The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart. Bloomsbury, 352 pages.
David Barton, the Texas-based evangelical activist and founder of WallBuilders, LLC, has spent three decades on a crusade to prove that America was founded as a Christian nation, that Thomas Jefferson—who infamously edited a version of the Gospels with the supernatural components removed—was an evangelical Christian, and that the end of prayer in public schools is responsible for declining SAT scores. A bad joke among historians for well over a decade, Barton has been the subject of at least one full-length book treatment calling him, in essence, a liar. His 2012 book The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson was named by the readers of History News Network as “the least credible history book in print.” (Full disclosure: I was the editor who ran that feature.)
But on a fundamental level, it doesn’t matter that Barton is a transparent charlatan. He has time and time again exercised a level of political clout that most scholars can only dream of. Vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party from 1997-2006, Barton has also worked as a political consultant for the Republican National Committee, sits on the board of numerous prominent evangelical organizations, and, in 2009, was brought in by far-right members of the Texas State Board of Education as an expert consultant in a largely successful effort to overhaul the state’s standardized history curriculum in a more explicitly right-wing direction. Suffice to say, David Barton does not give a damn what you think about him. He’s doing the Lord’s work, and he’s doing it well.
Barton is only one of literally dozens of leaders of the Christian Right cited by the journalist Katherine Stewart in her latest study of the movement, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. The book, in essence an expanded and updated version of 2012’s The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, is a timely and useful introduction to the single most organized force in American politics today. Through a simultaneously regimented yet diffuse political presence that binds together Big Money, tax-exempt religious leaders, and rank-and-file evangelicals spread across the country, the Christian Right wields wide-ranging political power in contemporary America. We live in the country that the movement has created.
David Barton does not give a damn what you think about him. He’s doing the Lord’s work, and he’s doing it well.
Evangelical voters are the base of the Republican Party and the most zealous supporters of Donald Trump. One-third of Trump voters in 2016 were white evangelicals. This coalition has proven remarkably durable over time—Trump’s numbers with white evangelicals were comparable to those of George W. Bush. Evangelical votes were the key to Bush’s successful campaigns, especially when he was re-elected by thin margins in 2004. And white evangelicals made up 25 percent of the electorate in the 2010 midterm elections, capturing the House of Representatives for the Republicans and dozens of governors’ mansions and state legislatures.
Ironically, the Christian Right has achieved a variant of the Leninist dream. A vanguard of politically conscious Christians has used its organizational prowess to seize state power, and they are now using their influence to drag society in their desired direction. Some evangelical leaders are explicit about their aspiration toward minority rule: J. Randy Forbes, a former Virginia congressman and the founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, has said that “10 percent of the people in any country in the world can change that country if they have the right strategies.” While evangelicals have not been able to accomplish their every political goal—Roe v. Wade is still technically the law of the land, and gay marriage remains on the books—they have nonetheless managed to win significant political victories. Access to abortion is extremely limited in many states, and the Supreme Court gave the green light to workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people in the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision.
Throughout The Power Worshippers, Stewart generally eschews the use of “Christian Right” and “Religious Right” in favor of “Christian nationalism,” because that term “both reflects the political character of the movement,” she writes, and because, as David Barton’s output makes clear, the right-wing Christian political movement in America is deeply invested in particular visions of American nationalism and American history. But Stewart’s use of the term “Christian nationalism” is revealing in more ways than one. While she devotes several chapters to a brief history of right-wing evangelicals in America, including Gary North and R.J. Rushdoony, she unfortunately does not address one of the most prominent self-identified “Christian nationalists” of the twentieth century: Gerald L.K. Smith, who founded the Christian Nationalist Crusade. Smith was a mainline Protestant minister who became a lieutenant of Louisiana governor Huey Long in the 1930s; by the end of the decade, he had moved to the pro-fascist right. He formed the Christian Nationalist Crusade in 1942 “to preserve America as a Christian nation being conscious of a highly organized campaign to substitute Jewish tradition for Christian tradition.” Smith’s group even ran a candidate in the 1952 presidential election.
While the absence of Smith and other self-identified “Christian nationalists” is not a fatal omission in The Power Worshippers, he and his followers are worth engaging with. Smith’s influence on subsequent generations of evangelical Protestants was muted compared to that of, for instance, the Reverend Billy Graham (himself a protégé of the pro-fascist and intensely antisemitic Minneapolis preacher William Bell Riley), but the lingering influence of the Christian Nationalist Crusade pops up in unexpected places in Stewart’s narrative. She notes at one point that the Heritage Academy, a charter school system in Arizona that receives public money, teaches books written by right-wing political activist W. Cleon Skousen, who has long espoused the claim that Anglo-Saxons are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. This is a core tenet of the Christian Identity movement, an openly white supremacist Protestant sect that holds that white Europeans are the true descendants of the ancient tribes of Israel while modern Jews are descended from Cain and, through him, Satan. Christian Identity is a syncretic religious and political creed, but one of its major architects was the one-time California minister Wesley Swift, himself a prominent leader in Smith’s Christian Nationalist Crusade. There is, in other words, a startling degree of continuity between what was taught in state-supported Christian charter schools in the 2010s and the beliefs of the most radical elements of the far right in the United States in the mid-century. The Power Worshippers would have benefited from a thorough exploration of this history, particularly in light of Stewart’s excellent reporting on just who the Christian Right’s political fellow-travelers are today.
The most disturbing revelations in Stewart’s book stem from this first-hand reporting—such as the attendee with a “fashy” haircut and Iron Cross tattoo at a 2018 gathering of evangelicals at the Trump International Hotel in D.C., or the popularity of far-right conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec among members at a 2019 World Congress of Families meeting in Verona, Italy, that also featured a speech from Italy’s crypto-fascist former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini. These incidents suggest the forging of a common anti-liberal coalition between Christian nationalists and the alt-right: what Stewart calls “a kind of global holy war.” But there has been a relationship between right-wing Christians and the openly fascistic far right for generations. The old quote, apocryphally attributed to Sinclair Lewis, that “when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross” reflects a broader and uncomfortable reality. (The Cross and the Flag, incidentally, was the title of Gerald L.K. Smith’s longtime publication.)
Just as chilling as Stewart’s coverage of the nexus between Christian nationalism and the global far right is what her work suggests about the relationship between Christian nationalism and neoliberalism. One of the biggest strengths of The Power Worshippers is its close attention to political economy. In fact, Stewart’s entire body of work demonstrates how the Christian nationalist movement has successfully redirected public resources to fund their own private religious initiatives, like the public financing of religious charter schools through tax breaks and grant programs. This has been successful in part because of novel legal tactics enabled by right-wing control of the judiciary—for instance, the emphasis since the 1990s by right-wing Christian litigants that “religion is just speech from a certain, religious point of view” and therefore protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment. This argument has allowed for the “freedom of conscience” exemptions for birth control, abortion, and LGTBQ rights laws.
But even here, the degree of influence Christian nationalists have would not be possible if not for the broader neoliberal turn since the 1970s. Education provides a useful framework for observing this shift. Stewart dedicates the better part of a chapter to Betsy DeVos and the oligarchic, Christian nationalist DeVos family, who have been engaged in a lengthy and largely successful campaign to destroy organized labor generally and teachers’ unions in particular in their home state of Michigan. The school voucher and charter school movements that took off in the early 2000s were important weapons used to crush teachers unions and privatize the hitherto public good of state-funded education. The proliferation of for-profit Christian charter schools are a direct consequence of this organizing.
Just as chilling as Stewart’s coverage of the nexus between Christian nationalism and the global far right is what her work suggests about the relationship between Christian nationalism and neoliberalism.
Of course, there is nothing particularly new about the Christian right’s contempt for organized labor or the Christian private school movement. Indeed, Stewart unpacks the history of the infamous “segregation academies” of the early 1970s, which were founded by white evangelicals across the southern United States to evade court-ordered school desegregation. But the time-honored strategies of Christian nationalists benefited tremendously from a political environment in which Democrats embraced the banner of “education reform,” even if support for charters is now declining. After all, one of the most influential advocates of charter schools in the 2010s was not Betsy DeVos, but Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Still, there are limits to the power of the Christian right. A chapter on attempts by white evangelicals to appeal to communities of color fails to convince; it is unlikely that a movement so heavily rooted in white supremacy will ever be able to accept black and brown communities as equal stakeholders, let alone movement leaders. And despite David Barton’s influence over the Texas history curriculum, a recent New York Times study of textbooks used in U.S. history classrooms in the state found that while the texts had a general right-wing bias, they were considerably more even-handed about historical issues like slavery and the origins of the American Civil War than textbooks in use a generation ago. While Stewart notes with alarm that her first personal encounter with the Christian nationalist movement occurred at her childrens’ public school in Santa Barbara, California, the reality is that affluent white liberals have the resources to insulate themselves from a hypothetical right-wing Christian seizure of public schools. Not all communities are equally invulnerable.
But as Stewart demonstrates, even in liberal bastions, there are major exceptions. In the conclusion of a chapter on Christian nationalist anti-abortion activism, she shares a harrowingly personal account of her nearly fatal stay in a Catholic hospital in Manhattan’s West Village. Thirteen weeks pregnant and hemorrhaging internally, Stewart lost nearly forty percent of her blood before the hospital grudgingly performed the abortion that saved her life. This was in 2003. In the brave new world of post-Hobby Lobby “religious freedom” laws, hospitals and clinics can even more brazenly deny critical medical care to women under the guise of religious consciousness. This is the world Christian nationalists, the most successful political movement in America since the height of organized labor in the mid-twentieth century, have created. While Stewart retains a stubborn optimism—“Religious nationalists are using the tools of democratic political culture to end democracy. I continue to believe those same resources can be used to restore it”—the vanguard (onward, Christian soldiers) marches on.