 books have been removed from library shelves and school boards are dictating what lessons teachers can share in the classroom.
The reality of the "Parent’s Rights" movement is that it is meant to empower a conservative and reactionary minority of parents to dictate education and curricula to the rest of the community. Columnist Jamelle Bouie writes, "It’s a Trojan horse for a relentless effort to dismantle a pillar of American society...It’s not about parents at all; it’s about whether this country will continue to strive for a more equitable and democratic system of education or let a reactionary minority drag us as far from that goal as possible.” (iii)
The Danger of White Christian Nationalism
Recently the Mike Pence for President campaign sent out a letter to prospective donors with the tag line: “Bring God back to all 50 states!” The message is presumptuous and also assumes that God has gone somewhere. Pence goes on to say: “Our nation was built on biblical values that the radical left is now desecrating as they do everything they can to erase God from our country.” This speaks to the concerns and fears of many who embrace the message of White Christian Nationalism. The majority of white evangelicals and nearly 50% of all Republicans equate true patriotism with conservative Christian values. Many GOP politicians, including several presidential candidates, have embraced Christian nationalism as a means of appealing to a large swath of voters who believe that being Christian is an important part of being truly American and that God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.
White Christian Nationalism is a cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and necessary to preserve the union. It’s a message that upends our constitutional ideal of a pluralistic democracy. This movement is a pathology rooted in America’s past. It is based on the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that God favors America above every other nation. Katherine Stewart, in her book Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, writes: “America’s Christian Nationalist Movement has been misunderstood and understated. The religious right has become more focused and more powerful even as it has become less representative of the nation’s populace. It is not a social or culture movement. It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power.” (iv)
The Rise of Authoritarianism: Democracy in Peril
It may not surprise us that a recent poll indicates that a majority of Republicans endorse the idea of an authoritarian leader “who is willing to break some rules to set things right.” A hero of the Republican right, Hungary's authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban argues that the principle of equality in liberal democracy undermines countries by attacking the national culture. Instead, he calls for an end to multiculturalism—including immigration—and any lifestyle that is not based on the Christian family model. Today’s Republican leaders seem to agree that American virtue has been eroded by progressive social advances. They believe such a loss must be combated by a strong government that enforces religious values. This could mean Armageddon, or the end of American democracy. Historian Heather Cox Richardson concludes: “If democracy is a threat to their version of the nation, it follows that any institution that supports democracy should be destroyed.” (v)
While the success of religious extremism in our politics is not new, many have become numb to it. We ignore the threat to democracy and the American experiment at our own peril. We must be willing to speak up against this weaponizing of religion for political gain. And we must exercise our right to vote in order to ensure a legacy of liberty and freedom for ALL our citizens.
(i) MargueriteMichaels, “America is Not God’s Only Kingdom: An Interview with Billy Graham” Parade Magazine, February 1, 1981
(ii) JimSalter, The Associated Press. The Seattle Times, July 24, 2023, p. A4.
(iv) Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. P. 3.